Virginia Woolf: Letters from the Lumber Room

Herbert Marder

Reviewed by Jessica L. Wilkinson

20 Jul 2017


—These let­ters are two-faced, Sasha says, where Vir­ginia is prais­ing Ethel and then rip­ping her to shreds behind her back.

—Two faces don’t begin to cov­er it, I say. She has a hun­dred faces. Imag­ine a tomboy with smudges on her face, then a moth­er­less teenage girl, then a pre­co­cious child grow­ing overnight into a young lady. Every after­noon Vir­ginia and her sis­ter fill the tea cups and serve small talk along with cucum­ber sand­wich­es, dain­ty bites which have the same rela­tion to food as their encoun­ters with elder­ly men of let­ters have to real con­ver­sa­tion. Vir­ginia the future writer and Vanes­sa the painter are dec­o­ra­tive young ladies among the Man­darins. They run the house­hold, order meals, and over­see the sev­en ser­vants who live in the base­ment, always present and there­fore invis­i­ble. Leslie Stephen comes down for his tea. He may not take part in the con­ver­sa­tion but he’s a loom­ing presence. 

—A ghost enters with her father, Sasha says. Biog­ra­phers, look­ing down, record the names of fine chi­na at after­noon tea; their art is lone­ly. Vir­ginia tells the myth of her­self from out­side. Some­body else’s life, lived vic­ar­i­ous­ly in reverse. The young lady has already drowned as she goes on pour­ing tea. When her moth­er dies, her father walks right past her out the door. She was his favorite child; now she ceas­es to exist. Vir­ginia tries to design a land­scape where there is no before and no after. That’s the form of the inner land­scape, it’s about real expe­ri­ences and the way the mind finds their mean­ing. Hunt­ing for the meta­phys­i­cal bal­ance makes her a writer. With­out rely­ing on any school of thought.

—Home school­ing, I say. She had lessons in Latin and Greek. The art of writ­ing was her uni­ver­si­ty, an instru­ment she played with great vir­tu­os­i­ty and a life-raft on which she ran the rapids every day. 

—Nev­er­the­less Vir­ginia depends on Blooms­bury, Sasha says, she’s inde­pen­dent because a tiny clique of friends share her iron­ic humor, share a laugh in the minor key. That’s the lan­guage she speaks in her fic­tion, an irony infused with dark notes. She con­tributes to their col­lec­tive noto­ri­ety, their dis­dain for pop­u­lar tastes. And adds a mys­ti­cal strain, things seen in a trance. Her own kind of mod­ernism, like play­ing cat’s cra­dle with invis­i­ble threads, the four horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse — a fugue state, shell shock, mad­ness. The hooves are bear­ing down on her. The more clear­ly the read­er sees her ghost­ly words on the backs of rhythm, the spook­i­er it gets.

—Amaz­ing, I say. This vol­ume of let­ters held togeth­er by rub­ber bands. How fresh the let­ters at the back of my mind still are, men­tal fur­nish­ings I haven’t used in years. I once read and reread them again and again. Nev­er noticed how brim-full of mis­chief they are. Ghosts in the lum­ber room.

—War just around the cor­ner, Sasha says. But in her per­son­al let­ters, unlike her diaries, almost no men­tion of war around the cor­ner. Vir­ginia writes about the fla­vors and accents of dai­ly life. There’s a world of dif­fer­ence between a his­to­ri­an look­ing back at an unthink­able event after it’s a fait accom­pli, and the real­i­ty of the dis­as­ters of war. 

—Besides wit has its own econ­o­my, I say; Vir­ginia nev­er stops gen­er­at­ing lan­guage as a gyro­scope gen­er­ates its own grav­i­ta­tion­al field. Her mind nev­er stops spin­ning ahead of the dis­as­ters of the moment. And putting down crys­talline ten­drils into under­wa­ter beds.

—Come on, she plays games, Sasha says. The let­ters are coy­ly blunt and flir­ta­tious when it suits her. Gos­sips about her sex life, invent­ing col­or­ful details as she goes along. Love and sex are ripe for satire. She had an affair with Vita Sackville-West but the sex­u­al attrac­tion died years ago. In the nine­teen thir­ties their let­ters reflect the close­ness between old friends. Orlan­do remains — an act of love, splic­ing Vita and the body of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture into one mock biog­ra­phy. She loves Leonard and demands her dai­ly quo­ta of kiss­es; real inti­ma­cy is enough — to be touched by anoth­er mind. Our lan­guage falls far short of the real­i­ty, she says. There are hun­dreds of gen­ders as yet unnamed.

—What­ev­er her sex is, I say. Some­times the strongest ecsta­sy for Vir­ginia comes only at the moment when she dis­cov­ers what belongs to what,” and puts it into words. The things her father taught her about lit­er­ary style. Her last med­i­ta­tion, A sketch of the Past,” remem­bers those ear­ly years, when Leslie Stephen is in his study under high win­dows, a kind of ivory tow­er. The same ele­giac note hov­ers over her nov­els, a lament that most of life is like cot­ton wool. Stuff­ing. Time pass­es in a sleep-walker’s dance, but there are moments of being when one sees that behind the cot­ton wool there’s a pat­tern. At such moments she per­ceives that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art…. But there is no Shake­speare, there is no Beethoven; cer­tain­ly and emphat­i­cal­ly there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

—She dash­es off these words in her note­book at spare moments, Sasha says. If you asked her, she wouldn’t even remem­ber writ­ing them. Just rhetoric, echoes of the Zeitgeist.

—Maybe so, I say, but only Vir­ginia Woolf could boil it down this way. Touch­ing on the craft of the artist, her wrestling with tech­nique, her dis­ci­pline of writ­ing spec­i­men pages every day, like play­ing scales and her life in rela­tion to the tra­di­tion and the rela­tion of the tra­di­tion to the whole uni­verse. Such reach and so few words.


—Virginia’s let­ters to Ethel are the real trea­sure, Sasha says, a direct line into her psy­che at the most fraught of times. Hun­dreds of let­ters in the nine­teen-thir­ties to a third-rate musi­cian; Vir­ginia calls her an uncas­trat­ed cat but Ethel’s real­ly an old Eng­lish bull­dog, hang­ing on with dogged per­sis­tence to her self-impor­tance as a com­pos­er. The inti­mate gos­sip in Virginia’s let­ters, the con­fes­sions. Ethel’s a safe­ty valve, and Virginia’s let­ting off steam, try­ing to stay afloat. Still, it’s degrading

—Ethel’s cul­ture is a sort of Mobius strip, I say, con­flat­ing art and nature. Vir­ginia unbur­dens her­self to Ethel after see­ing her friend Tom Eliot’s Mur­der in the Cathe­dral.” The reli­gious poet­ry and Eliot’s pub­lic pose of moral supe­ri­or­i­ty, she writes, make her feel as if I rolled in the ash bin and some­how filled my mouth with the bones of a decay­ing cat.” She boils down Leonard’s reac­tion. Tight­ness, chill­ness, dead­ness and gen­er­al wor­ship of the decay and skele­ton.” Vir­ginia sticks by that. (“Cer­tain­ly and emphat­i­cal­ly there is no God.”) But the depth of her bit­ter­ness is surprising.

—The let­ters are grind­stones to sharp­en her tongue on, Sasha says. Vir­ginia loves the absur­di­ty of treat­ing the Philis­tine Ethel as a paragon of com­mon sense and substance.

—So Vir­ginia vents her mali­cious joy, I say. The reck­less­ness, the apt­ness of the ven­om that spews out of her. She nev­er needs to think of over-step­ping a line with Ethel. There are few lim­its to the vul­gar­i­ty of the general’s grand­daugh­ter. She’s a bore, but she’s in love with Vir­ginia. Her bad taste is an oasis. A chan­nel for sav­age indig­na­tion of the Swift­ian kind, an aphro­disi­ac. Vir­ginia was brand­ed ear­ly in her life and wears the marks on her flesh. A secret self — hard-bit­ten, bit­ter, vio­lent, releas­ing the out­rage which she reins in most of the time with­out even think­ing. Less against the anti-Semi­tism in the air than that her Jew is not exempt. As World War II comes clos­er, she iden­ti­fies with Leonard more and more. Casu­al­ly remarks: We’re Jews.”

—And calls Eliot a green sick Amer­i­can eunuch,” Sasha says. Remem­ber­ing that the great poet once wrote lines like these:

My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the win­dow sill, the own­er,
Spawned in some est­a­minet of Antwerp….
The rats are under­neath the piles.
The Jew is under­neath the lot.

Tom does not con­ceal his anti-Semi­tism and fas­cist sym­pa­thies. His long friend­ship with Leonard and Vir­ginia is a com­mon excep­tion, so wide­spread that nobody notices the para­dox. Noth­ing changes in the atmos­phere as Eng­land, des­per­ate­ly pla­cates the Nazis, betray­ing its own inter­ests, as well as the Jews.

—But she appre­ci­ates Eliot’s charm, I say, and han­dles the poet with kid gloves, in the man­ner she drank in with her mother’s milk and per­fect­ed with her tea table train­ing. You can hear her under her breath say­ing many of my friends had ner­vous break­downs after the Great War. She admires the poet’s human­i­ty of despair. I have mea­sured out my life with cof­fee spoons.”

—Nev­er­the­less, her resent­ment comes out, Sasha says. One of her pho­tos shows Eliot in Virginia’s gar­den. With his wife, reek­ing of ether and already worn into a stick fig­ure by depres­sion. A younger Tom, plan­ning to divorce her. Vir­ginia alarmed, feel­ing the down-draft of mad­ness, an inner Juggernaut. 

— She’s sane enough, I say, choos­ing to con­fide in Ethel. What a plunge into the self. Her let­ters to Ethel sing as a famil­iar scent in the air trans­ports one in time. Virginia’s authen­tic voice. Not like the char­ac­ters in her nov­els, who are unlov­able and then become unknow­able. No, it’s an elu­sive voice singing on a sum­mer night. It’s Vir­ginia her­self who appears at the head of my imag­i­nary stairs. Moon­light on the water rip­pling across the bay. And the light­house beams below. The thing itself fold­ed into a dream.


—Talk­ing about the past, Sasha says, she often sees it through the eyes of young Vir­ginia Stephen. Time revers­es itself again and again. The Times asks her for an essay on her father. Impos­si­ble to sum up Leslie Stephen in 1500 words, but she does a good job, not a breath about her true rela­tion to her father, but grace­ful jour­nalese, just what The Times wants.

—Then she tells the sto­ry to Ethel, I say, and dash­es off a por­trait, like a note in a bot­tle: At the moment my head is full of him … his extreme sin­cer­i­ty, also, unless I’m par­tial, he was beau­ti­ful in the dis­tin­guished way a race horse, even an ugly race horse, is beau­ti­ful — and he had such a fling with his hands, also he was a great [moun­tain] climber, also he was com­plete­ly unworld­ly, also he begot me.” A tiny tour de force. Vir­ginia takes the sto­ry into her own hands; what an aban­doned fling of herself.

—The truth is Leslie Stephen was ugly, plain-and-sim­ple, Sasha says. Vir­ginia says he made her life a tor­ment, treat­ed her and her sis­ters like mis­er­able under­lings. They were inden­tured ser­vants and his death set them free. 

—Do you think he’s unfor­giv­able, I say, even if Vir­ginia for­gives him?

—She con­tra­dicts her­self as usu­al, Sasha says. Her father was an emi­nent Vic­to­ri­an. And he accept­ed the fact that gift­ed women should be as free as men to choose their own careers. That was rare in his day and in Virginia’s day also. She prais­es him for it. At the same time she wears a mask. I agree with that. Does it make a dif­fer­ence? — does Vir­ginia for­give him at the end of the day? Where do you stand?


—A let­ter from Vir­ginia to Leonard makes him give up a sinecure in Cey­lon, and sets their dance in motion; their lives fit togeth­er upside-down bet­ter than any­one expects.

—Sasha and I are facts. Virginia’s let­ters reveal how lit­tle we know: how hard it is, the bet­ter we know our­selves, to sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion. On May 1st, 1912 Vir­ginia writes Leonard that the obvi­ous advan­tages of mar­riage, hap­pi­ness, chil­dren, com­pan­ion­ship, a busy life,” stand in her way. The advan­tages make no sense on that day. Her fin­gers are so cold she can hard­ly hold the pen. I’m fear­ful­ly unsta­ble. I pass from hot to cold in an instant with­out any rea­son.” He is pos­sessed by an image like a mirage in the desert. They’re both in a fog. She’s a wild crea­ture. No one catch­es her, any more than you can catch a rock, an alp, a moun­tain-side. Shut­tles back and forth between one year and anoth­er as her mot­ley selves come to life. Your car­ing for me as you do almost over­whelms me. It is so real, and so strange. Why should you? What am I real­ly except a pleas­ant attrac­tive crea­ture? But it’s just because you care so much that I feel I must care before I mar­ry you….” Leonard wants to know whether she will ever love him enough. Is their attach­ment strong enough or can she guess whether it will be per­ma­nent? How can I say? I think it will because there seems no rea­son why it shouldn’t.” If time is reversible, no begin­ning and no end, all things are fixed and unpre­dictable. The cur­tain falling on stage doesn’t reveal whether the same play will be pre­sent­ed again the fol­low­ing night.

—As for her let­ter to Leonard, Sasha and I say, it’s a pre­lude to every nov­el she will write. Time obsess­es her, elu­sive as life itself, since she dreams of throw­ing it away. Swayed by the moment itself, she writes: Your car­ing for me as you do almost over­whelms me. It is so real and so strange.” 

—Sasha and I read these words, but who knows how many ghosts haunt Vir­ginia, half sub­merged in the past. She looks at her­self from the out­side, spy­ing on her­self to find out how she feels. She imag­ines know­ing Leonard inti­mate­ly from with­in, as she does the char­ac­ters in her nov­els. She reverts sud­den­ly to ear­li­er times, as if life is a myth, no begin­ning and no end. In her last nov­el a coun­try pageant takes place in the open air with a view of the mead­ow and graz­ing cows, inter­mit­tent driz­zle, and the audi­ence, vil­lagers and gen­try, in a semi-cir­cle. The last words of the nov­el are the begin­ning of a saga in anoth­er dimen­sion: Then the cur­tain rose. they spoke.” 

—And then? Sasha and I fig­ure the real sto­ry begins when Vir­ginia turns her life upside-down by mar­ry­ing a Jew. Still proud of her lady-like con­nec­tions, but graft­ing the two stems into one hybrid self, Vir­ginia and Woolf. Indif­fer­ent to con­se­quences. A woman found­ing a tra­di­tion of her own, though chained to her own dou­ble who tried to kill her­self in the past and may try again.


By Jes­si­ca L. Wilkinson

1) To write of the life of Vir­ginia Woolf is to be con­front­ed with an eth­i­cal ques­tion: how to rep­re­sent the truth” of this woman’s expe­ri­ences, a woman who so expert­ly draped veils across her own life-nar­ra­tive; who drew heav­i­ly on per­son­al encoun­ters but laced her pen with the ink of fic­tion; who was eva­sive in her diaries and let­ters and who toyed with masks and secret selves; who indeed request­ed, through a final note to her hus­band before her infa­mous sui­cide, that he destroy her papers? Put more suc­cinct­ly, how does one write of a woman who seemed keen to guard the facts of her pri­vate life, or at least, to obscure their straight-for­ward expression?

2) A fur­ther dilem­ma: Woolf railed against the stiff bio­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tives of her fore­fa­thers, por­traits that she likened to wax fig­ures” and effi­gies that have only a smooth super­fi­cial like­ness to the body in the cof­fin.” She want­ed to see writ­ers trou­bling the bound­aries of biog­ra­phy and fic­tion; flout­ing the tidy male sen­tence” in favor of that more expres­sive of a woman’s syn­tax; pro­mot­ing move­ment and change; test­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a frag­ment­ed, col­lec­tive vision.

3) In her essay The Art of Biog­ra­phy,” Woolf says that biog­ra­phy will enlarge its scope by hang­ing up look­ing glass­es at odd cor­ners.” It is a dec­la­ra­tion that appears to dri­ve Her­bert Marder’s inven­tive refrac­tion of the author through this dia­log­ic sequence. Two per­sonas, char­ac­ter­ized as facts,” dis­course on aspects of Woolf’s life — as a young girl, as a mar­ried woman, as an author, and in rela­tion to her unusu­al friend­ship with com­pos­er Ethel Smyth.

4) Biography~fiction — man~woman — straight~lesbian — alive~dead — past~present~absent — life~myth — voice~letter. Marder’s ges­ture: a hun­dred faces.” Woolf adds: from all this diver­si­ty it will bring out, not a riot of con­fu­sion, but a rich­er unity.”


Her­bert Marder is a poet, painter, and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and rhetoric. He is the author of Fem­i­nism and Art: A Study of Vir­ginia Woolf (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1968) and The Mea­sure of Life: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Last Years (Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000). In 1970, Marder and his wife, singer Nor­ma Marder, co-found­ed the New Ver­bal Work­shop, an exper­i­men­tal ensem­ble con­ceived as a plat­form for explor­ing speech­mu­sic.” For more than a decade, the New Ver­bal Work­shop brought togeth­er an evolv­ing per­son­nel of trained per­form­ers and ama­teurs, who devel­oped a reper­toire of orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions through col­lec­tive impro­vi­sa­tion. The ensem­ble also per­formed exper­i­men­tal music by dis­tin­guished con­tem­po­rary com­posers Ken­neth Gaburo and Ben John­ston. Email: marder@​illinois.​edu

Jes­si­ca L. Wilkin­son is the found­ing edi­tor of Rab­bit: a jour­nal for non­fic­tion poet­ry and a Senior Lec­tur­er in the School of Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at RMIT Uni­ver­si­ty in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, where she teach­es lit­er­ary the­o­ry, short sto­ry writ­ing, and cre­ative writ­ing. Wilkin­son earned a B.A. (with Hon­ors) in Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions (Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing) and a Ph.D. in Cre­ative Writ­ing, both at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mel­bourne. Her pub­lished books of poet­ry include mar­i­onette: a biog­ra­phy of miss mar­i­on davies (2012), which was short­list­ed for the 2014 Ken­neth Slessor Prize, and Suite for Per­cy Grainger (2014), both from Vagabond Press. In 2014, she was award­ed Peter Porter Poet­ry Prize from ABR: Aus­tralian Book Review. Wilkin­son recent­ly co-edit­ed Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Fem­i­nist Poet­ry with Bon­ny Cas­sidy (San­ta Lucia, Aus­tralia: Hunter Pub­lish­ers, 2016). Oth­er recent pub­li­ca­tions include Exper­i­ments in Poet­ic Biog­ra­phy: Fem­i­nist Threads in Con­tem­po­rary Long Form Poet­ry,” in Biog­ra­phy 39: 1 (Win­ter 2016), and Beyond Facts and Accu­ra­cies: Long Form Poet­ry as Bio­graph­i­cal Method,” in Axon Jour­nal 7 (2014). Wilk­i­son serves on the advi­so­ry board of the Inter­na­tion­al Poet­ry Stud­ies Insti­tute (Can­ber­ra). Email: jessica.​wilkinson@​rmit.​edu.​au