English writer Virginia Woolf was born exactly1 140 years ago, so I’m sending you a Virginia Woolf Megamix—snippets from letters I’ve bookmarked over the years for all manner of reasons. These excerpts are arranged chronologically, beginning when she was just 6 and ending right before her death, aged 59. The final letter, written to husband Leonard before she died, is very sad and probably best avoided by some.
We went out for a walk with Stella this morning up to the pond and there were a lot of big boats. Mrs Prinsep says that she will only go in a slow train cos she says all the fast trains have accidents and she told us about an old man of 70 who got his legs caute in the weels of the train and the train began to go on and the old gentleman was draged along till the train caute fire and he called out for somebody to cut off his legs but nobody came he was burnt up. Good bye
Virginia Woolf (age 6) Letter to her mother 1888
I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Violet Dickinson 30th October 1904
Never did I read such tosh [Ulysses by James Joyce]. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th—merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Lytton Strachey 24th August 1922
I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don't believe it, you’re a long-eared owl and ass.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vita Sackville-West 26th January 1926
[There was] a ghastly party at Rose Macaulays, where in the whirl of meaningless words I thought Mr O’donovan said Holy Ghost, whereas he said “The Whole Coast” and I asking “Where is the Holy Ghost?” got the reply “Where ever the sea is” “Am I mad, I thought, or is this wit?” “The Holy Ghost?” I repeated. “The Whole Coast” he shouted, and so we went on, in an atmosphere so repellent that it became, like the smell of bad cheese, repulsively fascinating […] until Leonard shook all over, picked up what he took to be Mrs Gould’s napkin, discovered it to be her sanitary towel and the foundations of this tenth rate literary respectability (all gentlemen in white waistcoats, ladies shingled, unsuccessfully) shook to its foundations. I kept saying “Vita would love this.”
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vita Sackville-West 29th March 1926
[Novelist E. M. Forster] is limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vanessa Bell 19th May 1926
I feel entirely dehumanised by the sun now and wish for fog, snow, rain, humanity.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Edward Sackville-West 22nd September 1926
I could only think of you as being very distant and beautiful and calm. A lighthouse in clean waters.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vita Sackville-West 31st January 1927
Look here Vita—throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads—They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vita Sackville-West 1927
I like your energy. I love your legs. I long to see you.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Vita Sackville-West 22nd August 1927
Tomorrow I shall go back to London, and there already awaits me a string of inevitable experiences—what is called “seeing people.” You don’t know what that means—it means one can’t get out of it.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Gerald Brenan 4th October 1929
As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Ethel Smyth 22nd June 1930
My difficulty is that I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Ethel Smyth 28th August 1930
My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Ethel Smyth 28th December 1932
Sorry I was so glum. It’s nothing but the truth. I’m in a cursed mood and can’t bear the human face.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Ethel Smyth 10th February 1933
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Leonard Woolf March 1941
Virginia Woolf died on 28th March 1941. Her body was found weeks later in the River Ouse, the pockets of her coat filled with heavy rocks. The above excerpts come from The Letters of Virginia Woolf, a six-volume series edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt 1975-1980). The final letter can also be found, in full, in the first volume of Letters of Note.
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This is actually, very probably, untrue, unless I somehow managed to hit send at the precise time of Woolf’s birth. But you’re a nice bunch and mostly forgiving, so I’ll leave the word “exactly” right where it is and carry on with my day.