Virginia Woolf Wrote a Damn Good Letter
April 5, 2011 1 Comment
I’m trying to mend my relationship to the mail, which has become the boogeyman of my adulthood. I know I’m not alone in spending several hundred dollars on two Netflix DVDs, but when you factor in a tendency to let the mailbox fill up in hopes that the mailman will just STOP putting things in it, the herds thin slightly. The mail nags. It demands. It warns. It solicits. I’ve come to hate the word “statement.” I gasp in relief when I find a postcard and stare it as if it were artwork. Handwriting! So unstandard, so unitemized. It scribbles at you in human pulses so loud you can’t hear the words!
Sometimes the mail brings the gestures that couldn’t abide ordinary channels. That’s seldom a good thing.
Yesterday I noticed a soggy pile of papers stuck in my next-door neighbor’s doorjamb. I looked closer and realized it was an assortment of wet insurance bills and increasingly shrill notices, all addressed to different people. I don’t know who lives there, but I know something about who does, or has. They’re fighting the mailman too, in their own disappearing way.
What would life be like if I took pleasure in the mail and integrated it into the normal rhythms instead of letting it punctuate generic failures? (Notice mail rhymes with “fail” and “nail,” along with the depressingly utilitarian “pail” and “rail”.)
So I’m trying. I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf’s letters, and made up a rigorously non-utilitarian game of looking at some of her beginnings and endings.
First, some middles:
To Duncan Grant: Last night we dined with the [J.C.] Squires on Chiswick Mall. O my God! what an evening! All the lights went out, dinner an hour late, pheasants bleeding on the plate, no knives, tumblers or spoons; poor Mrs. Squire thought to laugh it over, but became distracted; Squire ferocious. Strange figures wandered in and out, among them Mrs Hannay, an artist—Pike an inventor, Scott a don. Stove smoked, fog thick. Trains stopped. Bed.
To Vanessa Bell, her sister: I despair of conveying to you, either in writing or speech, the utter and immense horror of that visit. Of course, Barbara and even Nick are as Princes of Light compared with them—the banality, the frigidity, the sterility, the respectability of that couple; and underneath perfect callousness, and, I suspect, even brutality—at anyrate a stupidity so crass that they would trample you to death without seeing it. I was there for an hour; and we began by talking of country cottages, and we were still talking of country cottages when I left. Elena is a buxom matron, with white hair, but no longer more than comely. She is almost inanimate with stupidity. She sits looking at the fire like a spaniel. And my God! What a room! She told me that her only ideas of decoration were that she liked brown carpets and blue curtains; so she had blue of the colour of bad ink, and brown of the colour of musty chocolate; walls glistening and cold as wedding cake; a few chill water colours of Pompeii; and sham Sheraton bookcases, filled with shiny books under glass. Not a chair of cup out of place; a silver table; all so polished you could see your face. There were terrible pauses, when she clearly was slightly afraid of me and he disapproved. That’s the man I write for! Good God!
Next, some beginnings:
To Violet Dickinson: It was very nice to read—or rather decipher—your very distinguished hand again.
To Vanessa: I went to Bumpus [book shop] the other day, and the man seemed to think that books about making things are to be had, but was out of them. Perhaps you could say, more exactly what you want—I’m not sure I’ve got it right.
To R.C. Trevelyan: Why Minna is Minna I do not know but she is.
To Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband): I’ve always thought it very fine—the way you run risks, though I don’t see that there’s much risk in sending such a letter to such a woman.
To Margaret Llewelyn Davies: I wish you wouldn’t withdraw into the clouds in the way you do.
To Leonard: It was nice to see your little cramped claw this morning. I do hope Bella’s over the influenza and not infectious.
And finally, some closing lines:
To Leonard: Do come back a brisk well mongoose, with a feather in your cap.
My pet, you would never doubt my caring for you if you saw me wanting to kiss you, and nuzzle you in my arms. After all, we shall have a happy life together now, won’t we?
To Vanessa: The only news is that our hens lay eggs without shells. What does it mean?
To Lytton Strachey: Leonard sends his love—in all sincerity.
To Dora Carrington: We had such a divine time at Asheham, except for one terrifying moment. A swarm of bees conglobulated suddenly over our heads on the terrace—in an ecstasy of lust—drove us in—then made for the chimney, and all settled in the attic. Please tell us what to do. We want the honey; the males were all dead—But I forgot: you don’t like the fact of copulation, only the theory—What an odd generation yours is! But this isn’t the interesting thing. Give my love to Alix.
If I tried to outdo that I’d get a hernia, so I’ll end here, safe in the hive.