Recollections of Virginia Woolf by her Contemporaries, edited by Joan Russell Noble

Second paragraph of third sontribution (from John Lehmann):

By that time the Press, though comparatively small and run on the simplest lines, had become a successful and well-known publishing centre. It had four extremely valuable advantages. It had always published Virginia Woolf’s works since the First World War, but after the success of Orlando in 1928 Virginia was no longer a highly thought of experimental novelist of limited appeal, but a best-seller. Her friend Vita Sackville-West – Mrs Harold Nicolson – had had several books of travel published by the Press, but in 1930 she had produced a novel called The Edwardians, which had one of the greatest successes in the history of the Press. The third advantage it had was the International Psycho- Analytical Library, which included the works of Sigmund Freud. At the suggestion of Lytton Strachey’s brother James, a keen student of psychoanalysis, Leonard, with great shrewdness, and against the advice of some distinguished old hands in the publishing world, had taken on the English-speaking rights of the Library in the early ‘twenties. It flourished exceedingly. The fourth advantage was, of course, Leonard and Virginia’s own names as leaders of what was known as the Bloomsbury Group. Among intellectuals it was a much coveted prize to be accepted for publication by the Hogarth Press. It had begun its work in the tiniest way possible in 1917, and by the end of 1919 had published only five books; but one of them was T. S. Eliot’s Poems, another was Virginia’s own first experimental attempt, Kew Gardens, and a third was Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude. Two of them had been printed and bound by Leonard and Virginia themselves.

First published in 1972, thirty years after her death, this pulls together 27 short sketches of Virginia Woolf by friends, relatives and colleagues, some previously published and some new contributions. It provoked me to think how little we can really know of anyone; each of these people saw a slightly different side of her, often through a mutual involvement with the Hogarth Press, and there is much less about her inner life than you would get, for instance, in Hermione Lee’s biography. We get the same anecdotes told from different perspectives; we get different takes on her behaviour and attitudes; we get a sense of someone who was loved by many but not really understood by anyone. I particularly noticed the varying accounts of her interactions with children and younger women; she was capable of showing immense sympathetic curiosity, but also of brutal rudeness. I suppose most of us are like that.

A couple of these pieces are surprisingly weak – Rebecca West admits that she didn’t really know her very well, and T.S. Eliot writes a short encomium which actually has very little content. But most of them are interesting and rewarding. One of the longest and most interesting is by William Plomer, who I confess I had not heard of but whose books I will now look out for. There’s also a moving contribution by Louie Mayer, the Woolfs’ housekeeper who was probably the last person to speak to her before her death. I think even if you’re not a big fan of Woolf’s writing, it’s a very interesting exercise to get a couple of dozen different personal perspectives on their memories of a particular individual; and if you are a fan of Woolf’s writing, it certainly adds to the appreciation of her work. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that pile is Bee Quest, by Dave Goulson.