“The moment [my book] is released, it will pour from me as the ocean from the bath-tap,—but will the blue sparks come with it, or only the blanket-grey of the daytime sea? (By the way, I have discovered since beginning this letter that one can draw pictures of oneself with the phosphorous; it’s like having a bath in glow-worms; one draws pictures with one’s fingers in trails of blue fire, slowly fading.)”
~ Vita to Virginia, on the S.S. Rajputana in the Indian Ocean, 8th February 1926 from The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska
I’ve been writing letters since I was old enough to hold a pencil and form words. Mother would write to her mother and would include my letter. I have no idea what I said, but I could go on for pages. And I was always so thrilled when a letter would arrive (inside one addressed to my mother) in response. Later I would write to friends, boyfriends, lovers, ex-lovers. As one friend said to me in the midst of our correspondence, “When two writers have a love affair, it’s well documented.” I used to save all of the letters and cards I received, but when I started moving from state to state and back again, I let most of them go, some returned to the sender, most tossed or shredded, and once—burned in my fireplace on a lovely winter evening of letting go. I’ve had some of my own letters returned to me, still in their plum-colored envelopes, and when I opened one to read it, I couldn’t. It was as if I were a voyeur reading about someone I knew once, someone who was young and lost and terribly tragic in her descriptions of life. I may still have those—I can’t remember.
When I was in college (I started late, so I was 35), I had the good fortune to take a summer class on Virginia Woolf: three weeks, five days a week, several hours a day reading and discussing Woolf’s novels, essays, letters, diaries, biographies. We read what are considered her major works: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves (I don’t remember reading this one, but it’s on my shelf with my notes in it), A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas. We read pieces from collections of her letters—and she was prolific. We read pieces of her many diaries, pieces of the biographies about her. I don’t know how I managed this—I had a husband and daughters and a life outside of campus. I am grateful that this professor, this scholar of Virginia Woolf, wanted to teach a class about her that year. I wouldn’t have read anything of Woolf’s on my own—it’s not easy reading—but at 69 years old, I can still say that Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve read hundreds and hundreds so far.
I own several volumes of Woolf's diaries and most of her collections of letters, and it’s the letters that are the most compelling to read and the most revealing of her state of mind. [I sit staring out the window at the graying sky.] Now we write, receive, respond to, and delete email messages—people my age anyway. I think the kids just text and tweet. Some schools are already dropping the teaching of cursive writing, so let’s say that someday I have a great-grandchild and I write that child a letter in my own handwriting, will that child have to ask someone to interpret the squiggles? This same age-group shows no interest in the “old” stuff that fascinates me, like the old black-and-white photos of people I’m related to or the letters I once found in an old trunk—honest-to-god tied in blue ribbon, love letters that I had no business reading but were from long long ago, someone I didn’t know in fact but did know through her correspondence. Will human beings become (if not already) inarticulate? And some might even ask, “So what?”
“Last night I went to bed very early and read Mrs. Dalloway. It was a very curious sensation: I thought you were in the room . . . [she continues with a line saying she was unhappy about a row she had with her mother] . . . so it was like being two different people at the same time, and then to complicate it there was a) the conviction that you were in the room and b) the contact with all the many people you had created. (What a queer thing fiction is.)”
Vita to Virginia, Long Barn, Weald, Sevenoaks, Wednesday 1 December 1926
[The sky has gone to slate and a wind rushes through the branches of the honey locust. Thunder in the distance, that kind that rumbles rather than crashes. The blue room where I sit is now dark as dusk, more wind, and the tree limbs wave in long swoops from side to side.] It occurs to me now that maybe I love writing a blog and reading personal blogs because they’re like letters—written with an audience in mind. [The rain starts hard and heavy, and the tree sways, rain driving sideways into the branches, crashing thunder, flashes of lightning, dark and threatening immediately overhead.] Reading these letters from Vita to Virginia and thinking about letters makes me want to write more letters. I’ve slowed down, writing fewer letters, writing shorter letters. Vita and Virginia could write each other several letters a day because mail was delivered more than once a day, so reading the letters is like listening to a conversation. I love this last one with the cryptic line at the end. [If you'd like to receive a letter from me, send me your address—I'll write to you—in cursive writing and everything!]
“Virginia mine—this is to bring you my love—and to say I have ordered a pâté for you for Christmas—and also to say I hope you weren’t bored at luncheon—and how much I regretted that you weren’t there when Father D’Arcy and I went to admire the lizard Freya Stark has brought back from Arabia, a magnificent animal which spends its life in England lying on a hot water bottle under an electric light globe, surrounded by relics of Ur dug up by Leonard Woolley. And was the Freudian dinner a success?”
Vita to Virginia, Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, 19 December 1938