Book review: ‘Congenial Spirits’ by Virginia Woolf

The selected letters of Virginia Woolf.

Congenial Spirits

Virginia Woolf was a great letter writer, especially to fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group.

This well-chosen collection covers pretty much the whole of Woolf’s life, being punctuated by occasional gaps during which she suffered from recurring mental breakdowns.

Woolf’s letter-writing style varied according to recipient, from kind to gossipy, intellectual to flirty, enthusiastic to occasionally snobbish. Whatever their individual styles, they’re fascinating reads. Woolf comes across as a far more rounded and likeable than I expected. I even laughed at a couple of her jokes. Here she is writing about the former ballerina Lydia Lopokova, who would soon divorce her husband and marry the economist John Maynard Keynes:

Lydia has got a new bed: Very tactlessly I asked her if it was a double one. No it isn’t, she said; I saw that one must not make jokes about beds, however many Russian Generals and Polish princes or Soho waiters she’s lain with. Her respectability is something your gamps would revere. But I find that talk about the Ballet has its limitations. Not indeed that she dances anymore: unfortunately she sometimes writes.

And here is Woolf writing to her great friend, and occasional lover, Vita Sackville-West, about the challenges of writing novels:

Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem, before one writes it, something unwritable: but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.

A seamless blend of serious, chatty and witty: the best sort of correspondence.

The final letter in the collection is Woolf’s famous suicide note to her husband, written immediately before she filled her pockets with stones and threw herself into the River Ouse in Sussex.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

By Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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