Document: Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet
August 3, 2011 | by Sarah Funke Butler
Virginia Woolf, who had no children of her own, famously directed much of her maternal energy to the offspring of Vanessa Bell, her sole full sister and long-standing dust-jacket designer. Vanessa’s oldest son Julian was Woolf’s particular favorite. He was named for Virginia’s brother Julian Thoby Stephen, who died of typhoid at the age of twenty-six on a trip to Greece. Thoby, as he was called, inspired Woolf to write Jacob’s Room, in which she rendered the protagonist chiefly through others’ memories; the pain of his loss was such that, even in fiction, she strained against summoning him by direct account.
When the younger Julian decided to pursue poetry, his aunt Virginia offered the blend of succor and static seen in this previously unpublished letter. Composed in Woolf’s signature purple ink, and dated simply “Thursday,” the letter reads in full: “Thursday. My dear Julian. I like the poem very much. It still wants CURRENCY I think. When did you write it? It shall be the cornerstone of my new library at Rodmell. But this is to say—please be here 7:30 sharp tomorrow (Friday) as we want you to drive Rachel & us to a restaurant.”
The letter likely dates to November 1929. Woolf refers in her diary on November 30 to a dinner party at the Red Lion with “Julian & Rachel.” (Rachel was Rachel MacCarthy, daughter of writer Molly and editor Desmond MacCarthy.) Rodmell is the location of the Woolfs’ cottage, Monk’s House, which the couple inhabited from 1919 until Virginia’s death in 1941. The poem she refers to is probably Julian’s “Chaffinches,” published in the Songs for Sixpence series of a small Cambridge publisher, a copy of which is indeed in the Woolfs’ library at Washington State University in Pullman.
Woolf’s blunt criticism of Julian’s poem, her dig that it might be mere youthful experiment, the leavening (yet peremptory) dollop of praise, and the call to chores all typify the complexity of their relationship. The following year, after Julian’s first book of poems came out, Virginia declared, “He is no poet.” She once described her relationship to him as “half sister, half mother, and half (but arithmetic denies this) the mocking stirring contemporary friend.” Though she frequently expressed criticism of his writing, she ultimately published one of his books at the Hogarth Press.
But Julian’s career would be short-lived. Like his namesake Thoby, he did not see his thirtieth birthday. In his late twenties he took up the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, enlisting as an ambulance driver, and was killed at the Battle of Brunete in 1937. Virginia committed suicide in 1941; this year marks the seventieth anniversary of her death.
Letter reproduced by permission of the Society of Authors, as the literary representative of the Estate. The letter is part of a Virginia Woolf collection currently held by Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.
Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. In 2009 she cocurated the exhibition This Perpetual Fight: Love and Loss in Virginia Woolf’s Intimate Circle at the Grolier Club in New York.