Congenial Spirits is a volume of the selected letters of Virginia Woolf edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks and was first published in 1989. As it happens, I own a very large and intimidating six volume collection of Virginia Woolf's letters but I haven't dared even began thinking about reading them, but Congenial Spirits is a far more concise and approachable collection, a great introduction to the letters of one of the 20th Century's greatest and most important authors.
It begins with letter '0', an undated letter most likely written before she was six:
MY DEAR FATHER
WE HAVEENT BATHED YET WE ARE GOING TO TO MORROW WE SANG IN THT TRAIN YOUR LOVING VIRGINIA. [spelling remains uncorrected]
Letter 1a was written after 1888 to her mother Julia Stephen (she would have been six years old or thereabouts):
My dear Mother,
We went out for a walk with Stella this morning up to the pond and there were a lot of big boats. We cleaned the little room out this morning and we cleaned up the silver things cos they were awfully dirty. It was awfully jolly at the stuffed beasts [Natural History Museum]. Edwin [Fisher, a cousin] came with us to them. Mrs Prinsep says that she will only go in a slow train cos she says all the fast trains have accidents and she told us about an old man of 70 who got his legs caute in the weels of the train and the train began to go on and the old gentleman was dragged along till the train caute fire and he called out for somebody to cut off his legs but nobody came he was burnt up. Good bye
your Loving Virginia
Aside from the horrendous tale of the old gentleman, I loved reading this, it's so very childish, so obviously written by a little girl, and the wondrous thing is that little girl was Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse. I was very taken by it.
And on it goes, from before 1888 to 1941. We see Woolf as Adeline Virginia Stephen, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, historian, author, and critic, and Julia Stephen, a great Victorian beauty and sometimes model of the Pre-Raphaelites; we see her grow up, the bereavements she suffered in her adolescence (both her mother and her beloved half-sister Stella died in her mid-teens), and how that shaped her and her art. We then see the development of an artist, a politically aware widely read highly intelligent and intellectual woman who would go on to marry Leonard Woolf in 1912 and write novels that would help define the Modernist era. She had a wide circle of friends and in these letters we see the semi-private Woolf, not quite the private writings in her diary, and not the public author, but we learn who and what she was to her friends and vice versa.
For the 21st Century reader this is quite an experience. The letters are first-hand accounts of a Victorian child, an Edwardian woman, and later the modernist writer. On the whole the letters are a joy to read, however voyeuristic one might feel, but at times they can be uncomfortable too. We know Virginia Woolf was at times very anti-Semitic despite being married to Leonard Woolf (who was Jewish), that she could be a snob, and that she could be caustic if not downright cruel at times. There is no hiding away from or glossing over these facts when reading Congenial Spirits. She can be harsh and sometimes very unlikable, and that is hard-going for a Woolf fan such as myself. I can read her essays and novels and her personality doesn't matter, but the flaws are very evident in her letters. To enjoy Congenial Spirits one must accept them.
One of the hardest aspects of all is, of course, the final letter. In the 400 or so pages we read the little girl who "SANG IN THT TRAIN", the letters to newspapers and periodicals, the love letters to Vita Sackville West, her friends, her husband, and many to her sister Vanessa; on a few occasions they are clouded with her mental illness but in the end she shines through; the letters are accounts of her loves, her enthusiasm and joy, and even a record of the births of her novels, but it all ends on the 28th March 1941 with a letter to Leonard Woolf (there are two different letters, this one is perhaps the less familiar):
I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that.
But I know that I shall never get over this: and I am wasting your life. It is this madness. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better without me. You see I cant write this even, which shows I am right. All I want to say is that until this disease came on we were perfectly happy. It was all due to you. No one could have been so good as you have been, from the very first day till now. Everyone knows that.
You will find Roger's letters to the Maurons in the writing table drawer in the Lodge. Will you destroy all my papers.
We know what happened shortly after, we can read of how the letter came to be found, how her friends and family reacted, all that followed in short. But this is the last letter, there is no more after. Her writing ended here, and to read it after all the other letters is an emotional experience.
In Congenial Spirits Woolf is charming, sparkling, bright, intelligent, but oh, so very flawed. It is, as I say, just a 400 or so pages and offers an excellent introduction to her letters complete with footnotes to explain some of the unclear references. It does make me want to go on to read my six volume collection (perhaps that would be my 2017 project!) and I do think Congenial Spirits is a must for Woolf fans. It's also an excellent read for those who simply love letters; Woolf was a master at it. It was this beautiful writing and vitality of spirit that defined Virginia Woolf; not her last letter, not her suicide, not her depression. Her life was not one steady march towards suicide (something, I think, some critics seem to believe, reading her suicide into her words); this is made very clear in reading her letters.