I found these treasures in different cities, mostly from Bookends in Carlisle, one from London, and one from Wigtown in Scotland. I’ll introduce them in the rough order of when each was written, from the most recent to the earliest.
Selected Letters by Virginia Woolf
The book starts with a letter to Virginia’s father when she was about six in 1889.
MY DEAR FATHER WE HAVEENT BATHED YET WE ARE GOING TO TO MORROW WE SANG IN THT TRAIN YOUR LOVING VIRGINIA.
And it finishes with her last letter in 1941 to her husband just before she drowned herself in a river.
[28 March 1941]
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 letter to the Maurons in the writing table drawer in the Lodge. Will you destroy all my papers.
There are a lot of letters to her sister Vanessa, and even more to Vita Sackville-West. There is a letter to Thomas Hardy, where she thanked him for a poem he wrote to her father and showed her admiration for his “magnificent work”, “in particular for your last volume of poems which, to me at any rate, is the most remarkable book to appear in my lifetime.”
There is one witty invite to T. S. Eliot for tea; another addressing him as “Dear Tom”:
… Yes, I murmured ‘I’m Mrs Woolf,’ at Ottolines funeral; then in a bold loud voice BUT I REPRESENT T.S.ELIOT – the proudest moment of my life; passing, alas, like spring flowers.
Affectionately V. W.
There’s an interesting letter to a Chinese woman called Ling Suhua, who I have since found has her own Wikipedia page.
The wife of Professor Chen of Wuhan University and an intimate friend of Julian Bell while he worked there. She had written to Virginia that she was helplessly depressed by japan’s invasion of China and her refugee life in the western province of Szechuan. In 1947 she came with her husband to England, where he worked first with the Sino-Brish Culture Association and late with UNESCO. The autobiography which Virginia urged her to write was eventually published by The Hogarth Press in 1953 under the title Ancient Melodies, with a foreword by Vita Sackville-West.
I know Hogarth Press published many women authors but I had no idea a Chinese woman was included in that list. I have to look out for a copy of Ancient Melodies. I have a feeling reading this collection is going to make my TBR list a lot longer.
The book is divided into sections, each starts with a short introduction giving context to the letters following, for example, a friend’s death, the political situation in Europe before WWII or her relationship development with Vita. I found this super helpful. I tried reading a collection of Jane Austen’s letters last year but failed because I found it difficult to keep track of what stage of life she was in when she wrote certain letters. My conclusion at the time was to read her biography and these letters side by side. But these introductions will do the job perfectly.
There was at least one letter to E. M Forster. Virginia Woolf reviewed E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and that started an argument between them about the importance of life in fiction and art. I didn’t know this letter was included in this collection, but I was delighted to discover that letter because I have since also found
Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster
This was first published in 1927.
First given as a series of lectures at Cambridge University, Aspects of the Novel is Forster’s analysis of this great literary form. Here he rejected the ‘historical’ view of criticism that considers writers in terms of the period in which they wrote and instead asks us to imagine the great novelists at work together in a circular room. he discusses aspects of people, plot, fantasy and rhythm, making illuminating comparisons between such novelists as Proost and James, Dickens and Thackeray, Eliot and Dostoyevsky – the feature shared by their books and the ways in which they differ. Written in a wonderfully engaging and conversational manner, this penetrating work of criticism is full of Forster’s habitual irreverence, wit and wisdom.
I am most interested in finding out how he compares all those writers, especially now at this stage of my ‘Reading Oxford’ project. I’ve read four out of those six authors, so when he compares Dickens and Thackeray for example, I know what some of their novels are like.
Selected Prose by Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb is one of the literary figures of Wordsworth’s time. These essays were written from the 1810s to the 1830s. I heard of Charles Lamb many times from various books and podcasts, but the one that intrigued me most was a novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Charles Lamb and his essays were the very reason the two main characters first got to know each other and Lamb is featured throughout the novel.
Dawsey reached out to Juliet in a letter after the WWII asking where he could find more books by Charles Lamb.
12th January 1946
Dear Miss Ashton,
My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St Martin’s Parish, Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you – The Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address were written inside the front cover.
I will speak plain – I love Charles Lamb. My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from? These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left in Guernsey.
I want to ask a kindness of you. Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post. I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me? For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.
Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr Lamb.
I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writings have made me his friend.
and in her reply, Julie told a story when Lamb visited a friend in prison:
15th January 1946
While there, Lamb helped Hunt paint the ceiling of his cell sky blue with white clouds. Next they painted a rose trellis on one wall. Then, I further discovered, Lamb offered money to help Hunt’s family – though he himself was as poor as a man could be. Lamb also taught Hunt’s youngest daughter to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
This collection includes the essay on the roast pig and many essays on other random topics. I look forward to getting to know this fascinating man.
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson
In 1759 Johnson wrote Rasselas, reportedly completing the work in the evenings of a single week, so as to raise money to cover his mother’s funeral expenses and debts.
I have been meaning to read Johnson for a long while but never made a start. He’s famous for his dictionary, essays and literary criticism. This one might be an unusual place to start on Johnson – I don’t know much about it except that it’s fiction written in prose.
Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, feels trapped by his trouble-free life in the Happy Valley, a place of peace and luxury. When he encounters the much-travelled philosopher Imlac, he decides they should escape through the mountains to the country beyond, where he can experience the full range of human emotions. Joined by his sister and her attendant, they journey to Egypt, where they research for the true meaning of happiness by studying the lives of the people they meet. Wryly exploring the human condition and mankind’s stoical capacity for hope, the History of Rasselas questions whether it is possible for man to make a choice to ensure lasting happiness – ‘the choice of life’.
I read that Johnson was a Christian, be interested to find out what his conclusion was.
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
This novel was written in 1722. What I love most is its title page:
“The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continued variety for threescore years, besides her childhood, was twelve year a whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her own brother) twelve year a thief, eight year a transported felon (i.e. criminal) in Virginia, at last grew rich, liv’d honest, and died a penitent, written from her own memorandums.”
I’m not sure if this was just Defoe or if this was the common practice at the time, to put a spoiler right on the cover page. But what a spoiler! It just makes me want to read it more.
2022 is the three hundred anniversary of both Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year. I’ve already read A Journal of the Plague Year, and will try to read Moll Flanders this year as well.
I hope you find some of these interesting. Happy reading!