Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

From Fan-Mail to Readers' Letters: Locating John Farrelly

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

From Fan-Mail to Readers' Letters: Locating John Farrelly

Article excerpt

Housed in the Monks House Papers at the University of Sussex, under "Correspondence of Virginia Woolf," are three slight, innocuous, brown folders placed under the intriguing, though possibly surprising, category, "Fan-Mail etc." Inside the folders lie some of the precious few remaining traces of the wide readership that Woolf's writings attracted in their own time. (1) But what does it mean to label these readers "fans"? Is there an implied difference from the letters collected under another category with the heading, "Letters from readers about VW's books"? Do fan letters produce their subject as "celebrity" rather than "author"? (2) And do such fans then use an author's celebrity status to construct narratives of their own lives rather than concentrating on the published narratives they supposedly admire? (3) In truth, the catalogue labels merely distinguish letters of general appreciation from letters about Virginia Woolf's specific works. Yet the labels themselves serve usefully to bring such questions to mind when we ourselves read the letters of one particularly enthusiastic reader: the young American who signs himself "John Farrelly, Jr."

Introducing himself to Virginia Woolf, on the fourth of September 1940, John Farrelly certainly sounds like an adoring fan. He is sending, he writes, "a sort of love letter from a secret young admirer," to tell her that she has "never been out of [his] (literary) mind for the two years since [he] stumbled over The Years on a shelf of second hand books." (4) Love letters and secret admirers emit the warning tones of infatuated response, but the sentence simultaneously rings other notes: the lovely parenthetically inserted "literary" to qualify "mind," and the hints of hours spent hunting for treasure among dusty piles of used books. Then, as the letter proceeds, the literary mind rapidly fleshes out with substance and shape: He states that "whenever the conversation approaches even the neighborhood of books," he asks, "Have you read Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Hopkins?" He claims he has "bored, even tormented, [his] friends until they have read one or the other of [her] books," and that he persisted with one "singularly stubborn friend" until Mrs. Dalloway "broke down his stubbornness last week." He states that Woolf has given him "that all important shove towards Donne and Hazlitt," and contrasts his awkwardness in relation to her as a living author with his uncomplicated admiration for his favorite authors from the past, like Blake or Tolstoi. He may be a fan, but John Farrelly is also clearly a reader.

A similar combination of adoration and perspicuity informs Farrelly's second letter. Farrelly is now writing several months later, on January 18, 1941, and in the intervening time, he has reread To the Lighthouse and has read Roger Fry. He has come across a reference to Woolf in Yeats's letters to Dorothy Wellesley; he has--and I think I use an appropriate word here--mooned over Woolf's photograph in Winifred Holtby's book. But he is also courageous enough to express his initial disappointment with Woolf's biographical method in Roger Fry, missing in it the imprint of her characteristic style, and he proceeds to an analysis that perceptively senses the challenge she undertook in writing this work: "Now I see your success lay in your complete absorption in the character to the exclusion of your own personality." Still prone to the lover's excess, he begs for her picture. And he goes into ecstatic raptures over her handwriting, for he is now replying to a letter that Virginia Woolf has written to him.

It is hard to imagine anyone reading these letters without being profoundly moved. We might smile at the youthful posturing and naivete, but Farrelly himself seems to grasp the inevitably comic aspect of his role. Noting, in the first letter, the relief that confession will bring, he self-mockingly adds "Consider the Oppressive Burden." And with suitable apologies for himself as "incoherent" and "inexpert," he humbly explains, as if both to excuse and to impress, "I am nineteen. …

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