Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"You See You Kind of Belong to Us, and What You Do Matters Enormously": Letters from Readers to Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"You See You Kind of Belong to Us, and What You Do Matters Enormously": Letters from Readers to Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

Writing to Virginia Woolf about Three Guineas from Springfield, MA in 1938, Agnes K. Potter says her comments are from "the point of view of this ordinary reader" (Snaith, "Three Guineas Letters" 97). Q. D. Leavis, however, would have us believe that Woolf did not have ordinary readers; Three Guineas "is a conversation between [Woolf] and her friends" (272). Woolf's careful and honest description of her class position leads to Leavis's assumption that all Woolf's readers must be of Woolf's own class. Anna Snaith's edition of the letters written to Woolf after the publication of Three Guineas proves that such a narrow construction of Woolf's readership is not accurate. (1) Similarly, Melba Cuddy-Keane's investigations of the readers "spotting" The Common Reader (Virginia Woolf 110-14) and of individual readers like John Farrelly ("From Fan-Mail" 3-32) succeed in "break[ing] down categories that have identified high culture with high class" and show that definitions of Woolf's readership must include respect for "both the intellectual impulse and the intellectual accomplishment of non-privileged, non-specialist readers" ("Imbricated" 5).

Following Q. D. Leavis's lead, however, Jonathan Rose recently argues that Woolf's essay "Middlebrow" calls for cultural triage and asserts that modernists made literature difficult to make the common reader "illiterate once again" and to preserve "a body of culture as the exclusive property of a coterie" (394). He does caution, though, that "no two individual reading histories [are] alike," that generalizations about readers, though not "completely groundless," neglect the "more complicated and ambiguous" use of literacy, and that "[t]he only workable method is to consult the readers themselves" (367).

Exactly.

As Anna Snaith and Melba Cuddy-Keane discovered, one of the best ways to consult readers themselves is through their letters to Woolf. (2) Because, as Helen Waddell points out when she encloses someone else's letter about The Waves in her own note to Woolf, "in spite of all that has already been said in print, there is something in the manuscript word and in the circumstances of the writing that makes it valuable" (Letter 78). I discovered the same thing in the summer of 2001. At a session called "Archives in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" during the Eleventh Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf at the University of Bangor in Wales, Bet Inglis, the retired Assistant Librarian in the Manuscripts Section at the University of Sussex, talked about the treasures in the Monks House Papers and casually mentioned that someone should take a look at the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen housed there. When I got to the Sussex archives the next week, planning to spend the entire summer on the drafts of early reviews written by Virginia Stephen, I thought I might take an afternoon to follow up on her suggestion. That digression quickly became an obsession, an archive-junkie race through the correspondence to Virginia Woolf located in Letters III of the Monks House Papers (SxMs 18). But what intrigued me, what I became addicted to, were not the letters from Elizabeth Bowen, engaging as they are. No, although the known correspondents in the authornamed files in Letters III certainly claimed some of my attention, what I could not stop reading and transcribing that crazed summer were the letters in a box tantalizingly called Correspondence of Various Persons re: Books, Articles. (3) Woolf's readers came alive as I read their letters, and I could not turn my back on them. "[G]iving a voice ... to the silent reader" (Carr), this collection of letters grows out of and builds on the fine work of Snaith, Cuddy-Keane, and Oldfield, increases the number of actual (as opposed to imagined) readers Woolf scholars can consult, and moves Woolf studies, particularly studies of her reception, another step closer to a full record of letters written to Virginia Woolf about her work and thus to a more accurate view of the "far wider circle" Woolf hoped to reach (L6 420). …

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