“[Y]es: & my infirmities will of course increase. To begin with my eyes. Last year, I think, I could read without spectacles . . . & now I can’t read a line (unless held at a very odd angle) without them.” This was in September 1929; Woolf was 47. Aging was on her mind. A few months earlier she had been to her oculist. “Perhaps you’re not as young as you were,” the oculist told her. “It means that one seems to a stranger not a woman, but an elderly woman,” Woolf responded to herself.
As she approached 50, it was less aging than death that occupied her thoughts. Lytton Strachey was dying. On 18 January 1932, as her 50th birthday approached, Woolf heard that Lytton was again “very ill.” On the 21st, she wrote in her diary that “last night Lytton was dying ‘much worse’.” On the 22th: “Lytton died yesterday morning.” She is full of Strachey: “I see him coming along the street, muffled up with his beard resting on his tie: how we should stop: his eyes glow.” Perhaps at 50, our impressions of others are stronger than our senses of ourselves. We see others, the living and the dead, sharply cut in cloth and laughter, stories and scents; we see ourselves as younger figures, more imaginatively, with so much more that there was to be.
On her 50th birthday, 25 January 1932, Virginia Woolf did not remark in her diary on the day.
I have been fascinated by Virginia Woolf and by her circle of Bloomsbury friends. I admire the Bloomsbury sense of life as art and the will those friends had to live as creatively as possible. Reading about Woolf and Bloomsbury, spending time with their books and art, and traveling to the places they lived has added to my sense of their creative lives.
The approach to my 50th birthday, which was on Monday, was more filled by joy than it was for Virginia Woolf. Friends and students celebrated the approach of my birthday. There was an evening with my graduate students and colleagues, and the next day there was a surprise party in the English class that I am co-teaching this semester.
Washington State University, where I am on the faculty, has in its library archives the personal library of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. WSU acquired the core of the collection, consisting of about 4000 books, soon after Leonard Woolf’s death in 1969, and there were later major additions. It’s a collection that includes books that Virginia Woolf inherited from the library of her father, Leslie Stephens, and those that Leonard gave to Virginia. There are the books about which Virginia wrote in the essays of her Common Reader. There are early publications of Hogarth Press, which Leonard and Virginia founded in 1917. I have been to exhibits in the archives that had displayed various items from the Woolfs’library, and I have wanted to take a closer look at the collections.
As a surprise party for my birthday, my English class arranged to have the archives show us materials from the Woolf collection. Trevor Bond, the Special Collections Librarian at WSU, had pulled a few special items, arranging them around a table in the archive, where we could hold the books and leaf through the pages. There was Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in the dust jacket designed by her sister Vanessa Bell and the bound story "Kew Gardens." A delicate copy of Two Stories, the first publication that Virginia and Leonard printed as Hogarth Press, lay on the table for us to see. Only 150 copies of Two Stories were printed and few remain.
At Hogarth Press, Woolf would often sew bindings. She had learned the art of book binding when a girl. In the years, especially the earliest years, at Hogarth Press, Woolf would turn to binding after writing. Holding those early volumes published by Hogarth Press was a little like holding Virginia Woolf’s hand. One could think of her long fingers stitching together the pages.
I had a wonderful birthday party in the Woolf archive.
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“[Y]es: & my infirmities . . .” p. 254 in A. O. Bell, editor. 1980. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three 1925-1930. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
“Perhaps you’re not as young . . .” and “It means that one seems . . .” ibid, p. 231.
“last night Lytton was dying . . .” p. 64 in A. O. Bell, editor. 1982. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Four 1931-1935. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
“I see him . . .” ibid, p. 64.
Insights on the Virginia Woolf material came from Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996; Chatto and Windus, London) and over the years from various other books on Woolf and Bloomsbury.
The photographs taken by DL are (1) Trevor Bond describing Two Stories by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, (2) a copy of the original publication of Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens," and (3) a bit more of my birthday party.