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The romance of letter writing

"You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it…”

Art by Ellie Stephenson

“Look here Vita – throw over your man and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads. They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.” 

A deeply earnest letter, penned by Virginia Woolf to her lover Vita Sackville-West in 1927, is just one exchange in the almost 20 years of correspondence between the two women which were rich with want, devotion, and love. The art of letter writing, in their heartfelt pleas and overwhelming grand gestures, has come to a halt in the last century. Abstractions of romance entangled in lengthy writings only seem to enter the modern dialogue by returning to old texts, watching classic films, or reading classic romance novels à la Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Such entanglements strike me plainly as a paper trail which I must simply follow. 

The letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West are so hopelessly devoted and painstakingly raw that I feel as if reading their words is an intrusion – that being privy to their innermost thoughts is a power which I’m not sure I deserve. 

Despite both being married, the two women engaged in a long affair which had almost no bearing on their husbands. Vita’s husband had several affairs outside of their marriage, often with members of the same-sex, while Virginia’s husband Leonard didn’t object and was described as seeing Vita and Virginia’s relationship as “rather a bore…but not enough to worry him”, as detailed by Virginia herself, in a diary entry from 1923. 

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine a year ago about the depth of language and the nature of speaking, of attaching names to faces and hosting them in the back of your mind until the time comes for you to cross their path again. We spoke of exchanges between Vita and Virginia and held them close to our chest, combing through the delicacy of language and its ability to seamlessly expand upon the orchestra of emotions one feels on a daily basis. From the most miniscule twangs to the intense (and ineffable) pull one feels when on the precipice of falling in love – it is supercharged and complex and death-defying. 

Letters and language enrich life in such a lavish manner. “Sometimes I have to take a second to imagine how bland and sterile life would be without it all,” my friend says. 

Inscribing meaning to the presence of love letters like these may seem inconsequential to some, but the content of these exchanges is vital to unpacking one of the greatest literary love affairs. It is proof that queer love was not dissuaded in times of dampening religious moralism, repressive laws and confined gender roles. 

In a letter to Philip Morrell, a British Liberal politician and good friend of Woolf’s, she colourfully wrote of the dissonance in wanting affection against the fear of being vulnerable: “I admit I often tear up letters myself: one can’t, even at my age, believe that other people want affection or admiration; yet one knows that there’s nothing in the whole world so important.” Love letters, like poetry, are a suitcase full of works from a writer’s soul. In this instance, notes are struck with observations that are acute, nostalgic, endearing and unyielding. 

Oh, to be a gardener in the 1920s (Vita), falling for an author (Virginia) who takes to penning tender words that evolve through all stages of love. Between a quiet, desperate craving for human interaction, and their eventual more settled friendship, Woolf and Sackville-West keep each other on tenterhooks throughout the duration of their relationship, and have affected me through their letters. Playful as much as they are poignant, these two women show us the embrace of queer love during the rife 1930s, sexual fluidity and an openness to romantic relationships with a lean to non-monogamy. 

From Sackville-West to Woolf 

Milan [posted in Trieste]

Thursday, January 21, 192

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become.”

“I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …” 

In the lines of Lord Huron’s, ‘The Night We Met,’ “I had all and then most of you / Some and now none of you”, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West endeavoured upon a relationship that went far beyond the sexual. The language used in their letters is akin to lovers speaking, yet neither of them had the intention to leave their husbands whom they too love. These letters, so full of longing, and immediacy, leaves us readers at a pace, dreaming of having a love affair in the 1920s. 

On this chilly Autumn evening, I return to these journal inscriptions. Bearing witness to and being courted by the love poems of these two women is a unique pleasure. The urge to write passionate love letters by candlelight to nobody in the style of a 1900s script, only to set them aflame immediately after, is high.