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Sydney J. Loeb. Leonard and Virginia Woolf in Hyde Park: photograph (modern print), 1 June 1925. Presented by Elizabeth P. Richardson ’43. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

/ Published September 24, 2010

Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections at Smith, has spent the past 30 years exploring literary subjects “in the round” and the secrets of special collections. In this 2010 talk before the first International Biography Conference, she revealed the rich discoveries she shares with her students while teaching with manuscripts, particularly Smith’s literary collection. Here are excerpts from that talk.

When Frances Hooper bequeathed her Virginia Woolf Collection to Smith in 1986, she hoped it would be used to teach students how to write. Hooper was a journalist herself in Chicago and she was particularly interested in Woolf’s style as an essayist. At the heart of the Hooper collection are drafts of Woolf’s essays and corrected page proofs of her novels.

Frances Hooper.

Also represented in the Hooper collection are over 170 original letters, including the correspondence between Woolf and Lytton Strachey who wrote Eminent Victorians and other biographies. I teach a course on editing in our archives concentration program in which each student transcribes and annotates original letters by Woolf, Strachey, and Sylvia Plath from our various literary collections. I also teach students how to use primary sources to write footnotes.

Even though Hogarth Press published a selection of the Woolf-Strachey correspondence in 1956, the students discover new information when they examine the originals. Many passages were omitted by the editors, such as this unflattering description of society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell written by Strachey in 1922: “her bladder has now gone the way of her wits—a melancholy dribble; and then, as she sits after dinner in the lamplight, her cheek-pouches drooping with peppermints, a cigarette between her false teeth, and vast spectacles on her painted nose, the effect produced is extremely agitating.” About 32 postcards and notes in the collection were never described or published.

But probably the most important thing the students learn from examining these documents is how much the physical manuscripts themselves reflect the personality of their authors. This kind of information cannot be imparted through mechanical reproduction.

Strachey wrote on beautifully engraved cream-colored stationery with black ink in a neat, evenly spaced hand. His parents selected Joynson’s parchment for their London Stationery. After his father’s death in 1906, Strachey wrote on the black-edged paper of mourning. Later, when Strachey lived at the Mill House in Tidmarsh with Bloomsbury painter Carrington and her husband Ralph Partridge in a ménage a trois, he also chose Joynson superfine stationery followed by Emissary bond.

Woolf’s cigarette burns on the bottom of Strachey’s letter.

The last stationery that he used at Ham Spray House in Hungerford, was appropriately called Kingsway superfine. Graphic watermarks changed from an image of St Regulus on the paper he used at Belsize Park Gardens, where he lived with his mother in 1909, to an arum lily at Tidmarsh. (Notice Woolf’s cigarette burns on the bottom of Strachey’s letter.)

By contrast, Virginia Woolf delighted in color and variety, writing in a hurried spidery hand with black, blue, and violet-colored inks on odds sizes of paper. There are even two letters in pencil.

She initially wrote with black ink on Exchequer superfine stationery, watermarked with an image of a unicorn. After her marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912, her letters become notably diverse and whimsical. She wrote on a variety of blue papers (Kent, James Sons, Towgood fine, and Strathdon), cream-colored papers (St Winifred, Society cream, Charing Cross vellum, and Avalon superfine) and even claims that a 1912 letter from Clifford Inn is written on 'bumf' or toilet paper. Although her correspondence looks slapdash, Woolf clearly proofread her letters to Strachey because one of them includes corrections in a different colored pen.

In 1998, Smith alumna Elizabeth Power Richardson, bequeathed her library of 2000 books and 30 scrapbooks of ephemera by and about the Bloomsbury Group. As a result, together with the Hooper Collection, Smith has every edition of Woolf’s writing and examples of Vanessa Bell’s book jackets.

Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia, Julia, and Adrian Stephen, 1894. Plate 38a Leslie Stephen Photograph Album, Smith College.

The star piece in the Richardson collection is Leslie Stephen’s photograph album, which he compiled in 1895 while he was writing his memoir Mausoleum Book as a way to mourn the death of his wife. Stephen neatly pasted and labeled albumen, platinum, and silver prints all together in thematic arrangements. (See more photographs in my Bloomsbury show, which is also online.)

Two leaves in the album are devoted to scenes from summer holidays at Talland House in Cornwall, including an 1886 albumen print of a feisty, young Virginia Woolf and her brother Adrian Stephen playing cricket. Woolf had access to her father’s album and memoir while she was writing To the Lighthouse and clearly used it as a springboard to write her elegiac novel about her parents. Woolf’s layering or tunneling method of writing clearly evolved from her father’s need to document all aspects of his wife’s life, including her first marriage to Herbert Duckworth. To the Lighthouse allowed Virginia Woolf to complete the process of mourning as she recounts in her memoirs.

In our Hooper Collection we have Woolf’s corrected page proofs of To the Lighthouse. In a late addition to those page proofs, Woolf wrote: “But looking together united them.” Even though we may see the same object differently, we are all united through time, even today, by gazing together at a work of art.