The Guardian newspaper tells us that one of Virginia Woolf’s letters to Phillip Morrell is up for auction. In it, she tells her friend to “go on living,” even after he’s been diagnosed with a weak heart and advised not to climb stairs.
I had been thinking, just minutes before reading this item, about how hard it must have been for people in the 1920s and 30s and 40s to “go on living” in the face of physical ailments for which medicine did not yet have a cure, in the face of manufacturing methods which were unable to produce the mechanical aids which provide so much assistance and comfort to people of our day, and in the face of a second World War that threatened to blow everything in general–and Britain in particular–completely up.
If you do not quite believe me, dip into the letters between H.L. Mencken, the newspaper columnist, and the novelist, Theodore Dreiser. They were friends. In one of the letters, Mencken gives a laundry list of everything that happens to be wrong with his body at that moment. The list goes on for a full page, and includes a mention of his zits. It’s funny, but it’s also a quiet reminder of just how much everybody has to endure on a daily basis simply to live.
Phillip Morrell was the husband of the aristocratic and lovely Ottoline Morrell, who knew Woolf, but had died in 1938. Morrell and his wife engaged in an open marriage, and Ottoline had many love affairs, including a long one with the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Russell’s Autobiography should be on everybody’s short list of “must-read” biographies. Russell gives as honest and detailed an account of his own life as possible (what he did, what he felt, what he believed) and he also gives us a sense–general but satisfying–of what life was like for the upper crust in late Victorian and Edwardian England.
Those of you who know your Woolf know where this entry of Books Here And There is going. I cannot help thinking that, in telling Morrell to go on living, Woolf–so talented and so troubled–was telling herself to do the same. But in June of 1940, she was about a year away from taking her own life, thereby depriving all of us not only of her winsome presence but also the razor-sharp mind, extraordinary sensitivity, and bold imagination that lay behind her knowing, lovely eyes and patrician face. We will never see anyone with her command of our language again.