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Unique collection of Virginia Woolf letters acquired by St Andrews

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Dozens of letters from Virginia Woolf’s friends and family, detailing her life and work, have been acquired by the University of St Andrews.

The archive of typed and handwritten letters includes two previously unseen photographs of the writer among the treasures collected by biographer Brownlee Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick consulted and gained the confidence of Leonard Woolf who subsequently recommended her to the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis as Virginia Woolf’s official bibliographer in 1951.

The most important section of the archive is contained in Leonard Woolf’s letters and in his two previously unseen photographs of Virginia Woolf (pictured), which were given to Kirkpatrick as a possible frontispiece for her work.

Leonard Woolf’s letters are wide-ranging and revealing, full of reminiscences about his late wife and their collaborations, including the Hogarth Press, which the couple began during the early years of their marriage and on which they published Virginia’s novels, T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece ‘The Wasteland’, Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Devils’ (which was partly translated by Virginia), and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.

A brief interlude in one of the letters to the editor of Virginia’s diaries, Olivier Bell, makes clear the impact Leonard Woolf had on Kirkpatrick’s bibliographical project: “It could not have been done without Mr Woolf’s unstinting help which was given in so many ways. I did enjoy my visits to Monk’s House, and returned to London with arms full of flowers, and in the summer with strawberries.” ‌

For some time the Special Collections unit of the University of St Andrews has been working in partnership with staff in the School of English to develop a Virginia Woolf and Hogarth Press research collection. The University’s archive material is made accessible to both academic and public audiences in a dedicated Special Collections Reading Room.

Professor of English at St Andrews, Susan Sellers, is general editor of Virginia Woolf’s writings for Cambridge University Press, alongside Dr Jane Goldman from the University of Glasgow. Professor Sellers has written an award-winning novel Vanessa and Virginia about the close and sometimes fraught relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell.

Professor Sellers said: “The value of this acquisition cannot be overstated. This archive provides a wealth of information not only about Virginia Woolf the writer, but also offers fascinating glimpses into Virginia Woolf the woman through the letters of the people who were close to her.

“Various members of the so-called Bloomsbury circle are here, and it is fascinating to see history in the making as Virginia Woolf’s posthumous reputation begins to be recorded and manufactured. This archive will put St Andrews even more firmly on the map as a world-ranking centre for the study of literary modernism in general and Virginia Woolf as one of its great proponents in particular.”

During the earliest phase of research when Kirkpatrick began her bibliography, many of those closest to Virginia Woolf were still alive including her sister Vanessa Bell, her close friend Vita Sackville West and husband Leonard Woolf.

All are well represented in this archive – Leonard most extensively in his 73 letters to Kirkpatrick which span two decades. The collection reveals how Kirkpatrick’s role as official bibliographer became a comfort to Leonard Woolf and brought her into contact with most of the surviving members of the Bloomsbury movement, including Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville West, Harold and Nigel Nicolson, Quentin and Olivier Bell, John Lehmann, George Rylands and many others who are present in the collection.

St Andrews has significant holdings of literary manuscripts, which are used for teaching and research. Alongside Woolf specialists Professor Susan Sellers, Dr Emma Sutton and Dr Christina Alt in St Andrews there are also dedicated Woolf scholars at Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, Stirling, Aberdeen and Strathclyde Universities, who will all be able to access the material.  It will also, crucially, be open to the increasing number of young researchers and students interested in learning more about the life and work of one of the twentieth-century’s literary geniuses.

The archive was acquired through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Friends of the National Libraries. The acquisition has greatly enhanced the University’s strong holdings of literary manuscripts, which are made accessible for teaching and research at all levels.


Notes to news editors

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467227/2530 or proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.

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