The Virginia Woolf letters
A unique collection from the special archives of Virginia Woolf’s official bibliographer.
The Special Collections library has acquired a unique collection of handwritten letters from Virginia Woolf’s friends and family, detailing the life and work of this famous Bloomsbury Group author. The collection also contains the first book published by Woolf with Hogarth Press, over 73 letters from her husband, Leonard Woolf, and two previously unseen photos of this illustrious author.
The collection of letters was accumulated by Brownlee Jean Kirkpatrick, who worked as Virginia Woolf’s official bibliographer. For over twenty years, Kirkpatrick corresponded with family and friends of Woolf, gaining new insights into her life and work.
The letters offer a wealth of information about Virginia Woolf the writer and also fascinating glimpses into Virginia Woolf the woman.
Professor Susan Sellers, School of English
When Kirkpatrick passed away in 2007, this collection went on auction. Thanks to the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Friends of the National Libraries, the University of St Andrews Special Collections was able to bid for the Woolf letters collection and acquired it in March 2015.
Special Collections, in partnership with the School of English, has been building a collection of early works by Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press. Kirkpatrick’s collection adds tremendous value to this developing collection by providing additional information and new perspectives on the publishing house which produced so many Bloomsbury Group works.
The new acquisition contains hundreds of letters of correspondence between Kirkpatrick and Woolf’s closest friends and family. Also among the collection are two previously unseen photographs of Virginia Woolf and two first-edition, hand-printed books from Hogarth Press — the publishing house founded by Virginia and Leonard.
The developing Hogarth Press collection at the University includes: first editions of Two Stories (1917), “Kew Gardens” (1919), Monday or Tuesday (1921) by Virginia and Leonard Woolf with woodcuts by Vanessa Bell; first American editions of some of Woolf’s works, published by Harcourt Brace and Company with their original dust-jackets designed by Vanessa Bell.
In 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf purchased a hand press which they set up in their dining room in Hogarth House, Richmond. Hogarth Press was born.
From the age of nineteen, Virginia had some experience with book binding, but both she and Leonard were rejected from the St Bride Printing School because they were not trade union apprentices. Undaunted, the Woolfs bought their own printing machine, type and cases along with a 16-page pamphlet which would serve as their only formal instruction on printing.
Leonard hoped that the printing press would serve as a therapeutic distraction for Virginia from the stresses of her writing. However, in a letter to her sister, Virginia wrote that ‘real printing will devour one’s entire life.’ Rather than providing a distraction, the press reshaped Virginia’s writing.
…printing at the Hogarth Press marks the beginning of a new direction in Woolf’s writing, one that playfully experimented with form and composition.
Jessica Svendsen, Yale University
For the Woolfs, one of the main reasons for starting Hogarth Press was to publish small works that would have been overlooked by established printing companies. Virginia and Leonard also used the press to publish their own works free from editorial censorship; this was particularly important for Virginia as a female writer to be able to publish without the criticism of a male editor.
In the first 30 years, Hogarth Press published over 525 books. Most of the Hogarth authors were part of the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of artists, writers and intellectuals who studied and worked together near Bloomsbury, London, during the early 20th century. These artists included Clive Bell, TS Eliot, EM Forster, Roger Fry, Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackville-West among others. Perhaps one of the most notable of Hogarth Press’s publications is TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Today, Hogarth Press is an imprint of Random House.
The collection is open to students, researchers and the general public. It is kept by Special Collections in a controlled environment for safekeeping, but is accessible in the Reading Room of the Martyr’s Kirk Research Library in St Andrews. Requests to view the collection must be made in advance.
Woolf’s official bibliographer
Kirkpatrick began her research into Virginia Woolf when many of Woolf’s closest friends and family were still alive. After two decades of research and correspondence, Kirkpatrick was able to accumulate hundreds of letters from the influential figures in Woolf’s life, including Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.
Kirkpatrick’s role as official bibliographer became a comfort to Leonard Woolf who brought her into contact with many of the surviving members of the Bloomsbury Group (which included John Lehmann, George Rylands, and Harold and Nigel Nicolson, among many others). Leonard also recommended Kirkpatrick as Woolf’s official bibliographer to the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, who published Kirkpatrick’s Bibliography of Virginia Woolf in 1957.
Among the greatest treasures of Kirkpatrick’s collection are two previously unseen photographs of Virginia Woolf, which Leonard gave to Kirkpatrick as a possible frontispiece for her work.
Brownlee Jean Kirkpatrick
Brownlee Jean Kirkpatrick (1919–2007) started her career as an assistant librarian to the Royal Anthropological Institute where she used her incredible skills to expand the library. Her achievements include launching the Anthropological Index, developing exchange agreements with overseas institutions, and acquiring the library of anthropologist Sir Richard Burton. Among her many accomplishments, Brownlee was also the bibliographer of Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Edmund Blunden and Katherine Mansfield.
Virginia Woolf at St Andrews
The School of English at St Andrews is endowed with a number of distinguished Woolf scholars who have produced a divers range of research and writings on this modernist author.
Professor Susan Sellers is co-editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf’s writing. In 2008, she published Vanessa and Virginia, a fictional biography about Virginia Woolf’s close, but troubled, relationship with her sister—the artist Vanessa Bell.
Dr Emma Sutton is currently developing research into the relationship between Virginia Woolf and music by curating a series of concerts and talks involving the music Woolf listened to as well as gathering new commissions by contemporary composers inspired by Virginia Woolf’s writing. She has also started a book on Leonard Woolf.
Dr Christina Alt is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature in which she examines Virginia Woolf’s engagement with natural history tradition and the emergence of modern biology.
Though newly acquired by the University, the collection already promises to add a wealth of information about the life and work of Virginia Woolf.
[The collection] is already helping us understand the way Virginia Woolf’s posthumous reputation has been recorded and manufactured.
Professor Susan Sellers
Special Collections is making plans to bring this illustrious collection to the 26th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, hosted by Leeds Trinity University. The conference will focus on how Woolf engaged with and represented heritage, but will also consider how Woolf has been represented through collections. The Kirkpatrick collection will no doubt serve as an excellent example of some of the ways Virginia Woolf has been depicted and represented.