Virginia Woolf's Tips for Telling Loved Ones to Keep Their Day Jobs
Newly-published letter gently critiques her nephew's poetry
People who write things for a living are sometimes asked by the people they love to read their writing and tell them whether they should write things for a living too. And sometimes, the answer is "Well..." Virginia Woolf had this experience, and handled it quite well. In a letter released for the first time ever at The Paris Review, Woolf gently suggests to her favorite nephew, Julian Bell, that his poetry needs a bit of work.
The letter, written in 1929, reads,
Monday. My dear Julian. I like the poem very much. It still wants CURRENCY I think. When did you write it? It shall be the cornerstone of my new library at Rodmell. But this is to say--please be here 7:30 sharp tomorrow (Friday) as we want you to drive Rachel & us to a restaurant.
But Woolf wasn't always so gentle, Sarah Funke Butler explains.
Woolf's blunt criticism of Julian's poem, her dig that it might be mere youthful experiment, the leavening (yet peremptory) dollop of praise, and the call to chores all typify the complexity of their relationship. The following year, after Julian's first book of poems came out, Virginia declared, "He is no poet." She once described her relationship to him as "half sister, half mother, and half (but arithmetic denies this) the mocking stirring contemporary friend."
Check out Woolf's letter in her handwriting here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.