Virginia Woolf, who wrote some of the most crucial works of the 20th century, met poet Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Shortly after meeting, they began an intense love affair that would last nearly a decade and is preserved in a number of love letters. (And is due to be adapted to film later this year.)
During the affair, Virginia was married to Leonard Woolf. In an excerpt from her diary, she details a visit Vita paid her while Leonard was home in 1927:
“She was sitting on the floor in her red velvet jacket & red striped silk shirt, I knotting her pearls into heaps of great clustered eggs. She had come up to see me — so we go on — a spirited, creditable affair, I think, innocent (spiritually) & all gain, I think, rather a bore for Leonard, but not enough to worry him. The truth is one has room for a good many relationships.”
The affair lasted until 1928 or 1929, and the two remained friends for the rest of their lives. Woolf’s Orlando, in which a gender-rebelling aristocrat travels the world having sex with both men and women, is considered a love letter to Vita, in addition to all her actual love letters to Vita.
And these letters are gaaaaaaaaay. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, dated August 1930, Virginia wrote: “It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination.”
Here are the best, by which I mean gayest, excepts from the letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
1. In one of the earliest letter correspondences between the two, dated March 1923, Vita sends Virginia a letter address to “Mrs. Woolf,” to which Virginia replies:
“Dear Mrs. Nicholson,
(But I wish you could be induced to call me Virginia).”
Vita writes back:
“My dear Virginia,
(You see I don’t take much inducing. Could you be induced likewise, do you think?)”
Is this exchange unbearably erotic to anyone else? Just me?
2. In 1925, Virginia and Leonard were staying at Rodmell, their holiday home. Vita wrote to her there:
“If you ever feel inclined, let me come and carry you off from Rodmell… I can devise many places to take you to!”
This exchange of letters (over the course of two weeks in 1925) ends with Vita visiting Virginia, and although she does not carry her off, she does bring her flowers. Virginia’s reply:
“Oh you scandalous ruffian!”
3. Then, in December of 1925, Vita and Virginia’s sexual love affair began. Virginia came to stay with Vita at Long Barn, Vita and her husband Harold’s estate. Vita writes:
“My dear Virginia,
I have been doing something so odd, so queer — or rather, something which though perhaps neither odd nor queer in itself, has filled me with such odd and queer sensations, — that I must write to you; (The thing, by the way, was entirely connected with you, and wild horses won’t drag from me what is was.)
She signs it, for the first time, “Yours, Vita.”
4. In 1926, a year after the start of their affair, Vita left the country to travel — a trip neither of the two were happy about. In January, Vita writes:
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — but oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.”
5. In reply to that, Virginia writes:
“Your letter came this morning — But why do you think I don’t feel, or that I make phrases? “Lovely phrases” you say which rob things of reality. Just the opposite. Always, always, always I try to say what I feel. Will you then believe that after you went last Tuesday — exactly a week ago — out I went into the slums of Bloomsbury, to find a barrel organ. But it did not make me cheerful … And ever since, nothing important has happened — Somehow it’s dull and damp. I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass.”
6. A week later, Vita is in Cairo. She writes Virginia a letter that begins with an alphabetical list of things she saw in Egypt that I won’t recreate here because it’s very long (“Obsidian, Osiris, obelisks,” etc). Following the list, she writes:
“What else? I miss you horribly…
…The wish to steal Virginia overcomes me, — steal her, take her away, and put her in the sun among the objects mentioned alphabetically above. If I can get myself to Asia and Africa, why can’t you? (But with me, please.)”
“You are a crafty fox to write an alphabet letter.”
7. When Vita returns from her globe-hopping, the letters between her and Virginia are sparse. They were seeing each other in person quite often, but Vita also had started to see another woman, Dorothy Wellesley. Her affair with Dorothy didn’t last long and didn’t slow down the one between her and Virginia, though writing in June 1926 Virginia seems frustrated at the lack of letters:
“Not much news. Rather cross — Would like a letter. Would like a garden. Would like Vita.”
8. In 1927, Vita and Virginia’s romantic affair was coming to an end. Though the two still wrote about their love for each other (which they both describe as “unalterable, permanent”), Virginia discovered that Vita had been having an affair with another woman. Their letters from 1927 to 1929 are strained, sad, and even desperate. They also contain this iconic opening, from a letter Virginia sent in 1927:
“Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.”
9. The following letter is from August 1933, five or six years after their relationship ended, and it is salty. Vita uses “(That appears to be the suitable formula)”, referencing Virginia’s married name as well as mocking formal letter writing:
“Dear Mrs Woolf ,
(That appears to be the suitable formula.)
I regret that you have been in bed, though not with me — (a less suitable formula.)”
10. Their correspondence continues on, with letters surviving from as late as 1941. The last letter in the collection is from Virginia, dated March 22, six days before she committed suicide. Reading them now, those letters tinge the deep and complex relationship between these two women with the knowledge and sadness of what is to come.
But another exchange of letters, from late 1940 during the Blitz, better shows their sweetness and love and joy in each other. The Woolfs had lived in London, but their homes were destroyed, so their country house in Sussex became their permanent residence. Vita visited Virginia there three times from 1940 to 1941, and her visit in February would be the last time they saw one another. Vita had her own room at the Woolf house, which Virginia would keep and fill with flowers, anticipating Vita’s visit. In September 1940, Virginia writes:
“I’ve just stop talking to you. It seems so strange. Its perfectly peaceful here — they’re playing bowls — I’d just put flowers in your room. And there you sit with the bombs falling around you.
What can one say — except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting alone.
Dearest — let me have a line…
You have given me such happiness…”
“Oh dear, how your letter touched me this morning. I nearly dropped a tear into my poached egg. Your rare expressions of affection have always had the power to move me greatly, and I suppose one is a bit strung-up (mostly sub-consciously) they now come ping against my heart like a bullet dropping on the roof. I love you too; you know that.”