When I had read in biographies about the centrality of Violet Dickinson’s friendship in Woolf’s girlhood, I turned away without much interest. There is no fictionalized Violet in Woolf’s writings—no one character we can point to and say, “the original of this character is Violet.” Woolf’s intense attraction to her, her fond, affectionate, and loving letters suggest to some critics (and to this reader) Woolf’s nascent lesbianism, perhaps still at this point unconscious to Woolf, perhaps not. But I hear grief much more loudly.
Reading the first volume of Woolf’s collected letters is to be struck with the overwhelming importance of Violet Dickinson. The first 42 letters are only spottily saved: the very first one, from 1888, is to James Russell Lowell, and was, as her father notes “this is a spontaneous production of Miss Stephen [then age 6], on seeing a picture of the Adirondacks and hearing that you had been there”:
“MY DEAR GODPAPER HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ADIRONDACKS AND HAVE YOU SEEN LOTS OF WILD BEASTS AND A LOT OF BIRDS IN THEIR NESTS YOU ARE A NAUGHTY MAN NOT TO COME HERE GOOD BYE
The next forty-one letters perk along without much incident. Then, suddenly, it’s 1903 and Woolf is a young woman and Leslie Stephen, her father, aged 70, is dying of abdominal cancer. As the editors note, the vast majority of the saved letters, 42-164, written during Leslie Stephen’s long, slow decline, are to Violet. It’s rough reading. I raced through them and then slept fitfully.
I read letter after letter apologizing for being worried or preoccupied; begging for a crumb of news or a visit; thanking for the last visit; reporting that Violet’s idea that Woolf talk to the nurse and get to know her was working out, lessening the boredom and fret.
Cancer is still cancer. Slow deaths are still excruciating. As Woolf herself writes in one letter, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it.
So, when Woolf writes that she wishes Violet were a kangaroo into whose pouch she could climb, I guess I hear grief, loneliness, and a longing for motherly comforts as much as I hear incipient sapphism. I wouldn’t put it quite that way, I wouldn’t find the kangaroo metaphor—few of us would—but then, few among us have had that degree of grief to bear, motherless, trapped in a Victorian home, entertaining the relatives and admirers of an elderly father whilst one’s brothers are at Cambridge and one’s sister has a couple art classes a week with John Singer Sargent. Woolf’s only relief were Greek lessons with Janet Case and, later, Clara Pater, and these were in her house. The claustrophobia is palpable. And it’s not as if Greek literature is full of cheer and celebration. And all among us who have grieved over a beloved’s slow decline know what it is to want to curl up somewhere safe and dark and hide until it’s all over and healed.