Leonard Woolf's earlier years coincided with the last great age of letter-writing. Moreover his friends were people who had what may now seem an unusually pressing need to keep in touch with one another, even when not very far apart, and this need was well served by the Post Office, which, before 1914, gave London eight deliveries of mail each day. Woolf himself had a long spell as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, and finding there very little society he was willing to describe as congenial, he sought consolation by correspondence with his Cambridge friends, especially Lytton Strachey. Later on, he wrote a multitude of letters as editor, publisher and politician. So it is not remarkable that in the course of his life he wrote thousands of them. We still do that, even nowadays, in an age of reduced epistolary incentives, but fewer thousands and more trivial letters. What makes him different is that he wrote so many of substance and on such a variety of occasions and topics. And the interest of their contents, as well as the palpable authority of the writer, and the fact that most of the addressees were letter-keepers, ensured that many thousands were preserved.
LRB 19 April 1990 | PDF Download