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December 15, 2017

Eliot and the Woolfs

On this day in 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend that "I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr. Eliots [sic] poem with my own hands -- you see how my hand trembles." Though referring to the typesetting of the first English edition of The Waste Land, Woolf's trembling was due to exhaustion rather than any presage of the moment's importance. The Woolfs' Hogarth Press was in its sixth year, and what had begun as an afternoon hobby -- therapy for Virginia's depression, and a vehicle for new writers like her -- had evolved to a full-time job, and a semi-commercial business. Not all the Hogarth books were handprinted by the Woolfs, but their writing time, like their home, was getting crowded: "we printed in the larder, bound books in the dining-room, interviewed printers, binders, and authors in a sitting-room." Looking back in his 1967 autobiography -- printed by Hogarth Press -- Leonard Woolf saw 1923 as the year he realized "that we were trying to do what is practically impossible." A decision was made not to abandon or sell, but to hire and expand. Virginia gradually reduced her involvement, selling her share in the business in 1938, but Leonard continued as business manager until 1946, when Hogarth Press became associated with Chatto & Windus, as it is today.

The Woolfs turned down the offer of Joyce's Ulysses in 1918, but they gave a voice to many contemporaries -- Katherine Mansfield, Clive Bell, C. Day Lewis, Robert Graves, E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, John Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville-West, and others. Many also became friends, including Eliot eventually, though this does not seem to have been a sure or easy thing, given that both Virginia and T. S. were thoroughbreds. Hogarth had published Eliot's Poems in 1919, but a diary entry by Virginia in April of that year, after a dinner with Eliot, indicates friendship to be still a step or two away: "I amused myself by seeing how sharp, narrow, & much of a stick Eliot has come to be, since he took to disliking me." Leonard Woolf dates "the beginning of real intimacy" with Eliot to the early 20s, and attributes this progress to their "loosening up the pomposity and priggishness which constricted [Eliot]. . . in an envelope of frozen formality." He specifically remembers the day when the three were walking in the fields around the Woolfs' house, and Leonard lagged behind to urinate:
    . . . when I caught them up again, I felt that Tom was uncomfortable, even shocked. I asked him whether he was and he said yes, and we then had what gradually became a perfectly frank conversation about conventions and formality. Tom said that he not only could not possibly have done what I did, but that he would never dream of shaving in the presence even of his wife.
Virginia Woolf's diary tells us that Eliot showed no such inhibition when he recited The Waste Land at her house after dinner (see Today in Literature article for Dec. 15). The poem itself, of course, is full of it; these lines are from Part II:
    'What shall I do now? What shall I do?
    I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
    With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
    What shall we ever do?'
    The hot water at ten.
    And if it rains, a closed car at four.
    And we shall play a game of chess,
    Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door....

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