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Cover of Leonard Woolf's 'Stories of the East'

March 23, 1917
Virginia Woolf   (1882 - 1941)
The Woolfs and the Press
by Steve King

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On this day in 1917 Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased a small, used handpress; a month later, it was delivered to Hogarth House, their West London home, and the Hogarth Press was born. Over the next three decades the Woolfs would publish 525 titles, many of them by other influential modernists -- Mansfield, Forster, Eliot -- and most of them collector's items today. Though the total output is not large, and the books are not ranked among the best products of the small presses -- near the level, say, of William Morris's Kelmscott Press -- the story of the Hogarth Press offers an interesting glimpse into the Woolfs and their times.

In 1917 Virginia Woolf was not long out of a third mental breakdown, this one prolonged and severe, and Leonard thought that book publishing might be a therapeutic hobby. This proved true, but Leonard had a restless, project-aholic personality of his own (and such a permanent tremble in his hands that Virginia had to set all the type). In the first two years of the Hogarth Press, Leonard completed several books, edited a political journal, wrote freelance journalism, led an international effort to develop the League of Nations, lobbied prominently for a handful of political causes, and began two decades of work as secretary to a Labour Party committee on world politics. Having already published two novels, he also continued to dabble with fiction: after two months of "our rather eccentric and amusing printing antics", the first publication of the Hogarth Press was Two Stories, being Leonard's "Three Jews" and his wife's "The Mark on the Wall". Leonard kept his sort of industry up for the next half-century, though comments from his fifth and last volume of autobiography, published the year he died, show that Virginia was not likely the only one to struggle with "the glooms": "The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda."

One of Leonard's most interesting editorial decisions, given Virginia's mental problems, was to publish translations of writing by Sigmund Freud and others of his school, bringing psychoanalytic theory to English readers for the first time. Beyond enjoying his relationship with Freud -- "Nearly all famous men are disappointing or bores, or both. Freud was neither...." -- Woolf must have taken a personal interest in the theories. He not only nursed and safeguarded his wife but studied her problems with "the greatest intensity", recording his observations in detail, often coded in Tamil and Sinhalese, languages he had learned during early years in the Foreign Service. Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by replacing the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors with psychoanalysis. Some go so much further as to come full circle: Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf (Irene Coates, 2000) lumps Virginia's husband with her autocratic father and her sexually abusive stepbrothers -- men who, in biographer Louise DeSalvo's words, used their "neediness and predatoriness" to destroy her.

Virginia Woolf did not think much of her doctors and treatments. In July, 1910, after pounds of food and days of bed-rest, she wrote to her sister, "I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if its ripe; it will be exquisite by September". But she did not seem to think Freud much good either, or as good for her and her writing as her own "autoanalysis." In a 1920 essay on "Freudian Fiction" she mocks both "the new psychology" and the new tendency to turn "characters into cases" and life into happily-ever-after:
    A patient who has never heard a canary sing without falling down in a fit can now walk through an avenue of cages without a twinge of emotion since he has faced the fact that his mother kissed him in his cradle. The triumphs of science are beautifully positive.
Whatever its therapeutic or historic value, the Hogarth Press allowed Virginia Woolf to experiment with her kind of writing. It also saved her from the loathsome prospect of having to take another book to Duckworth Publishing, run by the stepbrothers who sexually abused her.

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Related authors:  Aphra Behn, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, Edward Albee, Ephelia, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, Radclyffe Hall, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West
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