Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey

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Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey were writers, lifelong friends and members of the Bloomsbury Group.

The two met sometime around 1904 when Virginia and her siblings moved into a new house in the Bloomsbury District of London.

Virginia’s older brother, Thoby, began inviting his Trinity college friends, including Lytton Stratchey, to the house for parties and the group of friends soon became known as the Bloomsbury Group.

Lytton Strachey’s Marriage Proposal to Virginia Woolf:

Although Strachey was homosexual, he wanted to be married, possibly to avoid being identified as gay or to increase his social status, and he thought Virginia, with her intelligence and beauty, would make more than a suitable bride for him.

On February 17, 1909 Strachey officially proposed to Virginia, yet as soon as the words left his mouth he immediately regretted his decision. He later described the moment in a letter to his friend Leonard Woolf a few days after the event:

“The day before yesterday I proposed to Virginia. As I did it, I saw that it would be death if she accepted me, and I managed, of course, to get out of it before the end of the conversation. The worst of it was that as the conversations went on, it became more and more obvious that the whole thing was impossible. The lack of understanding was so terrific! And how can a virgin be expected to understand? You see she is her name. If I were either greater or less I could have done it and I could either have dominated and soared and at last made her completely mine, or I could have been contented to go without everything that makes life important. Voilà! It was, as you may imagine, an amazing conversation. Her sense was absolute, and at times her supremacy was so great that I quavered.”

Strachey, in fact, did not get out of it by the end of conversation and instead waited until the next day to retract the proposal. Virginia was surprisingly understanding and politely agreed to break off the engagement. Strachey wrote about the failed proposal again the following month in a letter to his brother James:

“In my efforts to escape, I had a decided reverse the other day. I haven’t mentioned the incident before for various reasons. On Feb. 19 I proposed to Virginia, and was accepted. It was an awkward moment, as you may imagine, especially as I realised, the very minute it was happening, that the whole thing was repulsive to me. Her sense was amazing, and luckily it turned out that she’s not in love. The result was that I was able to manage a fairly honorable retreat. The story is really rather amusing and singular, but its effect has been to drive me onto those shoals more furiously than ever! I need hardly mention the immense secrecy of the affair.”

Perhaps out of guilt or a need to remedy the situation, Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf, who was working as a civil servant in Ceylon, after he retracted his proposal and urged him to marry Virginia instead.

Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf at Garsington Manor in 1923

Leonard was intrigued by the idea but nothing ever came of it until a few years later when he finally returned to London and the two began dating. Virginia and Leonard Woolf later married in 1912.

Despite the failed proposal, Strachey and Virginia Woolf remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Strachey even dedicated his first book, Queen Victoria, to Virginia in 1921.

Strachey never did marry but he had numerous homosexual and a few heterosexual affairs with other Bloomsbury group members throughout his life.

Virginia Woolf Was Jealous of Lytton Strachey’s Success:

When Lytton Strachey published his book, Eminent Victorians, in June of 1918, it quickly became a huge success, which left his close friend, Virginia Woolf, feeling a little envious.

According to Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia, her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, suspected Virginia’s jealousy and teased her about it:

“Eminent Victorians appeared in June. Lytton’s friends were in some ways disappointed. It was – of course – brilliant. It had always been taken for granted that Lytton would achieve brilliance. But was it quite worthy of him? Vanessa and Virginia thought not. Clive was more enthusiastic; he also declared that Virginia was jealous – absurdly and disgracefully jealous – of Lytton’s success. If she was, she didn’t tell her diary, but probably she did feel a pang. Inevitably when a friend, one’s obvious rival in the literary game, with whom one has, so to speak, run neck and neck for years, all at once draws ahead – even though it only be in public estimation, so that people say ‘Do you really know Lytton Strachey?’ rather than ‘Are you the Virginia Woolf?’ – a superhuman degree of detachment and a quite exceptional degree of moral superiority – qualities no-one could possibly claim for Virginia – are required if the distanced runner is to remain calm. And Clive, it must be said, would have not hesitated to rub salt into the wound. He still enjoyed teasing Virginia and relations between them were strained that autumn, so much so that there was, as we shall see, a rather violent break.”

Although Virginia refused to say so at the time, a few months later in January, she finally admitted in her diary to feeling a little jealous about Lytton’s success, but then wrote it off as boredom in his subject matter:

“Let me try an account for the fact that he [Lytton] has ‘dominated,’ (why, even the word is his) a generation at Cambridge, & make it square with my disparaging remarks. How did he do it, how is he so distinct & unmistakable if he lacks originality & the rest? Is there any reputable escape from this impasse in saying that he is a great deal better than his book? Am I jealous? Do I compare the 6 editions of of Eminent Victorians with the one of The Voyage Out? Perhaps there’s a hint of jealousy; but, if I underrate, I think the main cause is that while I admire, enjoy up to a point & up to a point agree, I’m not interested in what he writes. Thomas Hardy has what I call an interesting mind; so have Conrad & Hudson; but not Lytton nor Matthew Arnold nor John Addlington Symonds.”

Six months later, in June, she mentions it again after she detects some jealousy from Lytton concerning a letter she received from an American publisher:

“Gratuitously, too, I had a letter from Macmillan in New York, so much impressed by The Voyage Out that they want to read Night & Day. I think the nerve of pleasure easily becomes numb. I like little sips; but the psychology of fame is worth considering at leisure. I fancy one’s friends take the bloom off. Lytton lunched here on Saturday with the Webbs, & when I told him my various triumphs, did I imagine a little shade – instantly dispelled, but not before my rosy fruit was out of the sun. Well, I treated his triumphs in much the same way. I can’t feel gratified when he expatiates upon a copy of Eminent Victorians lined and initialed “M” or “H” by Mr & Mrs Asquith.”

It’s inevitable that a group of friends who are competing in the same field would feel a little jealous of each other’s success. This is also complicated by the fact that Virginia had a highly competitive nature and as a female writer, felt she had something to prove.

Although she considered herself superior to the other members of the Bloomsbury group, Lytton was one of the only people she felt could compete with her, which made his success sting that much more.

Despite the rivalries in the Bloomsbury group, the members had a common bond: a shared outlook on life that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to Gwen Raverat in 1925, “keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this.”

Sources:
The Guardian; Great Dynasties of the World: The Bloomsbury Group; Ian Sansom; September 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/10/great-dynasties-bloomsbury-group-ian-sansom
“Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Volumes 1-2”; Quentin Bell; 1974
“Virginia Woolf Diary, Volume I”; Virginia Woolf
Jays, David. “Confessions of a Bohemian.” The Guardian, 19 March. 2005, guardian.co.uk/books/2005/mar/20/biography.features
Levy, Paul. “Bloomsbury’s Final Secret.” The Telegraph, 14 March. 2005, telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3638752/Bloomsburys-final-secret.html
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Harcourt, 1972
Poore, Charles. “Books of the Times.” New York Times, 29 Dec. 1956, nytimes.com/books/00/12/17/specials/woolf-strachey.html

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