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Letters to Virginia Woolf

ISBN 076183205X

By Lisa Williams
Review by: Jeanne Dubino


Lisa Williams’s slender Letters to Virginia Woolf falls into several categories: as a series of letters about herself, Letters is an autobiography; and as a group of letters addressed to Woolf and her influence on Williams’s own life and outlook, Letters is an epistolary essay. As a book occasioned by 9/11, Letters additionally belongs to what one might call the literature of disaster, specifically the literature inspired by 9/11, including Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Like Williams’s Letters, McEwan’s Saturday also shows us how Woolf is an appropriate writer to turn to in a post-, and pre-, disaster world. Another example is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, whose vision of life in a community recently ravaged by HIV/AIDS is more directly influenced by Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Indeed, Mrs. Dalloway, written within five years of the Great War, is a precursor for McEwan and Williams as well.

Alluding to Mrs. Dalloway along the way—to one of its chief characters, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith; to its several reflections of when the city was either pre-historic, in the case of Mrs. Dalloway, or agricultural, in the case of the Letters; to its imagery, particularly that of trees—Letters takes us into the journey of Williams’s life, from adolescence to the birth of her son Max. Starting with the traumatized reaction of Williams’s husband Jeff to the September 11 attacks, the six sections of Letters move into her own painful memories of two miscarriages and the invasive treatments she underwent in order to get pregnant; further back into the past to two awkward, unpleasant initiations into adolescent sexuality; and into her parents’ divorce, mother’s remarriage to a man who preferred to have his stepdaughter stay out of his sight, and father’s death. From these unpropitious beginnings and setbacks, however, Williams went on to marry successfully, to conceive and bear a healthy child, and to remain close to her mother (to whom she dedicates her book). Letters is ultimately a book about recovery and regeneration from pain, both personal and public.

Framing Williams’s life story is public conflict: the Vietnam War of her adolescence and the fear of war (Letters ends a year after 9/11, as the war in Iraq was brewing, though Williams makes no mention of the latter). Several times Williams, appropriately enough, quotes Woolf’s famous line, written in response to the impinging WWII, “’As a woman my whole country is the whole world’” (Williams 8). But where Woolf seeks, in her famous essay Three Guineas, to disavow her own national allegiances, and to understand the root causes of war and the relation of the uneducated daughters of the middle class to these causes, Williams tends not to question the standard response, but rather to echo it: “It was as if the very structure of the cosmos had been altered” (7), she writes with no irony. For Williams, the US is the whole world. Her failure to understand her own position as a white, privileged North American woman is manifested in other ways too, such as her labeling, however sympathetically, of others’ ethnic and racial make-ups, but not her own (for example, of a “young black girl” who is getting an abortion [16], or of a “beautiful Chinese woman” whom she consults in an effort to get pregnant [20]). Only white, middle-class people are unmarked, and nowhere does she refer to the people who inhabit the world outside of US boundaries (or even outside of New York City, for that matter).

Nevertheless, for all its focus on fairly narrow scope of society, Williams demonstrates the same courage that Woolf did in writing about her painful past. Her writing is at times eloquent; Williams’s readers may be tempted to write a letter to her and tell her that, like Woolf, “You dipped your pen deep into the past to write of all that loss, and the silent abuse of the heart” (73).

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