restricted access Out of the Archive: Woolfian Domestic Economies
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Out of the Archive:
Woolfian Domestic Economies

15 February 1924

Hogarth House, Richmond

Mary!!!!!

The usual shortage of letter paper makes it necessary to use this professional sheet. Don’t you smell me? I am like a civet. Leonard detests me. I think myself too, too, too lovely. Yes: you’ve entirely altered my life, and given a new channel for vanity to flow in. As you may have guessed, that inexplicable and most detestable prudery which for 10 years led me to make sanitary towels out of Kapok down rather than buy them, has always prevented me from saying to a powdered shop girl “I too am a woman. … I want powder too.” Now you have removed an inhibition, ruined a home, intoxicated a heart, and made me for life your slave, suppliant, servant, debtor.

“I am like a civet”—an African mammal whose perineal glands are harvested for the strong-smelling musk they produce.1 So writes Virginia Woolf to Bloomsbury member Mary Hutchinson, while baiting her addressee to inhale her new odor from afar. The letter quickly moves from the attraction and repulsion the civet symbolizes, a binary extended to the Woolfs themselves—Leonard disgusted, Virginia self-admiring—to a frank admission of prudery. Without encouragement, Woolf has been too embarrassed to partake in the modern-day marketplace of femininity, one defined by store-bought sanitary towels and cosmetics.2 Exchanges social and financial liberate: according to Hermione Lee, Woolf felt incompetent at assessing trends in women’s fashion; her admiration for Hutchinson’s elegant taste, coupled with Hutchinson’s willingness to school her in postwar fashion, [End Page 141] allowed Woolf to consume new styles and toiletries with confidence.3 But ultimately, the social exchange obligates. Hutchinson’s hospitality turns Woolf into “slave, suppliant, servant, debtor” in perpetuity. A jesting tone presides over this letter, but a crucial combination of economies, encompassing the domestic, bodily, and social emerges here, one challenged by nods to abjection yet nevertheless driven by the terms of the marketplace. Scarcity prevails, whetting demand: at the outset of her letter, Woolf lacks paper; by its end, she lacks the resources to repay her social debt. Woolf acknowledges, then curtails, the freedom from economies that socializing promises; this self-same circumscribed promise recurs in her writings, autobiographical and fictional alike.

Fig 1. Virginia Woolf engagement diary, 1933.
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Fig 1.

Virginia Woolf engagement diary, 1933.

Originally, “economy” referred to the management and administration of resources within households; its meaning was extended to communities and other organized bodies, including the self. Sparingness, frugality, and saving are also implied. The Woolfs generated a robust domestic economy, one that encompassed not only the relentless monitoring of their home-based employment and expenditure, but also socializing and [End Page 142]

Fig 2. Virginia Woolf engagement diary, 1939.
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Fig 2.

Virginia Woolf engagement diary, 1939.

their health. These economies are foregrounded in Leonard’s and Virginia’s engagement or pocket diaries, which tersely and provocatively tabulate the intermingling and maintenance of work, friendships, and selves. Leonard’s diaries were archived at the University of Sussex in 1973 and include one 1898 volume and desk or engagement diaries for every year from 1910 until his death in 1969. Virginia’s longhand diaries have been in print since the late seventies, but her pocket diaries entered the public domain for the first time in 2013, when they were purchased by the University of Sussex’s Special Collections.4 The years 1930, 1933, 1935–37, and 1939–41 are preserved. When she edited The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Anne Olivier Bell had recourse to the pocket diaries, but they continue to offer information unavailable within that well-plumbed, five-volume publication. Some of this information falls under the category of sheer haptic pleasure: the 1933 diary is one of two that houses its original pencil, and its elastic closure is stretched to uselessness; stamped “L. W.,” it is likely a Leonard cast-off (fig. 1).5 Stylistic information emerges also: Virginia customized three diaries, [End Page 143] gluing overlays of roughly cut morocco leather to the original covers in 1937 and 1940 and adding a green binding to her...


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