(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)




Epistolarity and Object Relations


Pierre-Eric Villeneuve (Brock University, Canada)


Many were the summers we had spent in St-Ives, was it not reasonable to believe that as far away we cherished the memory of them, so here on the spot where we left them we should be able to recover something tangible of their substance? (PA 281)

With regard to contemporary theories of object relations, and their emphasis on the arbitrary relationship between linguistic agency and the body, Virginia Woolf raises a number of pertinent questions. When the argument of a phenomenology of "things" is raised in relation to her craft, the paradoxes interwoven, her masterful dislocations of referential speech acts in her experimental novels, The Waves (1931) The Years (1937) or Between the Acts (1941), to name a few examples, immediately come to mind. Certainly, her destabilization of gender oppositions, and her critical response to the imperialism of the linguistic pronoun categories "He" and "She," as observed in Orlando (1928) is noteworthy. However, no writing practice conveys the complexities of the relation between subjects and objects more clearly to me than her artistic epistolary form, its ability to explore the figure of the mirror and the stage, in the semiotic relations binding the letter writer and her multiple addressees. Woolf's letters represent a reservoir of infinite experimentation in the daily fluctuations of her identities, as they are part of the system of things conditioning her private and public realities. Indeed, the epistolary practice has also its own place in the scope of Woolf's autobiographical practices. In the elaboration of a Woolfian epistolary aesthetic, one should consider, for instance, that Woolf's reaffirmation of her famous ideal of transparency is not very different from her convictions with regard to writing in all genres. How telling is her judgement, when she claims to Violet Dickinson, in a letter dated 16th December 1906: "A letter should be flawless as a gem, continuous as an eggshell, and lucid as a glass" (L I, no 323: 264).





The Specular Letter

 Arguing from this point of departure, it is through this particular inflection ("lucid as a glass") that Woolf's letter-writing practice invests the modalities of "l'aveu de soi." Further, my hypothesis concerns the central question of epistolarity, in terms of the narrative function of the letter, as linked to the specular shifts of the subject displayed through the agency of affect that constitutes the point of departure of every letter. The agency of affect plays an important role in the various forms of speech with the addressees (the object) and invests the registers of life and death (in the representation of ecstasy and loss) at the core of the letter-form dynamic. Epistolarity modes map out a privileged setting for catharsis and mimesis in the appropriation and transfer which take place between the letter-writer and the addressee. I believe that it is precisely this theoretical relationship between the enunciatory subject, and its displacement via multiple spaces of identification throughout in space and time, that interests Woolf as she writes her various selves in her letters.

To outline my understanding of the specular relations performed in the letters, it should prove relevant to briefly recall two different epistemic traditions in the apprehension of the relation between the act of artistic creation and the body. First of all, Julia Kristeva's investigation in the specular which helps to define what I will refer to as the epistolary projection (the letter as mirror). In an essay situated at the junction of her shift from formalism and phenomenology to psychoanalysis: "Ellipse sur la frayeur ou la séduction spéculaire," Kristeva sets up, through cinematographic language, an analysis that theorises the performativity of object relations. Her definition of specularity implies that the addressee (in this case the viewer) becomes, through artistic production, a place of fantasy. In the particular case of the letter-form, the subject of the letter is represented as a screen "par l'organisation minutieuse de l'espace textuel," close to approaching "le frayage pré-symbolique, dans la marque de l'agressivité, par le rythme de l'espace et de la couleur" (377). Because it is at the core of these free fantasies, it is "dans cet excédent que l'attitude du sujet vis-à-vis de l'objet s'inscrit" (377). The letter therefore offers an ultimate moment of identification or expulsion of the constructed and imaginary addressee. In this case I very much share Roger Duchêne's definition of the "pacte épistolaire" as expressed in his study of Proust. Roger Duchêne suggests that Proust:

dans ses lettres au contraire, s'il peut évidemment inventer et mentir, c'est sous le regard de correspondants auxquels il doit donner de lui-même une image suffisamment ressemblante pour qu'il puisse la tenir pour





véridique ; faute de quoi, il détruirait le fondement même de la relation épistolaire suivie, qui repose sur la communication et l'échange entre des êtres qui, se connaissant, doivent se reconnaître. (776)

The other possible episteme which I will refer to is exemplified by Michel Foucault's examination of the specular in his analysis of Velasquez's Las Meninas. In this light, the letter is thus conceived of as canvas which reveals the paradoxes and responsibilities of the act of self-portraiture. As Foucault reminds us, "ce n'est pas un tableau, c'est un miroir." If, according to Foucault, Velasquez's canvas constitutes a pure representation in time and space, it is precisely because the relationship between subject and objet is always a production of discursive agencies (he later uses the term "technologies" to corroborate that very process). Foucault shows the extent to which the specular identification results from the production of reading related to performative appropriation of the object by the subject: "entre la fine pointe du pinceau et l'activité du regard le spectacle va libérer son volume" (24). Similarly, it is possible to analyse Woolfian specular identification, through her constant depiction of the letter-writer as a figure within her own letters. This results in both a resistance and an unmasking of the self, which are both central to her investigation in self-writing.

The Woolfian letter lays the groundwork for the specular relation by insisting, a long time before Foucault, that it is itself always a representation. In her essay The Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Woolf recognises this quality of the modern letter, by emphasizing the fact that Carlyle broke off a long-standing tradition. "It is noteworthy," Woolf writes, "that she has not taken advantage of the usual method of self-portraiture that recommends itself to letter-writers" (E I: 54). Also before Kristeva and Foucault, Woolf foresees in the specular that "l'image doit sortir du cadre," which then disrupts the referential boundary (24), objectified by the "image of oneself upon paper" as Woolf's puts it. Furthermore, by playing with the boundaries of the specular image, precisely the dissipation of the body suggested by the enunciative "I," which re-enunciates itself from one epistolary situation to the other, Woolf invests in an exploration of the sign in autobiography in general.

Virginia Woolf, the letter-writer, just like the novelist, easily detaches her various bodies from their locations of reference. In the letters, the multiple portraits and self-portraits are often generated by images that the fantasy of the addressee inscribes in the narration, that is, in the scenic dialogue established between the "I" and the "you." These portraits, or self-portraits, are, in themselves, a part of Woolf's epistolary modalities, and reinforce the circulation of signs, with respect to the representation sought





for within the letter, always in response to a particular context—notoriously, Vita Sackville will motivate a different subjective position than will Ethel Smyth, or Vanessa Bell, or say, Gerald Brenan. It is unsurprising that two similar letters explore this moment of "literary truth," in a very singular way and that this singularity of the epistolary speech is produced by "l'emplacement du miroir où le regard se pose" (Foucault, 23-24). It is the act of reading that stimulates a loss of the self through the multiple breaks in the writing process. These are moments of disruption in which Woolf, the letter-writer (and reader of her own letters) often reiterates the specular moment to her addressees, to Vanessa Bell, for instance, that "all this is nonsense" or that "this letter is rather incoherent" (L II, no 951: 260). Woolf enhances this self-representation and its relation to the reading performance of the letter.

 "The dissolute figure beneath the umbrella"

To illustrate my point, I will examine one example chosen among Woolf's massive correspondence. I will investigate what I previously referred to as the "Cornwall Letters" in my previous work, a category that helped me shape what constitutes Woolf's ongoing objectification of her own life. The letters sent from Cornwall produce a series of effects in her autobiographical genres. In many respects, these letters parallel the ways by which she poeticised her endless fascination with borders, lands and civilisations. Cornwall is indeed a spectacle, an object of conflicting drives in Woolf's imagination, and the memory of the body as historicised by the writing subject. It is reminiscent of Stendhal's Italy, as recalled by Roland Barthes in his last essay "On échoue toujours à parler de ce qu'on aime" in which he argues that the subject operates a transference onto the place and its detailed manifestations. He says: "Les signes d'une vraie passion sont toujours un peu incongrus, tant les objets en quoi se monnaye le transfert principal deviennent ténus, futiles, inattendus" (Barthes, bruissement 354). The textual Cornwall and its avatars is a transitional space. It is here where objects enclose a past that often resurfaces, thus offering the writing subject various ways of concealing or revealing the self. It operates wonderfully, as we know, in the fictional works—I am thinking for instance of the sequences involving Minta's lost brooch in To the Lighthouse, or more appropriately, of the fiction of the letters acting as a system of objects in Jacob's Room. It also functions in similar ways in the letters in which books (with Smyth), jewellery (with Sackville-West), art objects (with Vanessa), are mediators between the self and the other in hate, love, reparation, the ridiculous and the sublime.





The one letter I chose is the one sent to Emma Vaughan dated September 17th, 1905. What is interesting is of course not only the fact that Cornwall is objectified and poeticised, but that one object in particular, the umbrella, serves as a mediation between the time of the letter, the transitional space of the letter in which Cornwall is seen as specular. It maps out self and other, making it the product of a vacillation in the text, of the self image: "un lieu atopique, inclassable." Woolf insists: "However its (sic) the loveliest country, whatever age you happen to be, and really not spoilt. . . I find it so difficult to write here, but I must set to work tomorrow" (L I, n° 246: 204). We are aware that a great number of places where Woolf has travelled will use Cornwall as a point of comparison, for similar or worse, never better. Furthermore, the fiction involved in this connection with the addressees, is always assimilated to the jubilation from where the writing subject is located, it is a space that eroticises the body of self and others. It functions paradoxically in this way, in spite of the absence of the addressee. The letter-writer controls, within her own exiled location, the space given to whom she writes in her letter. The descriptions used by the letter-writer are brought about by what Amélie Schweiger sees, for example, in Flaubert's letters (letters that Woolf herself read in 1936), which is the tensions between the writing of a personal mythology (generated partly by the pleasures of metaphorisation) and the literary mythology, both as shared territory in Woolf's letters. I say now this "ligne de fuite" where inside and outside are exactly the same, as Deleuze would say, poetic, from which the self is revealed, will perform a subjectivity constructed at the border of the object ("umbrella"), articulated here as a necessary metaphor to veil or unveil the body, eroticised and transcended, in the space recollected by the affected epistolary subject.

Dearest Todger,

Your letter just came as we were wondering what had become of you. I cant (sic) say it set our mind at ease. Really for two virgins you do penetrate into the most impossible positions. Art, even in Suffolk, rouses the emotions and is besides (sic) such a veil for intimacy.

Woolf, then Stephen, allegorizes her own reality through the umbrella (notably by reference to a myth evoking the different images of purity, virginity and nudity) as always in the indirect mode of the metaphor intended for the leisure of the reader of the letter, metaphor that gives her an ecstatic and erotic vision:

Marny at a street corner beneath an umbrella may conceal much. And Miss Harris I firmly believe to be a myth. Who the—what the, where the—is Miss Harris? Another umbrella, I think. Here we have been living among





the fields of paradise, among Gods. You can't think how people strip themselves of their coverings at the sea and appear as nature made them. The Stephen family disports almost—no, I will not finish that sentence. Two youths, bachelors, will stay here shortly: and Cornwall is worse than any amount of sketching." (L I, n° 249: 207)

It is indeed the quality of the dream even the fantasy of the dissolution, she will say later on ("We walk and wander like so many disembodied ghosts") that persists in the perception of the self and the body in relation to this protective space around which the different objects and characters are invested, until the last semantic displacement at the end of the letter: "Love to the dissolute figure beneath the umbrella. Your Goatus" (L I, n° 249: 207). A last sentence of the letter that is not without ambiguity, makes it possible to believe that "Your Goatus" is indeed the dissolute figure. What is striking and important in this examination of the poetic space of the letter is the unveiling of the memory of the body in spite of the difficulty to recount. It is a question of giving away the essential in order for the addressee to be able to recreate the effect offered within the allegory that the object of the umbrella textually produces for Woolf. She notes: "Oh Lord it is Sunday morning, and the vapours distilled by innumerable congregations, of whom you are one, I hope reach me even in this unpolluted spot" (L I, n° 249: 207). This being said, it is around the very process of writing and atmosphere, particular to Woolf's prose, that the affect is represented and shows its specular quality where Woolf finds the most pleasure in situating herself (or hiding herself behind the umbrella?) as the letter-writer and ultimately as the recipient, hence her utmost sense of reciprocity. The pleasure comes from herself constantly imagining how her addressees will read her letters. The letter as a veil?

I would state that it is not ultimately necessary to conceptualize the epistolary performance as a break from representation played out in the continuous or discontinuous modalities of the letter form. The letter is rather a place for textual experimentation to occur. The call for the reader's imagination is not sufficient to fulfil the multitude of illicit moments that compose the texts, each offered as an objectified moment. Life itself is mirrored in the letters. The space and time of writing follows the movement by an "I" that appropriates and expulses the "you"—at all costs. In Virginia Woolf's complex body of work, it is precisely through their excess that the letters form a window, an escape from the forclusion of the physical and psychic realities, bodies and objects that she experienced. Furthermore, epistolary speech dialogically stimulates a language where one finds, as Woolf insists in her reading of Wordsworth's letters, a poetization of the everyday life as problematic, in which "no gulf between the stuff of daily life





and the stuff of poetry" (E 1: 186) is found. Ultimately, Woolf develops through her acute sense of consciousness a subjective performance that establishes an epistolary poiesis, in the compulsory breaking and separation defining her ambivalent relation to all objects, and above all, to the letter itself.

Works cited :


Barthes, Roland. Fragments d'un discours amoureux. Paris: Seuil,1977.

———. Le bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Benveniste, Emile. Problèmes de linguistique générale. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Duchêne, Roger. L'impossible Marcel Proust. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Les mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Kristeva, Julia. Polylogue. Paris: Seuil, 1977.

Reid, Martine. "Ecriture intime et destinataire". L'Epistolarité à travers les siècles. Geste de communication et/ou d'écriture. Eds. Mireille Bossis and Charles A. Porter. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990. 20-26

Schweiger, Amelie. "La lettre d'Orient". Revue des Sciences Humaines 195 (1984) 41-57.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. Les vagues. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Woolf, Virginia. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909. Ed. Mitchel A. Leaska. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1990.

———. Moments of Being. London: Grafton Books, 1989.

———. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. Vol 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

———. The Diary of Virginia Wool. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vol. New York: Penguin Books, 1978-1984.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Banks. 6 vol. London: The Hogarth Press, 1976-1980.




(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)