The first lot of the more than 9,000-volume personal library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf arrives at Washington State University's Holland Library in Pullman in 1971.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/25/2013
  • Essay 10651

In 1971, the first lot of books comprising the personal library of British literary figures Leonard (1880-1969) and Virginia (1882-1941) Woolf arrives at Washington State University's Holland Library. These books formed Leonard and Virginia Woolf's working library, an important tool in their profession as writers, critics, publishers, and -- in Leonard Woolf's case -- editor. This initial lot consists of books from Monk's House, the Woolf's country home. The purchase is the first of an eventual six lots acquired between 1971 and 1983. 

Washington State University (WSU) was founded in Pullman in 1890 as a land-grant college. Over time, the school has grown into a statewide system. The Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections division of the Holland and Terrell Library, where the Leonard and Virginia Woolf collection is housed, is at the school's main campus in Pullman, located in far southeastern Washington near the Idaho border. 

Virginia Stephen

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen and raised in an intellectual and extremely literary household in the Kensington section of London. She received no formal education, but was given access to her father's extensive library -- first under his guidance, and later with the freedom to follow her own interests. "I owe all the education I ever had to my father's library, and so perhaps endow libraries with more divinity than I should," Woolf wrote in 1939 (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. Six: 1936-1941, p. 234). Upon her father's death, Virginia inherited his library. 

Following the deaths of her parents (mother Julia Jackson Stephen [1846-1895] and father, Sir Leslie Stephen [1832-1904]), Virginia and her siblings Vanessa Stephen (after her marriage, Vanessa Bell [1879-1961]), Thoby Stephen (1880-1906), and Adrian Stephen (1883-1948), established a household at 46 Gordon Square in the Bloomsbury section of London. The Stephen siblings and their friends formed the nucleus for the artistic and literary movement that came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group (though some of the original members of the group shied from that label). 

Some of the books in WSU's collection were present in the Stephen household when Virginia was born, and she acquired others during her girlhood. These volumes moved with the Stephen siblings to their Bloomsbury home. In a letter written in 1904, Virginia's older sister, Vanessa, described her attempts to organize these books following the move:

"I spent the morning struggling with the study. One wades through books which seem to get more and more confused.  ... Certainly books are wonderful things. Even I -- though you may hook your learned nose at me in disdain -- after spending some time grubbing amongst them, get to feel a great affection for the scrubbiest and most backless volume. I suppose it's from living in a book loving family.  I feel happy and contented sitting on the floor in an ocean of calf" (Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, p. 21). 

The Woolfs

In 1912, Virginia Stephen married writer, political theorist, editor, and former civil servant Leonard Woolf. In addition to being her husband, Leonard Woolf strove to facilitate the delicate conditions of daily living that allowed Virginia to remain emotionally stable; she had struggled with depression since undergoing a mental and physical breakdown following her mother's death, and remained fragile. Leonard Woolf's extreme care nurtured an environment in which Virginia Woolf's brilliance, discipline, and drive were protected. Virginia Woolf's novels and essays brought her recognition as one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century.  

The Woolfs co-founded Hogarth Press, operated initially as a hobby and then as a full commercial enterprise. Hogarth Press published new and experimental works by then-unknown writers including Katherine Mansfield (1888-1932), Robert Graves (1895-1985), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Virginia Woolf herself, and many others. 

Making Contact

According to the foreword of The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, A Short-title Catalog (2003), the institution's eventual acquisition of the books stemmed from a 1967 friendship formed between then-WSU English department chair John Elwood and his wife Karen, and Fred and Nancy Lucas, booksellers in Lewes, Sussex, near the Woolf's country home, Monk's House, Rodmell. The Elwoods were on sabbatical in England and were given the opportunity through their friendship with the Lucases to visit Leonard Woolf at Monk's House. (Virginia Woolf had committed suicide in 1941.) The books the Elwoods saw on this and subsequent visits were clearly a working library -- piled both on shelves and on the floor, some dusty, seeming to have been left wherever their user satisfied whatever quest had prompted him to pick them up.   

Following Leonard Woolf's death in 1969, Nancy Lucas mentioned in a letter to Karen Elwood that a large portion of the Woolf's personal library would soon be available for purchase. John Ellwood brought this news to then-WSU libraries director Donald Smith, who supported the acquisition.  The purchase was arranged in through a London bookseller, Wm. Dawson & Son, a firm that also owned the bookshop in Lewes. 

Well Timed

WSU's timing was extraordinarily fortunate, in that it came just before the revival of interest in Virginia Woolf's work. Woolf's nephew, Quentin Bell (1910-1996), published a highly acclaimed biography of his aunt's life in 1972, resulting in a revival of public interest in her work. The subsequent publication of her diaries stimulated further interest. These five volumes, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (b. 1916), who was married to Quentin Bell, became available one by one beginning in 1979.  

In a 2002 interview with the Spokesman Review, John Elwood commented on the serendipitous timing of WSU's purchases: "All this was long before the Woolf revival. But I knew that eventually women [writers] were going to be noticed.  We bought it just in time" ("Woolf's Den").

Building the Collection

Not all of the Woolf's personal library ended up at WSU. Leonard Woolf's friend and companion Trekkie Parsons (1902-1995) served as executor of his estate. Parsons gave copies of books written by Virginia and Leonard Woolf to Sussex University, along with the couple's manuscript materials and correspondence. Two lots of books were auctioned at Sotheby's, in April and July 1970. Most of the first lot -- signed first editions given to the couple by their authors -- went to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The second lot went to individual bidders, WSU among them. These books augmented the initial acquisition.  In 1972, WSU purchased the books Leonard Woolf had in his London residence at Victoria Square. 

Part of Trekkie Parson's inheritance from Woolf was a large collection of the books and pamphlets published by the Woolf's Hogarth Press between 1917 and 1941. When Parsons put these on the market in 1974, WSU snapped them up. In 1979, WSU purchased some 400 books that Leonard Woolf had sold or loaned over the years to his nephew, Cecil Woolf. In 1983, WSU acquired about 100 volumes that had belonged to Virginia Woolf's nephew and biographer Quentin Bell and Bell's wife Anne Olivier Bell.  

Thereafter, WSU Libraries has remained on the lookout for books with strong associations to the Woolfs -- books written by their friends, family members, and other close associates -- and have added these to the collection.  WSU also owns most editions of all of the books written by Virginia Woolf and by Leonard Woolf, and manuscript materials written by Virginia's mother, Julia Stephen. 

Collection Contents

The collection includes volumes Virginia inherited from her father, who edited the first 23 volumes of the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (1888-1891), including his own annotated 63-volume set. Some of the volumes bear Leonard and Virginia Woolf's signatures, while others are marked with bookplates identifying AVS (Adeline Virginia Stephen) as their owner.  

Both Leonard and Virginia Woolf reviewed books, and the Woolf library includes some of the advance copies they received from publishers for that purpose. Some of the books in the collection are annotated with marginalia in Leonard Woolf's hand, and some were annotated by Virginia Woolf. The collection contains books given to the Woolfs by friends and family members, and many of these bear personal inscriptions. 

Perhaps the most personal in what is already quite a personal collection, some 150 of the books held at WSU were bound or rebound by Virginia Woolf herself. Washington State University's Woolf collection also includes one of the most extensive collections of volumes produced by the Woolf's Hogarth Press.  

The Woolf Library books were initially shelved together in the WSU's Holland Library (now Holland and Terrell Library). In 1978, when WSU Libraries created their Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections division, the Woolf Library collection was transferred into the division.  At that time, the books were cataloged and dispersed into the other books in the division's holdings. 

Spokesman Review writer Hannelore Suderman described the physical experience of visiting the collection while the books were shelved with non-Woolf materials: "The archive room that holds the collection offers a sweet smell of old paper.  The well-worn cloth and leather covers that once colored homes in Britain now mingle on rigid shelves with the archives 30,000 titles" ("Woolf's Den").  In 2009, the books in the Woolf Library were reunited, allowing scholars once again to experience the collection as a discrete whole. 

A Treasure Trove

Leeds Trinity University College scholar Jane de Gay summed up the WSU Leonard and Virginia Woolf Library collection's benefits to scholars in a 2012 essay:

"The Woolf's library is therefore extremely useful as a source of evidence on how they read and used books: volumes carry signs of usage or partial usage, signs that become more clearly intelligible when read in conjunction with their published writings and personal documents such as diaries and reading notebooks.  Moreover, the value of the books as artifacts should not be overlooked. Clearly the Woolfs loved books, hoarded them, gave and received them as presents. They bought new issues, but they clearly also used second-hand shops, often finding antiquarian pieces, lavishly bound and illustrated, and that was part of the appeal. From this study, we can see that the Woolfs' library presents a clear case for defending the printed book as an invaluable artifact" ("Exploring Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Personal Library").

"I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure," Virginia Woolf noted in her diary on August 9, 1921. It seems unlikely that when she wrote those words, Woolf could imagine a time when her own personal library would be a treasure trove for scholars interested in her life and work. It seems less likely still that -- at the time, or perhaps ever -- Virginia Woolf knew much if anything about the town of Pullman, Washington, or about Washington State University, where in time her personal library would repose. As of 2013, the Woolf Library collection includes nearly 10,000 books. It is Washington State University's most important collection.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State University, Part 1" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed October 13, 2013); "Rare Books," Washington State Universities website accessed October 13, 2013 (; The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, A Short-title Catalog, compiled and edited by Julia King and Laila Miltic-Vejzovic (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2003); "WSU Amasses Collection," The Seattle Times, January 21, 1986, p .F-7; Hannelore Sudermann, "Woolf's Den: WSU Achives Hold A Treasure Trove of Books," The Spokesman Review, August 24, 2004, p. E-1; Trevor James Bond, "Loves, Languages, and Lives: An Exhibit From The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf," Woolf and the Art of Exploration: Select Papers From The Fifteenth International Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. by Helen Southworth and Elisa Kay Sparks (Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University Digital Press, 2000); Jane de Gay, "Exploring Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Personal Library: Mirrors of the Soul?," The International Journal of the Book, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing, 2012); The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2, 1920-1924 ed. by Anne Olivier Bell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 126; Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, ed. by Regina Marler (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), p. 21; Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972); The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6: 1936-1941 ed. by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 234; Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Spring 1984 (Sonoma: California State College Department of English and Sonoma State University Department of English, 1984).

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