The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf

The Rev William Cole

A Letter


My Dear William,

In my opinion you are keeping something back. Last year when you went to Paris and did not see Madame du Deffand but measured the exact length of every nose on every tombstone — I can assure you they have grown no longer or shorter since — I was annoyed, I admit. But I had the sense to see that, after all, you were alive, and a clergyman, and from Bletchley — in fact, you were as much out of place in Paris as a cowslip impaled upon the diamond horns of a duchess’s tiara. Put him back in Bletchley, I said, plant him in his own soil, let him burble on in his own fashion, and the miracle will happen. The cows will low; the church bells will ring; all Bletchley will come alive; and, reading over William’s shoulder, we shall see deep, deep into the hearts of Mrs. Willis and Mr. Robinson.

I regret to tell you that I was wrong. You are not a cowslip. You do not bloom. The hearts of Mrs. Willis and Mr. Robinson remain sealed books to us. You write January 16th, 1766, and it is precisely as if I had written January 16th, 1932. In other words, you have rubbed all the bloom off two hundred years and that is so rare a feat — it implies something so queer in the writer — that I am intrigued and puzzled and cannot help asking you to enlighten me. Are you simply a bore, William? No that is out of the question. In the first place, Horace Walpole did not tolerate bores, or write to them, or go for country jaunts with them; in the second, Miss Waddell loves you. You shed all round you, in the eyes of Miss Waddell, that mysterious charm which those we love impart to their meanest belongings. She loves your parrot; she commiserates your cat. Every room in your house is familiar to her. She knows about your Gothic chamber and your neat arched bed; she knows how many steps led up to the pantry and down to the summer house; she knows, she approves, how you spent every hour of your day. She sees the neighbours through the light of your eyes. She laughs at some; she likes others; she knows who was fat and who was thin, and who told lies, who had a bad leg, and who was no better than she should have been. Mr. and Mrs. Barton, Thomas Tansley, Mr. and Mrs. Lord of Mursley, the Diceys, and Dr. Pettingal are all real and alive to her: so are your roses, your horses, your nectarines and your knats.

Would that I could see through her eyes! Alas, wherever I look I see blight and mildew. The moss never grows upon your walls. Your nectarines never ripen. The blackbird sings, but out of tune. The knats — and you say “I hardly know a place so pestered with that vermin as Bletchley”— bite, just like our gnats. As for the human beings they pass through the same disenchantment. Not that I have any fault to find with your friends or with Bletchley either. Nobody is very good, but then nobody is very bad. Tom sometimes hits a hare, oftener he misses; the fish sometimes bite, but not always; if it freezes it also thaws, and though the harvest was not bad it might have been better. But now, William, confess. We know in our hearts, you and I, that England in the eighteenth century was not like this. We know from Woodforde, from Walpole, from Thomas Turner, from Skinner, from Gray, from Fielding, from Jane Austen, from scores of memoirs and letters, from a thousand forgotten stone masons, bricklayers and cabinet makers, from a myriad sources, that I have not learning to name or space to quote, that England was a substantial, beautiful country in the eighteenth century; aristocratic and common; hand-made and horse-ploughed; an eating, drinking, bastard-begetting, laughing, cursing, humorous, eccentric, lovable land. If with your pen in your hand and the dates facing you, January 16th, 1766, you see none of all this, then the fault is yours. Some spite has drawn a veil across your eyes. Indeed, there are pouches under them I could swear. You slouch as you walk. You switch at thistles half-heartedly with your stick. You do not much enjoy your food. Gossip has no relish for you. You mention the “scandalous story of Mr. Felton Hervey, his two daughters and a favourite footman” and add, “I hope it is not true.” So do I, but I cannot put much life into my hoping when you withhold the facts. You stop Pettingal in the middle of his boasting — you cut him short with a sarcasm — just as he was proving that the Greeks liked toasted cheese and was deriving the word Bergamy from the Arabic. As for Madame Geoffrin, you never lose a chance of saying something disobliging about that lady; a coffee-pot has only to be reputed French for you to defame it. Then look how touchy you are — you grumble, the servants are late with the papers, you complain, Mr. Pitt never thanked you for the pigeons (yet Horace Walpole thought you a philosopher); then how you suspect people’s motives; how you bid fathers thrash their little boys; how you are sure the servant steals the onions. All these are marks of a thin-blooded poverty-stricken disposition. And yet — you are a good man; you visit the poor; you bury the infected; you have been educated at Cambridge; you venerate antiquity. The truth is that you are concealing something, even from Miss Waddell.

Why, I ask, did you write this diary and lock it in a chest with iron hoops and insist that no one was to read it or publish it for twenty years after your death unless it were that you had something on your mind, something that you wished to confess and get rid of? You are not one of those people who love life so well that they cherish even the memory of roast mutton, like Woodforde; you did not hate life so much that you must shriek out your curse on it, Eke poor Skinner. You write and write, ramblingly, listlessly, like a person who is trying to bring himself to say the thing that will explain to himself what is wrong with himself. And you find it very hard. You would rather mention anything but that — Miss Chester, I mean, and the boat on the Avon. You cannot force yourself to admit that you have kept that lock of hair in your drawer these thirty years. When Mrs. Robinson, her daughter, asked you for it (March 19th 1766) you said you could not find it. But you were not easy under that concealment. You did at length go to your private drawer (November 26th, 1766) and there it was, as you well knew. But even so, with the lock of hair in your hand, you still seek to put us off the scent. You ramble on about giving Mrs. Robinson a barrel of oysters; about potted rabbits; about the weather, until suddenly out it comes, “Gave Mrs. Robinson a braided Lock of Lady Robinson’s Mother’s hair (and Sister to Mrs. Robinson of Cransley), which I cut off in a Boat on the River Avon at Bath about 30 years ago when my Sister Jane and myself were much acquainted with her, then Miss Chester.” There we have it. The poisoned tooth is out. You were once young and ardent and very much in love. Passion overcame you. You were alone. The wind blew a lock of Miss Chester’s hair from beneath her hat. You reached forward. You cut it. And then? Nothing. That is your tragedy — you yourself failed yourself. You think of that scene twenty times a day, I believe, as you saunter, rather heavily; along the damp paths at Bletchley. That is the dreary little tune that you hum as you stoop over your parments measuring noses, deciphering dates —“I failed, failed, failed on the boat on the Avon.” That is why your nectarines are blighted; and the parrot dies; and the parlour cat is scalded; and you love nobody except, perhaps, your little dun-coloured horse. That is why you “always had a mind to live retired in Glamorganshire.” That is why Mr. Pitt never thanked you for the pigeons. That is why Mr. Stonehewer became His Majesty’s Historiographer, while you visited paupers in Fenny Stratford. That is why he never came to see you, and why you observed so bitterly, that “people suffer themselves to forget their old friends when they are surrounded by the great and are got above the world.” You see, William, if you hoard a failure, if you come to grudge even the sun for shining — and that, I think, is what you did — fruit does not ripen; a blight falls upon parrots and cats; people would actually rather that you did not give them pigeons.

But enough. I may be wrong. Miss Chester’s hair may have nothing to do with it. And Miss Waddell may be right — every good quality of heart and head may be yours. I am sure I hope so. But I beg, William, now that you are about to begin a fresh volume, at Cambridge too, with men of character and learning, that you will pull yourself together. Speak out. Justify the faith that Miss Waddell has in you. For you are keeping one of the finest scholars of her time shut up in the British Museum among mummies and policemen and wet umbrellas. There must be a trifle of ninety-five volumes more of you in those iron-bound chests. Lighten her task; relieve our anxiety, and so add to the gratitude of your obliged obedient servant,

Virginia Woolf.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01