Was Virginia Woolf Jealous of Lytton Strachey?

When Lytton Strachey published his book, Eminent Victorians, in June of 1918, it quickly became a huge success, which left his close friend, Virginia Woolf, feeling a little envious.

According to Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia, her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, suspected Virginia’s jealousy and teased her about it:

“Eminent Victorians appeared in June. Lytton’s friends were in some ways disappointed. It was – of course – brilliant. It had always been taken for granted that Lytton would achieve brilliance. But was it quite worthy of him? Vanessa and Virginia thought not. Clive was more enthusiastic; he also declared that Virginia was jealous – absurdly and disgracefully jealous – of Lytton’s success. If she was, she didn’t tell her diary, but probably she did feel a pang. Inevitably when a friend, one’s obvious rival in the literary game, with whom one has, so to speak, run neck and neck for years, all at once draws ahead – even though it only be in public estimation, so that people say ‘Do you really know Lytton Strachey?’ rather than ‘Are you the Virginia Woolf?’ – a superhuman degree of detachment and a quite exceptional degree of moral superiority – qualities no-one could possibly claim for Virginia – are required if the distanced runner is to remain calm. And Clive, it must be said, would have not hesitated to rub salt into the wound. He still enjoyed teasing Virginia and relations between them were strained that autumn, so much so that there was, as we shall see, a rather violent break.”

Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey at Charleston in 1928

Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey at Charleston in 1928

Although Virginia refused to say so at the time, a few months later in January, she finally admitted in her diary to feeling a little jealous about Lytton’s success, but then wrote it off as boredom in his subject matter:

“Let me try an account for the fact that he [Lytton] has ‘dominated,’ (why, even the word is his) a generation at Cambridge, & make it square with my disparaging remarks. How did he do it, how is he so distinct & unmistakable if he lacks originality & the rest? Is there any reputable escape from this impasse in saying that he is a great deal better than his book? Am I jealous? Do I compare the 6 editions of of Eminent Victorians with the one of The Voyage Out? Perhaps there’s a hint of jealousy; but, if I underrate, I think the main cause is that while I admire, enjoy up to a point & up to a point agree, I’m not interested in what he writes. Thomas Hardy has what I call an interesting mind; so have Conrad & Hudson; but not Lytton nor Matthew Arnold nor John Addlington Symonds.”

Six months later, in June, she mentions it again after she detects some jealousy from Lytton concerning a letter she received from an American publisher:

“Gratuitously, too, I had a letter from Macmillan in New York, so much impressed by The Voyage Out that they want to read Night & Day. I think the nerve of pleasure easily becomes numb. I like little sips; but the psychology of fame is worth considering at leisure. I fancy one’s friends take the bloom off. Lytton lunched here on Saturday with the Webbs, & when I told him my various triumphs, did I imagine a little shade – instantly dispelled, but not before my rosy fruit was out of the sun. Well, I treated his triumphs in much the same way. I can’t feel gratified when he expatiates upon a copy of Eminent Victorians lined and initialed “M” or “H” by Mr & Mrs Asquith.”

It’s inevitable that a group of friends who are competing in the same field would feel a little jealous of each other’s success. This is also complicated by the fact that Virginia had a highly competitive nature and as a female writer, felt she had something to prove.

Cover of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey published in 1918

Cover of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey published in 1918

Although she considered herself superior to the other members of the Bloomsbury group, Lytton was one of the only people she felt could compete with her, which made his success sting that much more.

Lytton and Virginia had always had a complicated, but close, friendship and Lytton even once proposed to Virginia, although the two mutually decided to break off the engagement a few days later.

Despite the rivalries in the Bloomsbury group, the members had a common bond: a shared outlook on life that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to Gwen Raverat in 1925, “keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this.”

The Guardian; Great Dynasties of the World: The Bloomsbury Group; Ian Sansom; September 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/10/great-dynasties-bloomsbury-group-ian-sansom
“Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Volumes 1-2”; Quentin Bell; 1974
“Virginia Woolf Diary, Volume I”; Virginia Woolf

Was Virginia Woolf Jealous of Lytton Strachey?

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