Woolf’s Dumb Dummy Copy

Karyn Z. Sproles, Desiring Women: The Parthnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (University of Toronto Press, 2006. 151-152)

In preparing for the publication of To the Lighthouse, the Hogarth Press made a dummy copy of the novel to see how it would look. Blank inside, but in all other respects identical to the real thing, the dumb volume was sent by Woolf to Sackville-West inscribed ‘In my opinion the best novel I have ever written.’ Instantly regretting this gesture, she wrote: ‘Dear donkey West, Did you understand that when I wrote it was my best book I merely meant because all the pages were empty? A joke, a feeble joke’ (9 May 1927, 3:372). Sackville-West responded: ‘But of course I realised it was a joke; what do you take me for? a real donkey?’ (10 May 1927, 195; emphasis original).

Sent under the cover of a legitimate book jacket, Woolf’s blank book might be her best work. What is not written might be the only place in which to read her desire. The letters speak of this struggle. They demonstrate it best when describing seemingly mundane events of their daily lives, which both women do with an eye for comic detail that sometimes obscures the profoundly symbolic nature of the scenes they describe.

…They tease about ‘dumb letters’ — letters that speak not of desire but of the banal details of their lives apart. Woolf writes that hers ‘is not a dumb letter. Dogs letters are’ (15 Jan. 1926, 3:230). Responding that she had arranged to meet Woolf later that week, Sackville-West writes: ‘So you see that if my letters are dumb, my actions aren’t’ (17 Jan. 1926, 86). Speaking louder than letters, actions facilitate desire. Letters are dumb, silent, on the subject.

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