Victoria Ocampo and Virginia Woolf: contempt and a few words about the cause of women

Virginia Woolf and Victoria Ocampo

What is it that is not forgiven Victoria Ocampo? For what reasons did his political, feminist positions, his ideas about what he should have edited and translated into Sure, like his essays, are they targeted, and criticized to a greater extent than the opinions of other writers of his time with similar convictions?

Many times I asked myself this question while researching and writing about it. Because, although she is often valued as an autobiographer, patron and editor, Victoria is frequently “looked down upon” as a thinker, essayist, as a woman who relates to cultural personalities in her role as editor of a magazine, editor and translator. I choose the word conscientiously, as the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy says, belittling is “having a person or thing less than it deserves.” The truth is Victoria Ocampo is one of the most important testimonial writers of the 20th century, one of the few women who, without formal education, dared to write in the first person. And that he turned his opinions through the genre that best suited him being self-taught: the personal essay. A gender that poses a specific problem, especially when it comes to women, not academics. But in addition, Victoria did not dedicate herself to fiction, a writing that Argentine writers have passed through since the 19th century. Hence the particularity of his courage.

Victoria Ocampo by Gisele Freund
Victoria Ocampo by Gisele Freund

I confess that I only considered that Victoria deserved my attention when writing the biography of Virginia Woolf. If not, I don’t think I would have been particularly interested in her. The fact is that Virginia led me by the hand, introduced me to Victoria. How was it presented to Leonard Woolf, who in turn put her in contact with Virginia’s nephew and first biographer, Quentin Bell. Thanks to the Woolfs, Victoria met several members of Bloomsbury, also writers who were related to the Hogarth Press, the Virginia publishing house, and Leonard Woolf. Among them, the Lehmann brothers, the then very young Auden and Isherwood. And the inevitable Vita Sackville West, with whom Virginia had an occasional love affair and a lasting friendship, and to which she dedicated Orlando. Victoria corresponded and published many of them. Someday, among so many possible research projects, I plan to address those relationships in greater depth. Something is already published in my biography of Virginia Woolf and in other works. What interests me now is trying to clear up some confusion.

It has been insisted and repeated ad nauseam that Virginia made fun of Victoria. That he despised her. I think it is an understandable confusion among those who have not considered the set of correspondence from Virginia Woolf, nor his personality. Because, it must be said, in her letters, as well as in her conversation, Virginia Woolf was bright and funny. And this despite the melancholic image of his latest photos, and the depressive and stereotyped vision derived, presumably, from those images and his suicide.

(Claudia Marciano)
(Claudia Marciano)

But, besides being funny and mischievous (in her childhood she called her “the goat”), Virginia had no trouble being ironic, making fun of her loved ones, her most admired friends. It was a family characteristic. Her nephew, Quentin, said that Adrian, Virginia’s brother, was ruthless and capable of publicly sustaining “mocking surveillance” and “silent irony.” Virginia had the ability to fill that silence with words. It does not stop drawing attention that when reviewing End of trip, his first novel, the journalist of The Observer may have appreciated these characteristics of its author by saying that something special “illuminates the ingenuity of this book. His constant effort to say what is true and what is expected, his humor and his sense of irony, the occasional sharpness of his emotions, his profound originality ”.

Virginia Woolf y Leonard
Virginia Woolf y Leonard

Humor, irony, wit, mockery, originality are constant in the correspondence and in Virginia Woolf’s personal diaries. For this reason, before dealing with his epistolary relationship with Victoria Ocampo, the contempt or mockery that they supposedly exude, it is necessary to give some examples that illustrate how Virginia referred to her most expensive affections. I start with one of her dearest friends from her youth, Madge Vaughan, whom he affectionately called “dearest toad” in his letters and who ended up becoming, in his correspondence, a flank of mockery. If some definitions are partially taken, it was not very good either Violet Dickinson, who had taken care of Virgina when her father died, since when trying to describe his way of speaking he wrote: “since nature has voluntarily left out some screw, what possibility do I have?”.

On the other hand, Virginia did not shy away from saying of Vanessa, her adored sister: “Dear Nessa is no genius, although she has all the human gifts; and genius is a simple accident ”. There is much more, in Virginia’s letters, her brother-in-law Clive went from being “pompous” to “admirable”. As to Leonard Woolf, one of the most respected people in the world and one of the few about whom he was hardly ironic, Virginia said: “I dislike the demagogue speaker in him.” When referring to a writer from Chelsea, one of Bloomsbury’s rivals, Logan Pearsall SmithHe explained that he did not like it, that it was rude and that “if it were a fish, it would stink.” To your dear friend, Lytton Strachey, whose “applause” I longed for more than anything, and whom Virginia especially longed for when she died, she portrayed him as a sickly, aged, selfish, petty being: covered with “a kind of cover of selfishness.

Katherine Mansfield, Logan Pearsall Smith, Vita Sackville West y Ethel Smyth
Katherine Mansfield, Logan Pearsall Smith, Vita Sackville West y Ethel Smyth

I could continue with the examples, add a few more. Virginia both admired and mocked Katherine Mansfield, of whom she said stunk like a “civet” (in turn, Katherine wrote that “the Woolfs” “were stinky”). Upon meeting Sackville West, Virginia portrayed her as a “ruddy, mustachioed, colorinche”, “grenadier” woman, with the ease of the aristocracy, but without the intelligence of the artist; and then he fell in love with her. Another unique case is that of the composer and conductor Ethel Smyth, who Virginia described as “a spirited old wench” with a “colonel’s face”, and who supposedly wrote music “like a prosaic old German teacher.” Anyway, delighted to meet Ethel, in 1931 she confessed: “If you venture, you must venture fully. And she is so brave and remarkable and clever that it would be pure cowardice of me to keep her at bay for fear of ridicule. […] so I let that old fire burn wildly and maybe put a screen in it. “

In reality, Virginia wrote letters to her friends and family making jokes about all of them. The simplest thing would be to attribute excessive malice to him. But the truth is that none of them could resist the charm of the talks, the genius, the correspondence and the affection that, in her own way, Virginia offered them. When the time came, Victoria Ocampo had her turn.

Rara Avis recently published the full correspondence between the two writers
Rara Avis recently published the full correspondence between the two writers

They met in 1934, in a sample of Man Ray. Aldous Huxley, a mutual friend, introduced them. In her memoirs Victoria recalls that Virginia arrived “with a large hat adorned with feathers.” “I,” continues Ocampo, “looked at her with admiration. She looked at me with curiosity. So much curiosity on the one hand, and admiration on the other, that she immediately invited me to her house.” The relationship they established did not deviate from those parameters. Virginia’s curiosity responded to Victoria’s admiration, and she wrote in her diary:

A South American Rasta … was that what Roger called these wealthy Buenos Aires millionaires? […] very ripe and rich; with pearls in their ears, as if a great falena had dropped clumps of eggs, the color of apricot under glass; bright eyes I think for some cosmetic; but there we stayed and talked, in French and English, about the Estancia, the big white rooms, the cacti, the gardenias, the wealth and opulence of South America; as well as Rome and Mussolini, whom she had just seen.

Without having to move from his island, Victoria Ocampo it allowed him to project himself onto English travelers who observed American reality. But as a letter he addressed to Hugh Walpole, where he called her “Baroness Okampo” (comparing her to a London hostess, Sybil Colefax) Virginia did not take Victoria seriously, at least not from a literary point of view. Of all of them, as we shall see later, it should not be inferred from this that he underestimated her. What has prevailed so far, however, is the idea that Virginia made fun of Victoria. For example, when, surprised because she was sending him orchids and roses, she told Walpole: “he gets rid of orchids as if they were buttercups.” It is true that Virginia asked him not to send her any more gifts. But Victoria, who in 1931 had started Sure, her own publishing adventure, and she wanted to publish her books in Argentina, she would not give up easily, she wanted to conquer Virginia and allow her to edit it. Letters and conversations through he managed to suggest, in principle, three titles to translate and publish in Argentina: A room of my own, Orlando Y At the lighthouse.

The first three books published by South Virginia Woolf
The first three books published by South Virginia Woolf

But also, there is a loving reason behind Virginia’s teasing. Amused by her exotic acquisition, and in order to arouse the curiosity and probably the jealousy of Vita Sackville West who used to give her such gifts, Virginia wrote to her: “I’m in love with Victoria Okampo” or “I had to ask Victoria Okampo to stop sending me orchids. ” Can you speak of contempt? Putting these insights into context with those mentioned above opens up new perspectives.

Perhaps one of the richest arises from the analysis of the correspondence of Victoria and Virginia taking into account a larger context: that of the complete correspondence of the English writer; his literary work; his friendship with women. Something in which I have worked in recent times. Perhaps one of the aspects that most caught my attention is that Virginia encouraged Victoria to write, not just her autobiography, which she did as soon as she met her. We may ask ourselves: Is the one who is despised encouraged? As I had said in A room of my own, as I said to the women who approached, the writing, Virginia was convinced that in the twentieth century writing should be one of the causes of women. Women should, in his opinion, write “all kinds of books.” Hence the relevance of the lines he sent to Victoria saying: “I hope you will go on to Dante, and then to Victoria Okampo [sic]. Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies (…) I still have a dream of your America. I hope you will write a whole book of criticism and send me, if you will find the time, now and then a letter

Victoria complied to the letter with the requests. The following year, he grouped articles, essays, wrote something new, and published the first volume of Testimonials, which can be considered a book completely dedicated to criticism. He also continued to send letters. Virginia and Victoria met again. They had encounters and the odd misunderstanding. But what seems most relevant to me is the fruitfulness of a literary friendship that should be appreciated beyond the odd irony and discrepancy. The impact that occurred was such that one could speak of a before and after of Virginia Woolf in the writing of Victoria Ocampo.

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