Bloomsbury’s secret love affair
Everybody knows that Leonard Woolf nursed his wife Virginia Woolf through periods of mental and physical illness, right up to the point of her suicide in 1941. What is not so well known is that he did this at the same time as being a full time journalist and author, a Labour Party activist responsible for the development of the League of Nations, and a successful commercial publisher in charge of the Hogarth Press. Even less well known is the fact that within twelve months of his wife’s death he began a relationship with a woman which was to last for the rest of his life.
Not that there was anything wrong with his forming a new relationship – but the woman happened to be married to someone else. She was Trekkie Parsons, an artist and book illustrator, and her second husband Ian Parsons eventually became Leonard Woolf’s business partner. The actual content of the letters is fairly inconsequential: arrangements for meeting; reflections on botanical matters; lots of endearments; the desire (on his part) for more contact; and occasional comments on their contemporaries. They had lots of shared interests – pet animals, horticulture, and even printing. He was after all an independent publisher, and she studied and practised all sorts of printing techniques.
Leonard is clearly the more enamoured: as a widower, living alone, he yearns for more time with her. But she warns against their relationship becoming passionate – using a form of words which would give anyone pause for thought: ‘I want you to love me you see – but not as an epidemic disease all covered in spots & then quite cured’.
When her husband was posted to France she went to live with Woolf at Monks House in Lewes (sleeping in Virginia Woolf’s old bed) – though it also has to be said that when Ian Parsons was demobbed in 1945 all three of them moved into the same house in London.
In fact for the near thirty years that their relationship existed, she split herself between the two men. She supported her husband in his business ventures and enjoyed their busy social life together. They were said to be a ‘well-oiled unit’. But she spent a large part of the working week with Leonard, and even went on holidays with him.
There is no evidence in the letters that her husband was at all worried about what was going on, but when Parsons started an affair of his own with his business partner Nora Smallwood, Trekkie was not impervious to jealousy.
The most amazing thing is that there is hardly a word in what they write to each other over a span of almost three decades about the oddity, ambiguity, or any tensions in their relationship. Even the footnotes remain silent on that score.
The question which anyone with an ounce of curiosity or a spoonful of blood in their veins will want to know is – was the relationship physically intimate? And the amazing thing is that there is not a jot of evidence either way so far as I could see – which makes it all the more curious.
The editing of the letters is quite scholarly. Whenever someone new is mentioned, an explanation of who they are is offered in a footnote. But there is little analysis or interpretation of events.
Leonard claimed that Trekkie was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He made her his executrix and principal legatee. And when his will was contested by members of his own family, these letters were adduced in court as evidence of merely a ‘literary and social friendship’. Moreover, Trekkie herself claimed (at the age of ninety) that the relationship had not been sexual.
If that is true, Leonard Woolf spent almost six decades devoted to two women, Virginia and Trekkie, with whom he had sexless relationships. It is no good going to his excellent Autobiography to discover more, because he is just as reserved about his private life there. One can only read and stand back, amazed at yet another facet of Bloomsbury life.
© Roy Johnson 2004
Judith Adamson (editor), Love Letters: Leonard Woolf & Trekkie Parsons 1941-1968, London: Pimlico, 2002, pp.312, ISBN: 0712664734