And here is Sopio Zhgenti’s first blogpost:
Virginia Woolf’s letters are a fascinating source for many things, but also, as I discovered for her use of nicknames, which we find for many of her correspondents including herself, in the opening and closing formulas to the letters.
Instead of formal names or regular first names, Virginia Woolf chose to adopt nicknames. But not for everybody: the nicknames are only found in letters addressed the people she was close to. For these, she chose not randomly created names but animals. Every close friend was given the name of an animal, and she had one for herself as well. Sometimes she even created compounds, for instance Sparroy, with which she referred to herself, which seems to be some mixture of sparrow and monkey. As Nicolson, the editor of her letters, wrote: “She creates a menagerie of aliases for herself – Sparroy (sparrow + monkey?)” (1975: xviii).
All this suggests that Virginia Woolf differentiated between two types of letters: formal and informal ones, based on who she wrote to, very close friends/relatives or mere acquaintances. The choice of nicknames for her friends can be interpreted as an act of positive politeness. In her use of formulas, Virginia Woolf sticks to established norms of letter writing. Her letters mostly begin with my dear/dearest + addressee and end with Yr/Yrs. Affect. Consequently it is easy to see how her letters vary from being very formal to informal. In letters to Henry Newbolt (L.41 January 1902) and Violet Dickinson (L.42; 1902) for example, we find the following opening and closing formulas:
- Dear Mr. Newbolt … yrs very sincerely, Virginia Stephen.
- My woman/yr. lover, Sparroy.
Henry John Newbolt was a poet who did not have very close relationship with Virginia Woolf, whereas Violet Dickinson was her best friend and even more than a friend: “it seems that the first person with whom she forged an intimate relationship was Violet Dickinson” (Koulouris 2011:100). The special closeness Virginia felt for Violet is clear from the way in which she addressed her in the letters, where we find My Violet/My child/My beloved woman/My woman as openings and Yr Aff., AVS/Yr. Sparroy/Yr. Sp. Etc. It is also interesting to see how Virginia’s attitude changes in the course of her life. In the very first letter her opening and closing formulas are My dear Miss Dickinson/Yours sincerely, Virginia Stephen, while in the second letter we already find My Dear Violet and Yrs aff’ly VS. In her eighth letter where Violet is addressed as My dear aunt, and Virginia signs herself Yr loving Sparroy.
Other interesting figures are Thoby who was Virginia’s elder brother and George Duckworth who was her elder half-brother. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
After the deaths of Mrs Stephen and Stella there was no controlling George Duckworth, her elder half-brother, who would prowl by night, and pounce. He was his sister’s “first lover” according to Virginia’s memoir “22 Hyde Park Gate”:
Creaking stealthily, the door [of her bedroom] opened; treading gingerly someone entered. “Who?” I cried. “Don’t be frightened”, George whispered. “And don’t turn on the light, oh beloved. Beloved—” and he flung himself on my bed, and took me in his arms. (Moments of Being)
Though he fondled his sister by night, by day he ridiculed her appearance and spoke of her as “the poor goat’ (ODNB)
From her letters it is obvious that she did not have as close relationship with George as with Thoby. Nevertheless, she signed her letters to both men with your old goat, as if she did not want to differentiate between them. But differences are very obvious in the content of the letters. Virginia wrote fewer letters to George than to Thoby, though all the time she used the same opening and closing formulas: My dear old Bar … Your old goat. (Old Bar was another nickname, but it needs further investigation to find out whether the name signifies anything or not.) Whereas Thoby was someone with whom she shared her ideas about Greek as well as about everyday life, she sometimes even called him your highness.
Other examples of Virginia Wool’s amazing name compounds are the following. In one of the letters to Emma Vaughan, she addressed her cousin with beloved Toadelkanz (L. 31; 1900), a combination of Rosencrantz and Toad, though usually she abbreviates the name to Toad. In a joint letter to Emma and Margaret Vaughan she started with beloved animals and cousins, and she ended by calling herself “Giotto”: Your expectant cousin, Il Giotto (L 32; 1900).
Virginia Woolf’s use of nicknames for herself and her most intimate correspondents is very interesting. . From social psychology it is known that nicknames serve as a form of
“social control, contributing to socialization, marking group boundaries, building camaraderie, catalyzing joking, conveying discontent, cathartically venting frustrations, equalizing social exchanges and adjusting to labelling. Although the nicknaming and collateral social processes we encountered were not the product of formal planning, they are a complex and highly organized set of micro political activities. In the future, nicknames should be thought of as key symbols that can unlock many meanings when they are properly interpreted” (Fortado 1998:13)
In some cases, Virginia’s choice of nicknames was obviously determined by some literary characters, authors or painters. In other cases she hide herself behind forms like goatus esq., Sparroy, Kangaroo, Wallaby. According to Fowler (2012: 154), “In the Bloomsbury circle, nicknames were both abundant and polymorphous”. In time, her nicknames transformed into fictional names, so from Goat we get Goatus esq. etc.: nicknames, according to Lee (1996:iii), nicknames “would then in turn be nicknamed, and the animals would reproduce by a literary parthenogesis into yet more beats. So Goat or ‘the goat’ becomes Goatus esq. Capra, Il Giotto; Emma Vaughan’s ‘Toad’ would be ‘dearest Reptile’ or Todkins, Toadlebinks or Toadelcrancz; The Ape might be the Apes, or Singe or Singes”.
Nobody will probably be able to say what made Virginia Woolf choose these nicknames or what do they signified for her, but one thing is certain: opening and closing formulas as well as the names that she created are an important feature in her correspondence. They determine the degree of closeness to people, dividing her correspondents up into different social categories. For Virginia, opening and closing formulas are not some established rule of letter writing: they are a source for creativity, as well as a source for fiction.
Fortado, Bruce, 1998, Interpreting Nicknames: Micro political portal. Journal of Management studies, 35:1,
Fowler, Alastair, 2012, Literary Names, Personal names in English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kolouris, Theodore, 2011, Hellenism and Loss in the work of Virginia Woolf. Ashgate.
Lee, Hermione, 1996, Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus.
Nicolson, Nigel (ed.), 1975, The Fight of the Mind, The letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1888-1912 (Virginia Stephen). London: The Hogarth Press, .