Fan-Mail as Epistolary Heritage: The Correspondences of Nancy Nolan and Leonard Woolf (1943-1969)
‘Fan-mail’ associated with the burgeoning entertainment industry is not immediately identifiable as an object of cultural heritage nor a strong subject for biographical inquiry. The history of fan-mail reveals a longer trajectory and includes letters from the general public to fictional and literary authors, concerning their books or essays for example. For those interested in the cultural heritage of the letter, a reconsideration of fan-mail to literary authors is merited . Kerr (1998) observed that Leonard Woolf's Ceylon letters are ‘all masculine discourse, the voice of a man speaking to men’. He surmised that his correspondence with women were likely to ‘reveal another side of the person’ (but at the time such correspondences were not easily accessible to researchers). Aside from Woolf's intimate correspondences with Trekkie Parsons (Adamson 2001), a possible alternative epistolary source of insight to Woolf’s general epistolary relations with women is now available in the Sussex archive, namely in fan-mail letters from women and Woolf’s replies. In her 2006 eponymous biography of Leonard Woolf, Victoria Glendinning describes a ‘Dublin housewife’, a fan of Virginia Woolf’s literary work who wrote to Leonard Woolf from 1943 until he died in 1969. They exchanged letters, books and photographs. This paper considers their epistolary relationship in the context of the Mrs Nolan’s letters and Woolf’s replies to her. Archived as ‘fan-mail’, Nolan’s letters provide a reading history and epistolary biography of this ‘Dublin housewife’. Carved out within the domestic space of the family home, Mrs Nolan’s intellectual and aesthetic life is devoted to books, their authors and reading, her domestic life is devoted to her children and their education while negotiating family relations in a strained economy. In attempting to create an aesthetic life of her own, this paper considers the import of writing to Woolf for Mrs Nolan and conversely the significance if any, that Woolf attached to their particular correspondences, in the light of his general correspondences with fans. Does the Nolan correspondence reveal 'another side' of Woolf and if so what can we learn from the fan-mail correspondence?
In an analysis of the letters, it is clear that Leonard became Nancy’s trusted correspondent, one who was willing to receive, read and respond to the lengthy missives sent. Virginia Woolf observed that ‘all good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the page and obey it – they take as much as they give’ (The Humane Art, in Death of the Moth, 1943: 42). While letters are heavily mediated constructions and problematic sites of referral to real world events, it is important to recognise the potential of letters in an archive as a neglected opportunity to come closer to the subjective perspective of the writer, their thoughts, emotions, preoccupations and immediate concerns. With these aspects in mind, this paper considers the correspondences of Leonard Woolf and Nancy Nolan, what was given and what was taken in this relationship between ‘epistolary friends’.
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Glendinning, Victoria. Leonard Woolf. London: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
Leonard Woolf papers (1894-1995), The Keep, Sussex, UK.
Woolf, Virginia. “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Reader’s Union/ The Hogarth Press, 1943.
Anne Byrne, January 2016.