Forty years, one collection, and no regrets

Whether she is nestled in WSU Libraries’ archives or traveling to England in search of paintings, English professor emerita Diane Gillespie brings the university’s collection of Virginia Woolf’s books to life. 

For more than 40 years, Gillespie has studied the Leonard and Virginia Woolf Library, a collection of Woolf’s personal books and those of her family, which spans 219 shelves and 9,900 titles. Gillespie said she has yet to tire of it since she first laid eyes on the collection in 1975. 

“After all that time, I keep thinking that I’ve got to quit writing, but I keep finding more to write about because of the Woolfs’ library,” she said. 

The collection ranges from Greek texts and detective novels to anthologies of last words and the first English editions of Sigmund Freud’s writings published by the Woolfs’ publishing company, the Hogarth Press

When Gillespie began her own research of Woolf’s writings and cover art, illustrated by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, she was pleased to find that 31 of the 82 illustrations she needed were just under her nose in Terrell Library. She said she liked that the library did not require documentation or library cards to access the collection, which was often a hurdle elsewhere when she was writing her book on the sisters and working on books and articles that came later. 

“WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) just feels accessible and comfortable, and people like working here,” she said. “I’ve worked in all kinds of places where you don’t feel as welcome as people do here.”

While many illustrations were in MASC, Gillespie soon found herself leaving the country in search of more paintings and firsthand information about the sisters. 

She said she left for her first two-month trip to Sussex in 1978, where she met Woolf’s niece and nephew. Gillespie later returned for a sabbatical in 1980. Throughout her time in England, she visited private collectors, the Woolfs’ home Monk’s House, the Bells’ home, National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and Library collections, and the Tate Gallery. 

Gillespie recalls having trouble entering the gallery because she neglected to make an appointment. However, she said her husband, who willingly followed her around with a camera and a tape recorder throughout her journey, convinced the museum to let her in. 

“[He said], ‘Dr. Gillespie has come 5,000 miles to see those paintings,’” she said with a laugh. 

She was even able to visit Bell’s daughter Angelica Garnett in England. Gillespie said she was sipping white wine with Garnett when a cat jumped in through an open window with a mouse in its mouth – one of many “fun, trivial moments” during an “exciting and heady time.”

Throughout writing her first book, “The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell,” Gillespie explored the collaborative and competitive relationship between the sisters. Although they experienced rocky periods, like a falling out over Clive Bell, she said Woolf dedicated her second novel to her sister, and Bell illustrated the dust jackets for each of Woolf’s books, even posthumously. 

“[It was] the two of them against the family and against notions of what women should do with their lives,” Gillespie said. 

Like Woolf, Gillespie dedicated that first book to her own sister. She said she found their relationship reflected in that of the Stephen sisters. Woolf envied her sister for her painting ability and Bell envied her sister for her literary talent, so Gillespie and her sister found themselves charting their own paths, with one venturing into writing and the other into the visual arts.

The scholarly writing process was never easy, especially having to get and often pay for permissions to use paintings in her books and articles, but Gillespie said she enjoyed tracking down information about Woolf and likens it to detective work. 

She enjoyed following up on tiny pieces of information, reading them closely, and pulling them together, she said. When she read Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography,” which mentions martyrs, she traced the reference back to “John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” inscribed to Woolf by her brother, corroborating that Woolf’s reading was often reflected in her writing. 

“Every word, every punctuation mark was important to her. Initially setting type with Leonard Woolf for the Hogarth Press made her very sensitive to words and what they could do,” Gillespie said. 

Gillespie’s connection to the Woolf library has not faded over time. She created the Diane Gillespie Fund for WSU Archives and Special Collections, allowing MASC to purchase more books for the collection and improve its accessibility by digitizing them, said Trevor Bond, associate dean for digital initiatives and special collections.

“Especially this year it’s been a real godsend because we overspent our state-allocated money, and so I was able to draw on Diane’s gifts to purchase a whole range of new items, including Sir Lesley Stephen’s letters,” he said. 

Bond first met Gillespie when he audited the course she taught on 20th-century British modernisms. He said her articles and books using the Woolf library materials have given him a better sense of the collection’s depth and variety. 

“In the library, one of the things that we do is we sometimes act as matchmakers … matching scholars with collections,” he said. “I just remember a lot of times bumping into Diane out on the mall or in Avery Hall and saying, ‘Oh, we just got this in, do you want to see it?’”

Gillespie does not think the “Virginia Woolf craze” is going to end any time soon and said she does not regret long hours of researching, writing, editing, and contributing to others’ work – all ways of getting a glimpse into the Woolfs’ lives.

“When we go to all technological alternatives, I think that some of the magic is lost that comes from holding a book someone else has held or that’s gone through the hands of all these well-known people,” she said. “You get a sense of what their lives were like.”