The central fact of this book is the death, on March 7th, 1925, of the painter Jacques Raverat, aged just 40, from multiple sclerosis. Central because, from 1922, the book's three protagonists: Virginia Woolf, Jacques and his wife Gwen (granddaughter of Charles Darwin), must have all known his death was inevitable, unavoidable. Death hovers around everything they write to each other, if not on the surface, then close to it.
Their letters ranged far and wide: gossip, the nature of friendship, religion, the endurance of pain, the eccentric behaviour of Maynard Keynes's new ballerina love, Lydia Lopokova, Jacques's anti-semitism, Virginia's sapphism, the differences between painting and writing. Informed by the depressions and uncertainties, the speculation and passion of their bohemian lives, these letters display a complex affinity between three artists facing their own mortality, their weaknesses and the price of their creativity.
While Jacques' most telling comment on his illness is to thank God for morphine, it is not until after his death that Gwen writes - and then most eloquently - about their suffering. Though she feels that “certain things - horrors or intimacies or heroisms or madness - have to be written about with very great restraint else they get out of key” she manages to reach out to her friend Virginia from her suffering.
This book is the vapour trail left by a remarkable friendship, as they ‘cantered out on paper’, to useVirginia's phrase, a friendship that took all three of them beyond their usual confines.