“Like the Learned Pig”: Virginia Woolf’s First Index

“If you had come in yesterday you would have seen me with the floor all strewn with little squares of paper, like the learned pig, making an index for Viola.”
Letter to Vita Sackville-West, 29 March 1926

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here) about the index Virginia Woolf prepared for Orlando, but I hadn’t realised till the other day that this wasn’t her first index. (Nor would it be her last.)

In 1917, Woolf and her husband Leonard bought themselves a printing press. Over the next few years the Hogarth Press would grow from being a hobby – with Virginia setting the type while Leonard operated the press – into a substantial publishing operation, producing dozens of books a year, and with most of the printing being done offsite. The growth of the Hogarth Press meant that, along with their own writing and the literary and critical output of their friends, the Woolfs began to publish longer works of prose non-fiction, one such work being Castles in the Air (1926), the memoirs of the actress and singer Viola Tree.

Viola Tree (1907), by John Singer Sargent
Viola Tree (1907), by John Singer Sargent

And so it was that Woolf should find herself surrounded by indexing slips bearing the names of Lord and Lady Asquith, Winston Churchill and all the other socialites namedropped in Tree’s effervescent life story.

The index which Woolf prepared is fairly straightforward – its only real shock is the entry, “Crippen, Hawley Harvey, murder by, 41, 42,” appearing bluntly among the actresses and landed gentry. What is most fascinating about the Castles in the Air index is how closely it resembles the spoof index for Orlando which Woolf created the following year. It is almost identical in both length – two pages of double columns – and style: the Castles in the Air index lists only proper names, and aside from Dr Crippen and Viola Tree herself, none of the other people listed is allowed any subheadings (other than the cursory “letter from”). So for example, we get long, unhelpful lists of undifferentiated locators such as:

Asquith, H. H. (Lord Oxford), 42, 80, 139, 140, 183, 283; letters from, 159 ff., 161, 162 ff., 165, 166, 168, 172 ff., 174, 185 ff. 190, 194, 204, 213, 225 ff. 239, 252, 285, 291, 300; telegram from, 188.

But when it comes to Tree herself, Woolf provides a running narrative, where every locator receives a description:

Tree, Viola, leaves stage, 11; studies music, 12; engaged to A. P. 13; goes to Milan, 15; at Milan, 18 ff., sings to Ricordi, 23; life at Milan, 27 ff.; in her own house at Milan, 53-90; visit to Strauss, 115 ff.; returns to England, 138; summer in England, 159; returns to Italy, 181; Christmas in England, 224; returns to Italy, 233; engagement to A. P. announced, 257; marriage, 290.

This is Tree’s memoir in miniature – a potted biography, by way of index. And presumably this is where Woolf learned the lesson she would put into practice with Orlando: that an index entry can function as a narrative, and that she might have some fun with this.

The Tree index has no run-ons – in other words, terms are repeated in full from one subhead to the next: “goes to Milan; at Milan”. But one of the jokes about Orlando‘s index is the way it breaks down this notion that each subhead must be a discrete entity. Woolf uses “and” so that the sense of narrative is made explicit:

his romantic dramas, literary ambitions, 48, 50-2, 63-6; and Greene, 53, 57, 59;


entertains the wits, 129; and Mr Pope, 132; and Nell, 135.

It’s a lovely piece of wit, completely of a part with Orlando‘s narrative restlessness. It’s rather lovely too to imagine that the joke first came to Woolf on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting on the floor of Tavistock Square amidst a mess of indexing slips which told, in abbreviated form, the glittering life of Viola Tree.

(Woolf’s other index was for Roger Fry: A Biography, the last of her works to be published during her lifetime. While her first two indexes seem to have provided Woolf with some amusement, this last was an unrewarding effort. Her diary entry for 11 June 1940 records her “working till eyes blind at Index”. Two days later she writes: “My Index sent off – so thats the very final full stop to all that drudgery.”)


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