Ann Batchelor Hursey

My essay / letter to Virginia Woolf was born from an assignment to write a critical response paper to my grad school mentor (Rainier Writing Workshop, low-residency MFA @ Pacific Lutheran University) after reading Woolf’s The Death of a Moth and Other Essays.  I never wrote that paper, per se— instead I wrote a letter to Virginia, because I couldn’t imagine any other way to respond.  I employed some of her stylistic cadences and charming asides, took handfuls of her prose and used them as a way to hold a conversation with her.  I was deeply moved by her essay on letter writing, “The Humane Art.”  And I agreed with her that “All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the page and obey it—they give as much as they receive.” 




January 30, 2012

Virginia Stephens Woolf
Monks House
Rodmell, East Sussex
England BNF 3HF


My Dear Virginia,

Words fail me, but I will try anyway.  My writing mentor, Stephen Corey (who will also be reading this) reminds me that you are dead; but even so, I find myself conversing with you as I read from various posthumous publications of your diaries (extracts) and essays.   As you predicted after your death, Leonard destroyed nothing and continued as your editor.  The way he gathered each letter, essay, critique, story and character sketch in The Death of a Moth and Other Essays, pulled me deeper into the world you loved: men, women, and insects.  The first and title essay begins—


Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossoms which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.  They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor somber like their own species.  Nevertheless the present specimen…seemed to be content with life.

When Leo ends the collection with “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” I note another larger-than-life insect appearing— “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.  It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace.”   Your words transport me to the dark rooms of war.  I hear that “zoom of a hornet” which was more than a metaphor for you as you waited for the next bomb to drop.  I’d like to say that we’re no longer dropping bombs, but that would be a lie.  I could tell you about the small bombs strapped to men’s bodies as they walk into crowded streets, or an even smaller bomb hidden in a man’s shoe before he boarded an airplane.  Yes, the world in all its beautiful cities and quietude— is still a troubled place.

I jump ahead of myself.  As way of introduction: I am the same age you were when you ended your life by walking into the River Ouse.  Ouse. What an unusual name, I thought to myself, reminiscent of a favorite bird, ouzel, a wren-like bird who dips and bobs into waterfalls, foraging food in rushing streams.  I smiled thinking you’d appreciate that both male and female look the same; their song sung year-round—musical and bright.

Because you value “The Humane Art” of letter writing, I write you a letter.  It’s true when you say, “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.”   As I write, I feel the drag of your face on the other side of this computer monitor. I start and stop, wondering where to begin?  I told myself that if a 23-year-old poet had the courage to write you and evoke your essay response in "A Letter to a Young Poet," then I have no excuse to hesitate.  I smile when I think about an essay you never wrote, “Letter to an Old Woman Arriving Late as a Writer.”  In all fairness, everything you penned offers me encouragement.

I loved your essay on the life and genius of Horace Walpole as seen through his published letters.  I can’t help but sense your own reflection when you say, “There he could sit and see without being seen; contemplate without being called upon to act.  Above all he was blessed in his little public—a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence…for a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living…”  

Your words encourage women to seek that ever-changing, more authentic self.  In your paper “Professions for Women,” presented to the Women’s Service League:


But this freedom is only a beginning; the room is your own, but it is still bare…How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it?  With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms?  These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest.”

Speaking from your experience as a professional writer, you offer sound advice on what a woman requires if she is to write or to engage in any of the formerly male-dominated professions. The first “adventure” you describe in your process is “killing the Angel in the house,” emphasizing, “Had I not killed her she would have killed me.  She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”   You humorously describe her:

…intensely sympathetic…immensely charming…utterly unselfish…excelling in the difficult arts of family life….If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.  Above all—I need not say it—she was pure.

In truth, I haven’t killed my Angel-in-the-House but I’ve significantly cut back on her hours.   That Victorian Angel with her halo, fluttering wings and rustling skirts looks different in the 21st century.  Our Angels carry cell phones that are never turned off, drive their children in carpools; and because women may now wear trousers—you have no rustled warning of their approach.  My Angel’s duties have shrunk to light chores and simple meals; but as a daughter, mother and wife my Angel’s wings don’t shadow my every move but somewhere in the house, she’s napping with the dog, waiting for her scheduled walk.

I’m happy to say that I have a room of my own and time to write.  As for my past employment as an elementary school teacher with the requirement of only angels need apply?   I sent those angels to roost on a résumé I’ll never use.  You’d be pleased to know I write daily and have found that state of mind you call being “as unconscious as possible.”  (My Angel disapproves of lethargy, but I say, “Go to your bed!  You’ve had your walk.”)  As for whom do I share my home and on what terms?  My husband of forty years takes pride in my writing and offers me continuing love and support.  

One last thought— your essay “Craftsmanship” speaks directly of the internal needs of words and writers.  Your personification of “words” combined with your sense of humor is a balm.


Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy.  Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious.  Our unconsciousness is their privacy; “our darkness is their light…That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to temp words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty.  But no—nothing of that sort is going to happen tonight.  The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb.  What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up!  Silence.”


Virginia, I must end and be silent.  Time’s up! I need to get this in the mail—


 Ann Batchelor Hursey




Work Cited:

Woolf, Virginia.  The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1942.


Ann Batchelor Hursey's work has appeared in the Seattle Review, Crab Creek Review, Chrysanthemum, and Pontoon, among others.  Ann has been awarded writing residencies with the Jack Straw Writers Program (Seattle, WA), Hypatia-in-the-Woods (Shelton, WA.) and Soapstone: A Writing Retreat for Women (Oregon). Besides collaborating with visual artists and musicians, she has written poems to compost and hand-made-things. Her work is available online in: Fire on Her Tongue: an eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry, Granny Smith Magazine, and Penduline. Ann graduates this summer from the Rainier Writer’s Workshop MFA @ Pacific Lutheran University.