What’s in a Book? The "Seducers in Ecuador" Correspondence

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Upon opening the new folder of images to which I am adding metadata for MAPP, I am greeted by the first image, a profit and loss statement typical of the Hogarth Press. It looks similar to the other profit and loss statements I’ve encountered from the publishing house, comparing the projected printing, distribution, and advertising costs to estimated book sales, an indication of Leonard Woolf’s reputed business mind. The numbers look innocent, routine, safely unremarkable. But upon encountering the second letter written by Leonard, I am struck by how the tone of those initial calculations transforms: “I have just the courage to suggest that we might use Christian names,” Leonard proposes in brackets at the end of the letter’s greeting line. The author to whom he writes is Mrs. Nicolson, better known as Vita Sackville-West, and the book in question is Seducers in Ecuador. This profit and loss statement in fact marks the beginning of a lucrative and exclusive seventeen-year relationship between author and press, an intense love affair between two women that evolved into a long and important friendship,[1] and a marked period of productivity for all involved. Although a staple of the business of publishing, the profit and loss statement appears to me here in retrospect as if in miniature, quaint beyond measure.

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Seducers in Ecuador Profit and Loss Statement 
© Penguin Random House Archive and Library

            What’s in a book? This collection of images, recently made visible on MAPP, suggests a dense network of extradiegetic affect. Leonard’s letter to Vita, described above, is addressed to Monk’s House, Rodmell, “near Lewes,” the sixteenth-century country cottage that the Woolfs owned, the interior colourfully adorned in the “Amusing Style” developed by the Bloomsbury Group.[2] It is reasonable to assume that Vita was in Rodmell with Virginia. The two met at a dinner party hosted by Clive Bell in 1922 and in time they would become, as Louise A. DeSalvo maintains, “as tinder and flint to one another, striking in each other and from one another the sparks of love, sexuality, support, friendship, and literary inspiration.”[3] Vita references Virginia in one of her letters to Leonard: writing from Sevenoaks, she writes, “My love to Virginia. I owe her a letter. I shan’t forget.” What’s striking throughout this archive is the fluidity with which both Leonard and Vita can move between business and personal—this quotation, for example, appears between Vita’s suggestion to push Seducer’s publication a week so it does not compete with the election and a mention of an enclosed newspaper clipping. 

            Vita continually demonstrates a business savviness that she subdues with politeness and which often reads as a simultaneous apology: of the foreign rights of Seducers as stated in the contract, Vita writes, “Clause 4 should exclude USA, shouldn’t it? But perhaps that is covered by the exclusion of clauses 5 v 6. Anyway I don’t think we are likely to quarrel over it!” In his response, Leonard confirms the contract’s error. Vita discusses an upcoming trip to Paris where she promises to visit bookstores in order to solicit Seducers sales and asks for promotional cards so she can mail them to booksellers herself. In one letter she draws a prototype of how she wants these cards to be designed, and in yet another she asks for the cards to be printed on yellow stock to match the yellow envelopes she already has. Vita was, in other words, deeply motivated and thoughtful with her promotion. (The advertising costs in Leonard’s profit and loss statement surely did not account for Vita’s own energies!) She would in fact become The Hogarth Press’s best-selling author after the 1930 publication of The Edwardians, and throughout her exclusive seventeen-year relationship with the press she wrote multiple best sellers and at an impressive rate.[4] Virginia was honest with Vita about the book sales and what it meant to the press financially, writing to her that “‘I look upon you now as the Woolf breadwinner.’”[5] Although never central to it, capital, as book sales for the Woolfs and royalties for Vita, was undeniably an element in in exchange within their relationship. 

            The archive demonstrates a dialectic between the raw material of passion, its literary yield, and that yield’s profitability—and suggests that this dialectic assisted in shaping the modernist texts we have inherited as citizens of history. Furthermore, my own experience with the archive demonstrates how sequential order informs interpretation. And therein I believe lies the reason for my initial pause with the profit and loss statement. This genre of document, fundamentally anticipatory, cannot interpret sequence; rather, it bets on it. The Seducers profit and loss statement is a safe bet on a book that became a transformative moment in the lives of Vita, Virginia, and Leonard. Quite simply, the document is a joy to apprehend because of the thought that follows: all of it lay before them. 


[1] Vintage Classics has just published an edited collection of their epistolary exchange: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia, introduced by Alison Bechdel, 2021. 

[2] See Christopher Reed’s essay “Taking Amusement Seriously: Modern Design in the Twenties” in The Domestic Space Reader. Edited by Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei. University of Toronto Press, 2000. 162–167.

[3] Louise A. DeSalvo, “Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf,” Signs, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982. 196–97. 

[4] In a letter to Hugh Walpole, Virginia wrote: “‘The press is flourishing, more than ever, with what Vita going into Edition after Edition’” (qtd. in Southworth 241). Southworth demonstrates the “Sackville-West effect” on the press by noting the changes in the Woolfs’ income. While it steadily increased between 1924 to 1930—from £3 to £530—in 1931, after The Edwardians had been on the market for six months, their income increased to £2,373 (Southworth 242), thanks in part to the sale of 30,000 copies of The Edwardians (DeSalvo 201). It wasn’t until 1942, when Vita submitted a manuscript entitled Grand Canyon, that the relationship between author and publisher ended. Neither Leonard nor John Lehmann liked the manuscript and Leonard wrote her the rejection letter, “‘one of the most unpleasant letters I have ever had to write,’” as he phrased it to her. In the final line of Vita’s response, she wrote, “‘I don’t know if there is anything more to say, except that from every point of view I feel very sorry’” (qtd. in Southworth 254–56). 

[5] qtd. in DeSalvo 201.