Sunday, 28 March 2010

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been

On the 28th March, 1941, Virginia Woolf left her house in Rodmell Sussex and drowned herself in the river Ouse just a short walk from her garden. She left two suicide notes behind, one for her husband Leonard and one for her sister Vanessa. She was 59 years old and had just finished her last novel Between the Acts which was published after her death.

Last summer I walked from Rodmell, along the river Ouse and over the South Downs to Charleston Farmhouse, the house that Virginia's sister Vanessa lived in. It is a walk Virginia would have done many times herself and I thought a lot about how last journey to the river and her decision to end her life. You can't quite see the river in this picture at the bottom of the downs.

There has been a lot of discussion about Virginia Woolf's suicide and I feel sometimes that her "moods" and suicide somewhat dominate the perception of her and her writing so I wont dwell on this any longer, I just took moment to think about it with today being 28th March.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Drifting in the Euphrosyne somewhere off the South American coast...

I am still here and reading Woolf but I can't seem to find the words to post about The Voyage Out. It has almost taken me as long to write about it as it took Woolf to write it in the first place. I am almost there and will be posting shortly.

In the meantime can I draw your attention to a Woolf online reading group and discussion that is taking place from 15th January. Four bloggers are going to be reading and reviewing four of Woolf's novels over two months; Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

If you would like to join them, details can be found here: Woolf in Winter: An Invitation

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Virginia Woolf's First "Novel" - Hiterhto Unpublished

I recently discovered the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, which is a series of short booklets about all things Bloomsbury and the people that were part of this group. It was set up by Leonard Woolf’s nephew Cecil Woolf and it is a really delightful collection of books. The series is published very much in the spirit of the Hogarth Press, each book is bound in card and the front cover has a design similar to those that Vanessa Bell designed for The Hogarth Press.

The idea of the series is to bring together pieces of writing about and around the Bloomsbury group. It explores all aspects of their lives and has many contributors. There is something very charming about them and I love that you send off for them by post, It is a real pleasure to wait for it to arrive through the letter box, the anticipation, something that we have lost in the age of the internet, download it now, next day delivery. Mr Woolf is a real character too, and he recently attended the International Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, coverage of this can be seen here and here -Thank you to Blogging Woolf for the links.

I had ordered a catalogue by e-mail and was pleasantly surprised when I had a reply from Cecil Woolf to say that it was in the post. When I placed my order for the first book in the series ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ I had read that Mr. Woolf would be attending the annual Virginia Woolf conference so I did not expect an immediate response. About a week later I received another e-mail apologising for the delay in sending out my order, it was a lovely touch and by far the best customer service I have received in a long time.

‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ which is “Virginia Woolf’s first ‘novel’ - Hitherto Unpublished” as pronounced on the front cover, was written when she was just ten years old. Virginia Woolf decided at a very early age that she would be a writer and from that point onwards she was always writing, early attempts at stories, the Hyde Park Gate News, with her siblings, diary entries, fiction, critical essays - she was always writing.

The book itself is a delight to read and you sometimes forget that it was written by a child, as some of the language is quite sophisticated and yet at other times it is very childlike. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the different use of language (this was, after all, written 110 years ago) and how much is down to Virginia being a very bright and capable child. Despite what she felt in later life about her education, compared to many of today’s ten year olds her education was very broad and thorough.

The introduction, written by Suzanne Henig is very informative about Virginia Woolf and her siblings early writings as well as making comparisons to Woolf’s later works. This seems a little unfair, (how many of us would want to be judge on our achievements aged ten?) but at the same time fascinating to see the seeds of ideas which would go on to become ground breaking novels.

The book itself is actually two stories, both a only a few chapters long. ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ tells the story of a Cockney and his wife who decide to buy a farm in Buckinghamshire. They don’t know anything about farming but “we were then lately married and very energetic and hopeful” (P15) The story tells of the various trials and tribulations that the Cockney farmer faces, but it all turns out right in the end when he inherits “ a jolly lot of money” (P 20) from an Aunt who has just died.

The second story is a sequel entitled “The Experiences of a Pater-familias (A sequel to A Cockney’s Farming Experiences.) which takes place three years later and is about the arrival of the farmer’s son Alphonso, who he dislikes and is rather jealous of.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationship of the husband and wife

“nothing worth recording happened except that Harriet did not say one nasty word to me during the whole day” (P17 )


“I got a blowing-up from Harriet for half an hour afterwards as I had burnt the toast to a cinder.” (P16)

The poor farmer never seems to be able to do anything right!

I have really enjoyed reading this first attempt by Virginia Woolf at writing a novel, it certainly gives you an insight into what she might have been like as a child. The story was started by both Thoby and Virginia, but Suzanne Henig has suggested that Thoby quickly got bored and that the story was completed by Virginia alone.

I have also got the second book in the Bloomsbury Heritage series, ‘Roger Fry: A Series of Impressions’ which was written by Virginia about her great friend Roger Fry after he died in 1934. I shall be returning to this later on.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf

On Saturday 13th June I walked 8 miles from Monk’s House in Rodmell (Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country house) to Charleston (Vanessa Bell’s country house that she shared with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant!) via Firle Place, as part of the guided walk ‘In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf’, organised by The Charleston Trust. The walk was led by two artists, Judith Stewart and Christine Arnold who were interested in the effect walking has on the creative process as well as what inspiration they might get from talking to all of the people who had signed up to do the walk.

At 10.30 we all gathered at Monk’s House with just enough time to have a quick wander about the garden. The last time I had visited was in September when many of the plants were past their best, but this time it really was in full bloom and very impressive.

We were briefed on the itinerary for the day and after having given our order for lunch we left Monks House and wound our way down to the river, over the railway at Southease, before beginning our climb up the South Downs. The hill was steeper than it looked and it just seemed to keep on going. It was fascinating to see the way the trees have grown at an angel as they are battered by the wind.

At the stop of the hill we stopped for a very welcome breather. Looking around, I could see all the way back down the hill to Rodmell, and in the other direction Newhaven was in the distance.

Five minutes later we set off again and wound our way across the top of the Downs until Firle was in the distance, before descending a very steep hill that was almost as difficult to walk down as the other side had been to walk up. At the bottom of the hill was the very picturesque village of Firle, which we were told is mostly still owned by Lord Gage and his family. It looks like quite an idyllic place to live, with beautiful houses and equally beautiful gardens to match.

The lane we were walking along wound around a corner and I thought we were about to stop for lunch, but when we rounded the corner the vast estate of Firle place came into view and we had a short walk across a field of sheep before we stopped for lunch.

Firle place was quite a spot to stop for lunch and I think we all would like to have imagined that we lived there and could eat lunch like that everyday. It really is quite a magnificent setting. It is normally open to the public but on this occasion it was shut, much to the disappointment of two weary walkers who had seen us tucking into our lunch and were hoping to get something similar.

With the prospect of a cream tea when we got to Charleston we all set off again, across the estate and over a few fields until we had finally made it, a little sun burnt and with aching feet but all in one piece. By the time we had got to Charleston we were all ready for a cup of tea, a scone with cream and jam, and most of all a sit down.

I can’t quite believe that Virginia Woolf used to do this walk regularly, as it was really quite strenuous. I suppose I have read so much about how her illness affected her physically that I assumed that she was not very strong, but I think actually Quentin Bell mentions her walking a lot in his biography, as well as her father’s exploring nature, so she was perhaps more of an outdoor type than I imagined. I really enjoyed imagining Virginia doing this walk, in an old coat and a large hat, striding out across the downs. I had brought a copy of her diary from 1919 with me, so whilst we stopped at the top of the Downs I took the time to read a couple of passages about the Woolf’s move to Sussex, buying Monk’s House and visiting Vanessa at Charleston

At the start of the walk Judith and Christine had said that their interests lay in the thought process that occurs when you walk and the conversations that you can have with the people you are walking with. All sorts of people came on the walk, most people were local, some like me were from farther a field and there were different levels of interest in Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and ‘Bloomsbury’. It was really interesting to hear different peoples reasons for coming and to share the experience of walking together. I am by no means an artist but I am a keen photographer and so with the idea of walking inspiring the creative process I did try to take some photos that I felt summed up the walk and these are my efforts…

I had a good conversation with Judith about Virginia Woolf and walking, and was able to talk about ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ as Judith has also done some work on 15th? Century women very much like the women mentioned in the story. Interestingly she also hails from Norfolk.

I was also interested in the walk from the perspective of reading Virginia Woolf’s work in context with the places that she lived, and so visiting Monk’s House and Charleston is a way of experiencing a little of what her life might have been like. They are both also wonderfully inspiring places in themselves and I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting them.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Hermione Lee speak at the University of Essex. She gave a lecture entitled “Taking Possession and Letting Go: Virginia Woolf and Biography” as part of The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf season that is running at the University.

Professor Hermione Lee has written a wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf in which she discusses all aspects of her life and work. I am currently reading it and in it she brings to the factual details of Virginia Woolf’s life a wonderful insight into the motivation for her writing; her style of speaking is equally insightful. I felt a little out of place being at the lecture as I am not an academic (as the rest of the audience was) but Professor Lee speaks in such an eloquent and passionate way that it was actually a very enjoyable experience.

The room that the lecture was being held in was very ‘Bloomsbury’, there were purple and white stocks on the table and Professor Lee was wearing a scarf that would not look out of place in the Omega workshops or Charleston. The lecture began with a discussion of the many ways in which Virginia Woolf has been perceived since her death and how, as new approaches to looking at her work and life have evolved, so attitudes towards her as a writer have changed. Professor Lee discussed how Virginia Woolf has this odd characteristic of being “Near and far away at the same time”, both a Victorian daughter and a modern feminist, and how her diaries seem to speak directly to people.

The discussion moved on to the book and film The Hours by Michael Cunningham, another type of afterlife. Professor Lee appeared to like the book, but I am not entirely sure if she liked the film or not. I thought that maybe she liked the essence of the book, taking inspiration from Woolf and reinventing it in a new way, but that the film fell short in many ways including; the social inaccuracies, the house and lifestyle of the Woolf’s being too grand, Vanessa being too posh, Nicole Kidman being too young, that Virginia Woolf is portrayed as perpetually scowling, ferocious rather than charming, that she was played as “a doomed victim”, that more could have been shown of Virginia Woolf’s involvement with the press and setting type, as well as several other things. But apart from that she still seemed to speak very positively about The Hours, recognising that the nature of making a film has limitations with being completely accurate to historical fact.

I think that she felt the film gave a romantic but not realistic picture of Virginia Woolf. The idea that a first sentence just came to Virginia Woolf and a book flowed from it is very different to Virginia Woolf’s own account of her writing in which she revised her work again and again (sometimes even after publication) until she got it exactly as she wanted it. The most striking example of this romanticising was Professor Lee’s brief mention of Virginia Woolf’s suicide which, in the film, is shown as Nicole Kidman walking gracefully into a gentle river in a tweed coat on a bright sunny day. Professor Lee contrasted this with the image of Virginia Woolf on a cold, March day, wearing an old coat, Wellington boots and a hat kept on with an elastic band. The river is actually very fast flowing so that nothing grows on the banks and the trees would have been bare. We don’t know how Virginia Woolf entered the water as no one was there. A very stark image to describe.

She read out an interesting e-mail correspondence with Michael Cunningham in which he discusses the oddity of people becoming possessive over Virginia Woolf when she does not belong to anyone!

The lecture moved on to discuss the approach taken towards biographies of Virginia Woolf, how Professor Lee approached her biography and the style used by Virginia Woolf when she approached biographical writing. I found this section particularly interesting as the last two Virginia Woolf pieces I have read (Memoirs of a Novelist and Reminiscences) have both focused on the concept of biography.

I can’t really begin to capture Professor Lee’s style but I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. It was followed by a question and answer session in which Professor Lee was able to take the questions being asked by the audience and elaborate them into mini lectures of their own. I was quite blown away by the ease at which she was able to recall examples in Woolf’s work that was relevant, it really was very impressive. The question and answer session was led by
Dr. Sanja Bahun and Professor Marina Warner who also gave very interesting insights into Virginia Woolf and asked Professor Lee some great questions that prompted some interesting responses. Virginia Woolf's writing style was discussed, the way in which she used words and the rhythm of the sentences to turn her work into a “performance”.

It was a real privilege to hear Hermione Lee speak, not only as she is such a good speaker but because of her passion yet subjective approach towards Virginia Woolf. She hinted that there were books that she liked less than others and she approaches Virginia Woolf as a critic whilst at the same time enjoying her as a writer.

I don’t think that this post can really do justice to professor Lee’s lecture, but I hope that it expresses how much I enjoyed it and the inspiration it has given me to continue reading Virginia Woolf. One of the main points of the lecture was that Virginia Woolf’s afterlife is still very much alive; some of her work has yet to be published and Hermione Lee is just one of many who, through publishing very readable books and speaking so passionately about her, ensure that her afterlives will continue for many years to come.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Memoirs of a Novelist 1909

Memoirs of a Novelist raises the question of why people write biographies and what right they have to look into the inner and private lives of people, in particular after their death.

A very recent example is the publication of ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ by Persephone Books founder Nicola Beauman. As discussed on the Blog Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, it seems that the children of Elizabeth Taylor were not happy about certain aspects of their mother’s life being published even though her husband had give consent to the book being written.

I have found it uncomfortable reading about certain aspects of Virginia Woolf’s private life. The factual events; births, marriages and deaths are ok but reading about things which would be private if the individual were still alive is very voyeuristic. There is a fine line between what is comfortable and what is not. Reading about the inner life of the Bloomsbury Group; what they discussed at their get togethers and the relationships between them is interesting but it begins to feel intrusive when you read their personal letters and very private experiences.

Memoirs of a Novelist is a comment on a biography by Miss Linsett written about her novelist friend Miss Willat, although all of the characters in the piece are fictitious.

You don’t actually learn very much at all about Miss Willat or Miss Linsett, instead the piece focuses on some of the many issues involved in writing a biography.

What is interesting is that the characters of Miss Willat and Miss Linsett are fictitious, and therefore when Virginia Woolf quotes passages from their books this is written by her as well. In a similar vein to Joan Martyn she is writing a story about a character who in turns reads/writes about another person in biography form all of which are actually written by Virginia Woolf.

As in most of the pieces I have read so far the central characters of this story are women and more specifically women writers. Virginia Woolf was very clear that she thought the lives of women were as important of those of men and that there was just as much you could say and write about a woman as a man. I don’t know how important it is that all of these women were either spinsters (Miss V., Miss Willat, Miss Linsett) or only on the verge of getting married (Phyllis and Rosamond and Mistress Joan Martyn) but it may give an insight into Virginia Woolf’s views on marriage.

The image used at the beginning is of the reading room at The British Museum

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Reminiscences - 1908

I have been struggling with what to say about Reminiscences for several weeks now. On the one hand it is an autobiography, detailing the lives of Virginia’s sister and mother, but on the other it was written as a biography of Vanessa for her son Julian Bell, so it is not an ordinary biography.

I am currently reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf and at 750 odd pages it is long but incredibly comprehensive. It is proving very insightful and revealing about the family history of Virginia Woolf and what some of her motivation to write may have been. Hermione Lee also wrote the introduction to Reminiscences in the edition I am reading (Virginia Woolf - Moments of Being edited by Jeanne Schulkind published by Pimlico 2002) and again her insight into why Virginia Woolf may have written these pieces is very interesting. I am trying not to read too far ahead into Virginia Woolf’s life as this can change the way that I will look at the earlier pieces, but it is fascinating to know how important biography and autobiography as a style of writing were to Virginia Woolf, from her fathers editing of the Dictionary of National Biography to her own autobiographical writing. There was also a tradition in her family for each generation to write their memoirs of the family to be passed on to the next generation.

To put this piece of writing into context you need to look back to 1906. Shortly after the Stephen siblings holiday in Greece where they climbed Mount Pentelicus, both Thoby and Vanessa became unwell. Once back in England Thoby was thought to be recovering but he in fact died of Typhoid Fever in November of 1906.

The move from Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury a few years earlier had been a big change for the Stephen siblings, not only was the location physically removed from their past, but it also allowed them to break with the conventions of the previous generation. The introduction of Thoby’s Cambridge friends opened up a whole new world to Virginia and Vanessa and this would continue after his death. Many of his close friends rallied round the sisters after his death and were there to support them. Shortly after Thoby’s death Vanessa accepted the proposal of Thoby’s friend Clive Bell, so not only did Virginia loose her brother, but in very quick succession she also lost her sister. Vanessa and Clive moved in together and Adrian and Virginia continued to live together.

Clive Bell would be very influential in encouraging Virginia to write but there also seems to have been some jealousy and rivalry for Vanessa’s attention. Virginia often showed her work to Clive Bell and welcomed his feedback. Reminiscences was written for Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who was born 1908 but it may have been begun before sometime before his birth. Hermione Lee suggests that

“It is written out of Virginia’s equally intense feelings about Vanessa, …jealousy, competitiveness, bereavement, a sense of having been displaced.”

Reminiscences begins with the birth of Vanessa and a description of how she was as a child. It reads partly as a conventional biography with a formal tone and structure, but it is supplemented with personal anecdotes and accounts of Vanessa’s life from Virginia. The piece deals with the death of their mother and sister, the impact that this had on the remaining children and it finishes shortly after the death of Stella.

I think I will want to read this piece again as I read Virginia’s fictional accounts that are drawn from her family life. The book contains several autobiographical pieces written at different times in her life and I think it will make sense to come back to the pieces as a whole and look at how she treats her autobiographical writing as her fictional writing develops.