Monthly Archives: August 2015

My Reading List

I have a few Virginia related texts of my own; novels and biographies and such, so I thought I had plenty of reading to get through. But, just in conversation, I asked one of my sisters if she had any Woolf related books amongst her bookshelves (I knew she would have a few). So she said, yes, and did I want to call and collect them? Her pile is on the right.

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Well, thank you Claire. Linda – do you have any?? Only kidding. This lot will keep me busy long enough.

By the way, if Virginia can have a reading place at the bottom of her garden then so can I. My garden bench in the photo serves me very well.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I am going to put this to bed once and for all:

Q. Is there a connection between Virginia Woolf and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

A. No. Well not really. Well a bit I suppose.

The play, by Edward Albee, 1962, uses Virginia Woolf’s name in the title but other than that there is little connection. The title alludes to ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ more than to Virginia and represents the child like characters. There are similarities between Virginia and the protagonists, Martha and George, in that the couple shows signs of being bipolar and both are childless but not that much else.

Virginia wrote of the human experience, through emotion and thought, but the couples in the play try to hide from all this and conceal the truth of their lives. The main couple invents a ‘son’ to hide their distress at being infertile.

The play’s themes of imperfect families, secrets, professional failure and marriage breakdowns don’t resonate particularly with Virginia’s life anymore than they do with anyone else’s. But, there is the academic side to it; Virginia is a complex and intellectually demanding writer and the academic characters in the play would not like to admit that they were ‘afraid of her’.

Virginia’s Will

My husband is the genealogist in the family and he has kindly searched the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration) 1858 to 1966.

The following is the recorded information regarding Virginia’s Estate:

WOOLF Adeline Virginia of Monks House Rodmell Lewes (wife of Leonard Sidney Woolf) died 28 March 1941 probate Llandudno 19 August to the said Leonard Sidney Woolf publisher. Effects £16,668 7s. 7d. Resworn £14,051 3s. 5d.

An executor has to make a resworn oath if something comes to light after the original oath was made. There was perhaps some liability that was previously unknown which reduced the value of the estate.

I was curious to find out how much Virginia’s estate was worth in 2015 money. The £16k figure equates to about £750k and the £14k figure to about £633k. A lot of money. Virginia was certainly a woman of substance.

Virginia’s Education

The Stephen boys, Thoby and Adrian went to school and to University but the girls, Vanessa and Virginia didn’t. Instead, Virginia was home-schooled by her parents and by private tutors. She also had access to her father’s vast library and to the conversations of the many learned associates of her father that visited their home.

It was accepted at this time that boys would go to school but that it was less important for girls as they would marry, learn suitable social and hostess skills, as a support to their husbands, and have no need of a formal education.

Virginia resented how girls were not usually offered a formal education like boys were and blames her father for her unfair treatment. However, Alexandra Harris writes in her biography of Virginia Woolf that:

With a few rare exceptions, girls in the 1890s simply did not go to school. Leslie might have allowed his children to be the rare exceptions but instead he accepted his wife’s judgement on the matter.

His wife’s judgement was that her daughters would have a future of ‘distinguished domestic activity’ with no need of formal schooling. It seems that in the Woolf household, Julia’s decision was accepted and the girls remained at home. Perhaps Leslie was not to blame for Virginia’s disappointment after all.

Leslie Stephen taught the girls maths and introduced then to the classics. Though Virginia’s parents made huge efforts with her home education, they had other things to do and couldn’t provide the structure or the social aspects that a school would have done.

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic and he states that:

Woolf was intensely conscious of her self-education. True, her father, one of England’s most learned men, had guided that education, and true, Woolf was rigorously trained in Greek and had read widely and deeply in the English and American classics and in history. But as a woman, she was denied the systematized public-school and Oxbridge intellectual training that was the entitlement of the male members of her family and class—and she was acutely aware of her status, for better and for worse, as a non–academically schooled amateur.

Exploration of identity (Woolf and Okigbo)

Woolf’s novels and Okigbo’s poetry are explorations of identity – in terms of gender, nationality and culture.’ To what extent do you agree? Discuss with reference to both Orlando and at least one poem from the selection of poems by Okigbo.

Analogous to the genre approach to literature, which suggests that works can be categorised on the basis of common features, and subsequently gives rise to categories such as ‘Realism’, ‘Gothic’ and ‘Romance’, identity has also been categorised. People are defined within a cultural context and classified and stereotyped accordingly. We are therefore, for example, ‘black’ or ‘white’, ‘female’ or ‘male’, ‘English’ or ‘African’. Likewise nations are defined in terms of stereotyped images but just as a novel such as Jane Eyre refuses to be neatly labelled, identities are complex and multi faceted. Woolf and Okigbo were both writing during the first half of the twentieth century, an era of great change in respect of women’s identity in a patriarchal society and in respect of the political relationships between nations and sought to explore identities and the extent to which they are innate or socially constructed.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider Orlando to show how Woolf challenges the boundaries of gender identity by exploring the position of an androgynous state, neither masculine nor feminine, but simply human. I will show how the novel endorses Woolf’s view that human beings each have a mix of traditional gender characteristics which are merely exaggerated, according to biological sex, and developed by social learning. In addition I will consider the notions of nationality and cultural identity and show how the novel explores and challenges prevailing images of Englishness which link England with nature and with supremacy and how the novel challenges cultural ‘norms’ which favour a male dominated literary tradition. I will then consider a selection of Okigbo’s poems to show how he explores the identity of the ‘Nigerian nation and the fate of Igbo culture’.1 I will show how Okigbo challenges the idea of English supremacy and illustrates African national identity. I will then discuss how the poems illustrate the merging of European and African cultures but not without having adverse affects, namely the erosion of traditional Igbo values. Finally, though Okigbo’s poetry focuses predominantly on issues of nationality and culture, I also intend to show how it explores gender identity by the representation of female deities and how, unlike Woolf, Okigbo represents femininity as an inert essence that is determined by nature and not by society.

Androgyny, a Greek word ‘from andro (male) and gyn (female)’ means a ‘mixture of traditional masculine and feminine virtues’ and was defined by Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own as ‘a spectrum on which human beings could choose their places regardless of history or tradition.2 Woolf considered androgyny to be the ideal state, and her description of the newly transformed female Orlando as a ‘lovely sight’ as his (sic) ‘form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace’3 signifies how Woolf considers the ideal human state to encompass a combination of traditional gender characteristics. In fact, the narrator is bold in saying that ‘no human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing’.4 This bold statement explores the fluidity of gender and the concept of a blurring of the traditional binaries of male and female, masculine and feminine.

The opening sentence of the novel, ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex’ is a direct assertion that has the effect of creating uncertainty about Orlando’s sex.5 Because a person’s gender is not usually qualified, such an ‘unnecessary’ declaration encourages the reader to pause and reflect on the possibility of indistinctness between the genders. In the film version of the novel, Sally Potter’s casting of Tilda Swinton as Orlando is significant. Swinton has an androgynous physical appearance and furthers Woolf’s aims in presenting the protagonist as a ‘person’ and not as a man or woman. This image is repeated in the casting of Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. A male actor successfully creates a female character and blurs the traditional distinctions between the genders, whilst suggesting that any ‘person’ can learn to be a woman. Similarly, in the novel, when Orlando meets the Russian Princess he is unsure whether she is male or female as her ‘legs, hands, carriage, were a boy’s, but no boy ever has a mouth like that’.6 Orlando is attracted to the person, whether male or female, but society’s constraints, that would not easily accept a same sex union, ensured ‘Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex.7

The consideration of ‘opposites’ has a significant presence throughout the novel. In chapter one, we see the contrast of the ice that was ‘permanent as stone’ with the ‘turbulent yellow waters’8 and learn that ‘at one moment the woods and distant hills showed green as on a summer’s day; the next all was winter and blackness again’.9 The use of opposites mirrors Woolf’s theories that human beings possess ‘opposing’ gender characteristics. Just as winter and summer have equal contributions to the whole cycle of nature there are mixes of masculine and feminine within individual people that make up a unified and complete whole. The narrator states that love has ‘two faces; one white, the other black’ and goes on to say that the opposites are so strictly ‘joined together that you cannot separate them’.10 The images of opposites contribute to the overall sense that opposites and differences merge to create the whole.

Virginia Woolf argued that gender identity is learned through social conditioning and learning. She rejected the view that masculinity and femininity are innate and inevitable consequences of biology, arguing instead that human beings each have a mix of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics which, according to biological sex, are merely exaggerated and developed by social learning. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex stated that ’One is not born but rather becomes, a woman,’11 and although Beauvoir was writing after Orlando was published, her famous phrase encapsulates the essence of Woolf’s novel and its comments on gender as a social construct.

Woolf’s narrator comments that Orlando was beginning to change as a woman and states that she was becoming more ‘modest’ and more ‘vain’.12 It is explicitly stated that ‘the change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it’.13 I intend to show how the female Orlando learns to be feminine through clothes that ‘change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ and through a set of codes that are learned and performed.14 The narrator informs us that when ‘Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately’,15 illustrating how individuals react to an outward appearance of gender. As expected by society, Orlando duly ‘complied’ and ‘curtseyed’ in a way that she would not have done if the Captain’s ‘breeches (had) been a woman’s skirts’.16 Orlando learns to adapt to skirts that are ‘plaguey things to have about one’s heels’ and realises that due to her restrictive clothing she would have to act differently if she needed to jump overboard. 17 As a woman, restricted by her clothing, she would have to ‘trust to the protection of a blue-jacket’.18 In the film based on the novel, Sally Potter interprets this restriction beautifully in the scene where Orlando is walking indoors, hampered by a large white crinoline dress. Orlando has to learn to negotiate the furniture and even walk sideways in order to pass through the room. However, though Orlando is hampered by her feminine clothing, she also appreciates the ‘flowered paduasoy’ as ‘the loveliest in the world’ and even suggests that it may be pleasurable to throw herself overboard if it means that she can call on the ‘protection of a blue-jacket’.19 Woolf is not suggesting that one sex is better than the other and her narrator’s deliberation ‘which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s?’ contributes to her assertion that the ‘ideal’ human state constitutes a mixture of both genders.20

England, as a nation, invites an image of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and an association and appreciation of nature by her people. The English reference to ‘Mother Nature’ supports the English view of the ‘inherent’ goodness of the natural world. The novel’s recurring imagery of the Oak tree acts as a leitmotif to suggest this English emphasis on nature and indeed, Queen Elizabeth views Orlando as ‘the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation’.21 It seems unlikely within the norms of Western culture that nature could be viewed as evil but Woolf explores the construct of the English love of nature by contrasting Orlando and his Englishness with the nationality of the gypsies.

The gypsies consider nature to be ‘the vilest and cruellest among all the Gods’, which is likely to be an unfamiliar concept to English people.22 Rustum el Sadi held the ‘deepest suspicion that her God was nature’ and he proved to Orlando that nature was cruel by displaying his fingers that had been ‘withered by the frost’ and his foot, which was ‘crushed where a rock had fallen’.23 The two differing ideologies of two different nations is illustrated by these contrasts but it is the narrator’s comment that Orlando now ‘began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel’ that explores the social construct of belief by differing nations and suggests that English ideology is learned and not necessarily paramount.24 This sharp contrast of beliefs offers a challenge to dominant cultural definitions of nations and illustrates how national identity is a learned concept.

Similarly, Woolf draws attention to the concept of English nationalism and its supposed supremacy in the scene where Orlando skates with Sasha. He suspects that Sasha is ‘ashamed of the savage ways of her people’ as he had heard that ‘the women in Muscovy wear beards and the men are covered with fur from the waist down’.25 Woolf is clearly writing with an ironic tone and the narrator is mocking the values expressed. The statements are ‘too extravagant to represent sensible opinion’ and we therefore see Orlando as rather foolish, ill informed and narrow minded.26 His conclusion that Sasha ‘was entirely free from hair on the chin’ goes someway to challenging his stereotypical view of Muscovy people but the reader is not entirely convinced that Orlando has learned from his experience.27 However, we are left in no doubt that Woolf herself seeks to challenge the view of English national identity as being dominant. This is endorsed by Sasha’s Russian dominance over the English Orlando. He is passive in waiting for her in the rain and she is active in deserting him.

As Woolf’s novel progresses through four hundred years it provides a ‘romp through history’ that encompasses varied notions of cultural identity.28 Culture refers to the lifestyle and customs of a particular society and I intend to concentrate on the exploration of cultural identity as it relates to literature. Orlando is a mock biography of the life of a writer. Throughout the novel, Orlando works on his/her poem ‘The Oak Tree’. Woolf was very aware of the limitations placed on women in respect of opportunities to write and the cultural acceptance of female writing.

Some women were successful novelists but novel writing was considered to be an inferior form of writing and often a shameful occupation. Even Jane Austen ‘hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting paper’.29 In Orlando, as a man, Orlando is not completely free to write as writing was ‘for a noble man an inexpiable disgrace’.30 However, Orlando’s portfolio contradicts this assertion as he does manage to write some ‘forty-seven plays, histories, romances, poems’31 and does so with the ‘air of one doing what they do every day’.32 Writing is portrayed as a normal activity for the male Orlando who was ‘fluent’ and soon ‘covered ten pages and more’.33 Conversely, the female Orlando, very soon after her transformation, finds that she ‘had no ink; and but little paper’ and her despair at being in this position is evident in her plea; ’Oh! If only I could write!’.34 Woolf is exploring the male dominated culture that is accepting of male but not female writing.

Back at her home, Orlando is now ready to start afresh on her poem and now has ‘ink and paper in plenty’ though, despite having the instruments of writing she still finds herself confined by cultural disapproval as she ‘hastily hid her manuscript’ when ‘a shadow darkened the page’.35 Ultimately however, the female Orlando does complete her poem and is given the status of ‘poet’ which has traditionally been viewed as the domain of males. But, Orlando’s final abandonment of the poem may suggest a rejection of artificially imposed cultural values per se whether favouring the male or the female or indicate that the task of challenging cultural assumptions and female integration into a male dominated cultural tradition remains incomplete. Interestingly, Woolf argued in A Room of One’s Own, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’36 and in Orlando, Woolf ensures that her protagonist is very wealthy and has three hundred and sixty five rooms of her own. Woolf is equipping her protagonist with the essentials required to challenge the identity of traditional literary culture.

I will now consider the exploration of identity in a selection of Okigbo’s poetry. Okigbo was ‘an Igbo by birth’ and was educated in Nigeria when it was a British colony and, as a ‘product of the British colonial education system’, he was influenced by both European and African culture and aimed to unite the two in his work.37

As a consequence of the power inequalities of colonialism, many readers ‘seem to demand that … ‘minority’ writers account for their existence’.38 Like Achebe, Okigbo offers a challenge to the notion that one nation is superior to another. Achebe, in the opening paragraph of Things Fall Apart refers, conversationally, to Okonkwo’s ‘throwing Amalinze the Cat’, creating a ‘norm’ that differs from Western values but is not ‘other’.39 Similarly, Okigbo, in his use of terms such as ‘oilbean’, ‘sunbird’ and ‘speargrass’ successfully subverts Western expectations and forces the reader to accept a differing, but equal, viewpoint and vocabulary. Okigbo does not ‘account’ for Igbo existence but presents it to a Western reader without avoiding or offering explanations of unfamiliar terms. The poem is, of course, written in English and this may be seen as suggesting that Okigbo is ‘betraying an ancient culture’,40 however, I prefer to see it as a way of bringing African culture to the attention of the English speaking world.

Heavensgate’ begins with the poet persona’s prayer to the African water goddess, Mother Idoto and it is likely that a Christian reader would find this an unfamiliar image. In contrast the phrase ‘out of the depths my cry’ is reminiscent of the Christian Psalm 130 which begins ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ and we see a juxtaposition of African imagery with wording from the Christian Bible. This combination of the Igbo imagery with the recognisable wording and style of a Christian reading may result in a conflict between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ to provide an uncomfortable interpretation of the poem. The use of the word ‘watery’ to describe the presence of the goddess is also disconcerting to a Christian reader who may expect to see ‘divine’ or ‘holy’ instead, to suggest the worship of an spiritual being. ‘Watery’ seems too physical, too earthly. The term ‘oilbean’ is also unfamiliar to a western reader and the setting of the term in the phrase ‘leaning on an oilbean’ is difficult, phonetically, and adds to the disorientation that may be experienced through the poem. Okigbo explores some aspects of Igbo cultural identity and encourages a reflection on African ways of life by ensuring that the reader is surprised out of the familiar.

Okigbo alerts the non-Igbo reader to this African culture but some of Okigbo’s critics suggest that ‘the whole framework of the poem is Christian and Catholic, with snippets of traditional African ritual thrown in’.41 In ‘Dark Waters’ and ‘Silent Faces’ the references to the ‘boa bent to kill’ and the ‘sunbird’ all illustrate traditional Igbo culture which is reiterated by the representation of African people. ‘Faces of black’ are emphasised by Okigbo’s use of the word ‘black’ four times within eight lines. The effect is to present an image of Igbo people. However, this image is contrasted with the image of the playing of ‘loft pipe organs’ which is suggestive of Christian organ music, the result is a fusion of the two cultures that enrich each other, illustrated by the harmony as the native wind listens to the ‘loveliest fragment’ of organ music. Okigbo, in these two poems is suggesting that two different cultures can exist together as one identity and despite colonialism resulting in ‘crossroads’ which may suggest fragmentation, it can also result in a fusion ‘where all roads meet’. Similar to Woolf’s vision of a blending of male and female characteristics, Okigbo is suggesting the possibility of a successful fusion of African and English culture, even if he does not consider such amalgamation so ‘ideal’ as Woolf does in relation to gender.

As readers of Okigbo’s poetry we are introduced to some aspects of African national identity and unfamiliar rituals and ways of life. The poems already discussed suggest that two cultures can merge and exist as one new postcolonial culture with a new national and cultural identity but Okigbo also considers the disruption caused by colonial intervention and the loss of indigenous cultures as a result and the subsequent erosion of Igbo identity. Indeed, the merging of cultures as described above, could be read more as a displacement of African culture with Igbo identity being infiltrated with Western beliefs.

The poems of ‘II Initiations’ take on a different tone with the use of more violent imagery. The phrases ‘scar of the crucifix’ and ‘red-hot blade’ and the use of the Christian word ‘crucifix’ to suggest torture and death perhaps indicates the death of Igbo culture by Christian influence. The inference of slave branding by ‘owners’ to signify possession is also apparent in ‘inflicted/by red-hot blade,/on right breast witnesseth’ and when juxtaposed with Okigbo’s reference to ‘genesis’ provides a less harmonious tone than previously suggested. Western culture is clearly an unwelcome intrusion and instead of cultures that join together quite affably, we see sharp geometric angles and lines (angle, square, rhombus, quadrangle) suggesting disharmony alongside the description of ‘morons’ and ‘fanatics’ who have destroyed a culture with the actions of their ‘selfish selfseekers’. Okigbo explores the ‘broken’ identity of Igbo culture and his techniques of juxtaposing Christian imagery, associated with peace, with violent imagery serves to draw attention to the conflict and discord within Nigeria during European colonization.

Okigbo’s poetry is ‘difficult’, not only because of its unfamiliar references but because of its structure.42 A reading of the poems gives a sense of complexity and fragmentation and an impression of being disjointed, not free flowing. ‘I The Passage’ takes on the tone of a Christian prayer, while ‘II Initiations’ employs violent and geometric imagery and ‘IV Lustra’ adopts a pastoral feel. A reader is not lulled into a sense of expectation with these poems but rather is invited to expect the unexpected. The whole feel of the poems is complex and has a structured and deliberate incoherency which alludes to the extent of the difficulty of self-expression and perplexity during a period of enormous cultural change.

Most of Okigbo’s poetry is concerned with ‘traditional religion and its encounter with missionary Christianity’43 and I have already discussed how Okigbo explored this fundamental change to Igbo society to show how it eroded a national and cultural identity. This emphasis confirms an understanding that the poetry focuses mainly on changes in culture. However, I now intend to briefly discuss how Okigbo explores gender identity in his work.

It is difficult to divorce a reading of the poem from its cultural context. However, a strictly feminist interpretation rather than a religious one encourages a focus on the exploration of gender identity. The first word of the poem is ‘before’ and its repetition at the beginning of the third line could suggest a male dominance before a female subject. I assume a male poet persona, not because the poet is male, but because the reference to the devotee as ‘a prodigal’ is reminiscent of the Prodigal Son of the Bible. The first stanza of ‘I The Passage’ refers to Idoto as a ‘mother’. Motherhood is a traditional way of defining women in relation to others in Western society, suggesting that female identity depends on the existence of others. The description of Idoto’s presence as ‘watery’ suggests an alliance with biology, another typical way of representing women as akin to nature, and a way of suggesting that femininity is a biological essence and not a social construct, the antithesis of Woolf’s assertion in Orlando.

Traditional Igbo religion is underpinned by a ‘widespread belief in female spirits’ and in the power of female deities.44 There are similarities here in the Catholic’s reverence of the Virgin Mary, though she is not specifically referred to in the poetry, and a sense that women have an important place in religion as passive idols if not as active officials. Catholicism, today, is exclusively represented by men and Okigbo had considered ’assuming the familial role as priest’ which his grandfather had previously fulfilled, which also suggests a male dominated religious structure.45 This representation of women as idols endorses the ‘female passivity’ and ‘male activity’ dichotomy and establishes females as revered while effectively ‘removing’ them from the male dominated ‘public sphere’.

I have considered two very different genres and have shown how identity, in terms of gender, nationality and culture is explored by both Woolf and Okigbo. Though both texts consider all the identities, the focus and structure of this essay has suggested that although Woolf’s novel was ‘often first read by its contemporary audience as a gossipy portrait of Vita Sackville-West’ interpretations have changed and today we may ‘read Orlando now most often as a feminist work that explores the boundaries of gender’.46 Similarly, the focus of Okigbo’s poetry is predominantly on national and cultural identity, though an exploration of gender identity is also present in his work.

Woolf rejects the notion of gender, nationality and cultural identity as being innate, suggesting instead that it is socially constructed and therefore changeable. Her suggestion of an ideal state of androgyny and a questioning of the traditionally accepted ideology of English supremacy and the status quo of a male dominated literary culture shows how she crosses the boundaries to defy conventions and promote new attitudes, hinting that individuals and society can ‘relearn’ their identities and because they are not innate, can change significantly. Conversely, Okigbo shows how gender differences are linked to nature and biology and are therefore unchangeable. He also shows how nationality and culture, when combined into a ‘new’ identity ultimately results in an element of discord. This perhaps suggests that any culture, other than the one an individual is born into, can never be learned, or socially constructed, as it is too ‘innate’ to be changed successfully.

Essays I have written

During my six years as an undergraduate I probably wrote about forty essays. Only a few of them will be relevant to my blog and the first one I want to share with you is an exploration of Woolf’s Orlando and Okigbo’s poetry in terms of identity.

The main thing to take from it is, I think, Virginia’s opinion on gender identity and the questions that arise about why we have to be categorised (male/female, or black/white, straight/gay or anything). Can’t we just be humans? And aren’t opposites equal with both male and female as important as each other (like Summer and Winter) to make up the whole? Woolf rejects the concept that gender characteristics are innate but rather socially constructed.

During my degree days I wrote many essays including the one above about Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’. I also kept a hand written diary for the whole six years. One sentence, ‘I can’t keep my eyes open’ sums up my habit of working into the early hours. Happy days.

Virginia Woolf – The Basics

House moves, breakdowns, family deaths and suicide

I was in Waterstones in the literary biography section and I came across this darling of a little book and I couldn’t resist.

Blog  It seemed like a good place to start my learning about Virginia’s life.


Growing Up at 22 Hyde Park Gate, London

Virginia was born on 25 January 1882 and grew up at 22 Hyde Park Gate with Mum and Dad, a sister, two brothers, two half sisters and two half brothers. Quite a houseful. A house full of people, conversation, letters, books and mementos. Busy and interesting. The boys went to school but Virginia stayed at home reading and writing and devouring her father’s library like there was no tomorrow.

Photograph by Michael Taylor

This is Hyde Park Gate. Not number 22 but you get the idea. A very expensive place to live. Virginia lived at no. 22 and apparently Nigel Lawson lived at no. 24 and Winston Churchill at no. 26. I know that they were all alive together between 1932 and 1941 but I don’t think they were ever neighbours. Imagine Virginia popping over for dinner parties hosted by Nigella. Lovely idea but sadly it never happened.

Holidays in Cornwall

Holidays were spent at Talland House, St. Ives, Cornwall. Virginia’s father rented this house from 1881 before Virginia was born to 1895 when she was thirteen and Virginia’s mother died. Leslie Stephen, his family and servants would travel from London to St. Ives. The family would walk on the moors, swim and play games. Virginia loved to play cricket. The view from the house was of Godrevy lighthouse which inspired her novel, ‘To the Lighthouse’. Talland House still exists today in 2015 but it seems that there are plans to build a block of flats and a car park which will spoil the view of the lighthouse from Talland. Objections are  being made.

The Death of Virginia’s Mother (1895)

Julia died in 1895 aged just 48 after she became ill with rheumatic fever. Leslie Stephen’s grief was all consuming and, full of self pity, his relationship with his children suffered. They felt imprisoned and the girls, who did not go to school, were housebound with him.  Stella (Julia’s daughter from her previous marriage) took on the role as housekeeper in her mother’s place but she also died a couple of years later and it fell to Vanessa (Virginia’s full sister) to take on this role after her.

Virginia’s first mental breakdown (1895)

Virginia was heartbroken when her mother died. She suffered her first breakdown at the young age of 13.

The Death of Virginia’s Father (1904)

Leslie became ill with abdominal cancer and died two years later on 22 February 1904, aged 69. Virginia was 22.

Virginia’s second mental breakdown (1904)

After her father’s death, Virginia was in bed for months suffering from depression. She refused to eat and heard voices telling her to do things.

The move to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury (1904 to 1907)

46 Gordon Square, Londres, Royaume-Uni

Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL

After Leslie Stephen died, Vanessa moved the family to 46 Gordon Square to make a new start and six months after her father’s death, Virginia recovered from her illness. In a letter written in September 1904 she stated that:

All the voices I used to hear telling me to do all kinds of wild things have gone.

 At Gordon Square Vanessa and Virginia had more space. It gave Virginia ‘a room of her own’. At Hyde Park Gate there was only a bedroom each where they could read or see friends but here at Gordon Square they each had a sitting room; there was a large double drawing room, and a study on the ground floor and the house had been completely done up.

Virginia’s brother, Thoby, started to invite his Cambridge friends to their home on Thursdays for evenings of discussion about art, politics and ideas and such. This was the beginning of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’. It was a bohemian group of people; they didn’t follow convention and they didn’t conform. They were ‘avant-garde in that they were ground breaking and pioneering and, I like to think, a group of ‘oddballs’ who didn’t give a damn about what people thought!

Virginia started to review books and write essays but then, in 1906, her brother Thoby died.

The move to 29 Fitzroy Square (1907 to 1911)

 A year later Vanessa married Clive Bell and as a result Virginia and their other brother, Adrian, moved to 29 Fitzroy Square. I have a friend who will be interested to know that these buildings are fronted in Portland stone brought by sea from Dorset. Other Bloomsbury members lived nearby and their meetings still took place.

The move to 38 Brunswick Square (1911 to 1915) 

Virginia and Adrian moved again, this time Virginia was the only woman in a house with four men (Keynes, Grant, Adrian and Leonard Woolf). Keynes and Grant lived as a couple on the ground floor. Adrian was on the first floor, Virginia had the next one and Leonard lived at the top of the house, in love with the landlady. They were married in St Pancras Town Hall in August 1912. She was 30; he was 31. They called each other Mandrill and Mongoose.

Virginia’s third mental breakdown (1913)

After her honeymoon, Virginia had a further breakdown. In 1913 she took an overdose of sleeping tablets.

The move to Hogarth House, Richmond (1915 to 1924)

Hogarth House 1

Photo:  Tony Grant

In 1917, the Woolfs bought a printing press. It was hoped that this venture may help with Virginia’s well being as they taught themselves the business of printing books. In 1919 they bought their summer retreat, Monk’s House.

Monk’s House will be our address for ever and ever. Indeed I’ve already marked out our graves in the yard which joins our meadow. (Virginia, letter 1919)

The move to 52 Tavistock Square (1924 to 1939 )

The Woolfs left Hogarth Square for Tavistock Square. This house was later bombed in WW2. In 1925 Virginia began a relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Tavistock Square was the scene of one of the four suicide bombings in London in July 2005 where 13 people lost their lives after an explosion on a double decker bus.

The move to 37 Mecklenburgh Square (1939 to 1941)

The Woolfs moved to Mecklenburgh but spent most of their time at Monk’s House as war approached. Mecklenburgh was bombed in 1940.

Virginia’s final breakdown (1941)

Virginia sensed that a fourth breakdown was on the way and she couldn’t face the thought of her and Leonard living through another episode. She drowned herself in 1941 in the River Ouse. She was 59.

Moving home

From researching all these house moves in seems extraordinary to me (who has lived in the same house for the last 23 years) that someone can move house so much! Since Virginia’s father died in 1904 she moved house 6 times, on average every five or six years.

Hello and Welcome to my Literature Blog

Virginia Woolf – one of the greatest writers of all time


I am a literature graduate, a book lover and a wanabee novelist. I am fascinated by Virginia Woolf, both as an author and as an individual and though I know a fair bit about her life and works already, I want to learn more. So, I am going to teach myself ‘all things Virginia’ by keeping my blog. You are very welcome to learn with me or to teach me or to share information.

I intend to read all of Virginia’s novels (may take a while) and non-fiction as well as her biographies, essays and diaries. I also intend to learn more about the other members of the Bloomsbury Group and the times in which they lived.

I would love to visit a few places such as Monk’s House, Charleston and Sissinghurst and maybe see Talland House in St Ives and walk the Cornwall coastal routes that Virginia walked with her father. From our home in Yorkshire and with busy working lives, it is quite a trek to the South of the country but I  will keep you updated on my progress and will take plenty of photographs.

So, I will be considering the texts, the people, the places and the times. Hopefully I will get side tracked with all sorts of interesting things; academic stuff, recipes and a whole host of snippets to get a real feel for Virginia’s world….

Where to start?