Monthly Archives: October 2015

An ‘Ophelia-like Suicide’?

I am now reading Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles by Amy Licence and I have not reached the end of the first page before I have been intrigued. Amy Licence describes Virginia as:

a writer of impenetrable text, an exacting diarist, the member of a social elite, and an Ophelia-like suicide (sic).

So, I wondered, just how did Ophelia die? Well it seems that after her boyfriend (Hamlet) killed her father (Polonius), she suffered from insanity; singing nonsense and behaving irrationally. She jumped/fell from a tree and drowned in the water below. Her death has resulted in much debate and critics have discussed,

Was it suicide or was it an accident?

According to Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, Ophelia climbed a tree to hang garlands of flowers, a branch broke, she fell into the water and drowned due to her heavy clothes. But the viewer never sees the scene directly so we only have Gertrude’s interpretation. A different view is that after her father’s death (her boyfriend having murdered him), she became suicidal. Indeed, she was denied a full Christian funeral as it was believed that she had killed herself.

There is an ambiguity and the reader has to make his or her mind up. Whichever way it is interpreted though, I can see why Amy Licence refers to Virginia’s suicide as ‘Ophelia-like’ as there are similarities between them;  no mother, their fathers’ deaths, their madness and the deaths by water.

The difference though is that Virginia’s fate was a real life tragedy and not a Shakespearean one.


Seed Cake

This is my second cake from Jans Ondaatje Rolls’ The Bloomsbury Cookbook.

My first cake used Brandy, honey, cinnamon and cloves. This one uses candied peel and caraway seeds.

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Another huge cake! I felt like I should cut it in half across and put some filling in it to stop it from being, well, just all that cake. All in all, these were very nice cakes, just a bit boring. My husband used the words ‘dense’ and ‘fragrant’.

Hyde Park Gate News

As children, Virginia and Vanessa Stephen and their brother Thoby collaborated on their own newspaper, recording the day-to-day events of the family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate. They called the paper ‘Hyde Park Gate News’.

newspapers-444449_960_720Photo: Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

The children included articles describing their life in London and in Cornwall and recorded the comings and goings of the family’s visitors and guests. They captured the family’s everyday domestic activities in the form of letters, stories, advice columns and reports, in the style of contemporary newspapers.


In 1913, not long after her happy marriage to Leonard, Virginia took an overdose of Veronal. Veronal is a Barbiturate that was used in the treatment of insomnia. It was used to help patients to sleep, as an hypnotic and a sedative. In overdose the side effects can range from mild sedation to total anaesthesia. Virginia took such an overdose that it could have been fatal.

The Clark Lectures

Virginia was asked in 1932 to give a prestigious ‘Clark lecture’ at the University of Cambridge. She refused (as a woman, she had once been shooed of the grass) and she thought ‘that what she wanted to talk about was not the kind of thing that the dons of Trinity would want to hear’ (Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf).

The Clark Lectures are on aspects of English literature. Past Clark Lecturers have included T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis, F.R. Leavis, Toni Morrison and Seamus Heaney. In 1888 Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, delivered a lecture on ‘English Literature’.

I have found out that in 1932 the poet, author and critic, Edmund Blunden (1896 – 1974) delivered the talk, presumably instead of Virginia.

My favourite Quotations

There are always those sentences, or those quotations, that make you stop reading, put your book down and just stare at nothing for a minute or too. Those words that you find incredibly clever and make you wish that you had thought of them first. These are a few of my personal Virginia favourites, in no particular order ….

But, before I start with my fave Virginia words, do you mind if I sneak a Thomas Hardy one in? This one is from Far from the Madding Crowd, chapter 19. Sorry Virginia.


The outskirts of this level water-meadow were diversified by rounded and hollow pastures, where just now every flower that was not a buttercup was a daisy.

‘every flower that was not a buttercup was a daisy’

‘every flower that was not a buttercup was a daisy’

… oh don’t mind me, I’m still staring at nothing.

Right, back to Virginia,


Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own




 Photo: my own, taken on South Downs September 2015

I am extremely happy walking on the downs […] I like to have space to spread my mind out in.

(Virginia Woolf’s diary, September 5 1926)

Virginia was aware that some of her days were what she called ‘non-being’ days. Or, more accurately, she acknowledged that some parts of every day were ‘non-being’. I believe that she meant those periods of time that were taken up with the minutiae of living; the domestic, the forgotten conversations and the background of ‘nondescript cotton wool’ – those parts of the day not lived consciously.


This lovely photo: courtesy of

Regarding the ‘cotton wool parts of her days’ , Virginia likened them to:

being trapped inside a grape

(A Sketch of the Past)

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)


I have just read Alexandra Harris’s biography of Virginia Woolf. From reading this biography I have learned the following to add to my knowledge of Virginia:

  • When Virginia was born, 22 Hyde Park Gate was home to Sophie Farrell (the family’s cook) and seven maids who had their bedrooms in the attic, and a sitting room in the gloomy basement.
  • Virginia was named after Aunt Adeline who had just died. However, it was quickly dropped because of sad memories.
  • When Virginia was ten she and Vanessa edited their own newspaper The Hyde Park Gate News (see my ‘interesting’ page) and delivered it to their parents.
  • When in around 1896 Virginia became ill, she was told by her doctors to rest and was not allowed to write. I want to explore this treatment of Virginia’s first breakdown more fully and am reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. This short story is an important example of early feminist literature which shows attitudes to women’s mental health and women’s oppression by patriarchy. I will re-read this story (one of my favourites) and comment on it shortly.
  • Probably as a result of the abuse she suffered by her half-brother, Virginia had a lifelong feeling of shame about her body, she didn’t like seeing herself in a mirror and was awkward about clothes. This reminds me of The New Dress, a short story by Virginia (another one of my favourites), which I will read again soon.
  • Virginia had four proposals of marriage and accepted Lytton Strachey in 1909 then they both thought better of it the next day and changed their minds.
  • Virginia nearly died in 1913 after taking an overdose of Veronal (see my ‘interesting’ page). She had to have her stomach pumped and a team of medical staff worked for hours to save her life.
  •  Virginia Woolf began a diary in October 1917 and she kept it daily until she died in 1941. It started as just factual but it soon became more descriptive. As she became more famous she realised that her diaries may be read by other people some day and she wanted to ‘appear successful even to myself’. So, so she wrote a version of life that she wanted to remember. The thought of days slipping by unrecorded filled her with a sense of loss. She hated to think of a life allowed to waste like a tap left running.
  • Virginia travelled abroad frequently. Holidays in Cassis (Southern France),  visits to Turkey, Greece and Italy and a long stay in the Sierra Nevada, Spain.
  • Virginia refused an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester
  • She refused to give the prestigious Clark lectures (see my ‘interesting’ page) at the University of Cambridge.
  • Virginia and Leonard discussed how they would die if an invasion during the Second World War happened as they knew that a ‘Jewish intellectual and his novelist wife could expect the very worst from the Nazis’.  They planned to go to the garage and breathe the fumes from the car.
  • After Virginia’s suicide, Leonard arranged a cremation which he attended alone.

Honey Cake

Apparently Virginia didn’t have a clue about preparing food but she and  Leonard were ‘foodies’, enjoyed sweet things and were often guests at Charleston for afternoon tea in the garden. There would be gossip and laughter, a gentle stroll round the garden, a perfect cup of tea and a second slice of cake.

The Ingredients

I have chosen a recipe from Jans Ondaatje Rolls’ The Bloomsbury Cookbook that would have been baked for the Woolf household by the family cook.

The hardest part was working in 1lbs and ounces and what on Earth is 1/4 cup? I had to get on the internet to learn that it is 60ml. 60ml of brandy! That is more than a double pub measure. Then I had to figure out if there was a difference between ounces and fluid ounces as the measurement for the honey said ‘ounces’ and with it being a liquid I thought it should say ‘fluid ounces’.  I was keen to make this cake as I have never put as much brandy in a cake before (not even in a Christmas cake). Also, it contains cloves and I was intrigued by the flavours. In the photograph. The darker liquid is the brandy. The paler liquid is the honey … and look at all that butter!

The cake went well, and the kitchen survived without needing to be redecorated or anything.

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It was easy enough to make. The only thing was when I added the brandy to the hot melted honey and butter it started to rise like boiling milk does and I thought it was going to overflow. But it didn’t.

I doubt whether Virginia’s cook would have used Lakeland’s fluted tin liners but I can live with that. Not sure about electric hand mixers either.

Anyway, the cake came out very well. I have just googled why the cake might have cracked on the top and Mary Berry says that if the cake is too near the top of the oven, or if the oven is too hot, the crust forms too soon, the cake continues to rise and the top therefore splits. A science lesson for me.

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Ta Dah! This cake is HUGE! It says that it serves eight but that would include that second slice, surely?

Chris, sorry about the Soberano x

Mental Illness


Bipolar Disorder

Winston Churchill referred to his depression as ‘The Black Dog’ which is often used as a metaphor for the illness.


Photo: Pixabay Public Domain

Today, Virginia’s illness is known as Bipolar disorder. A few years ago it would have been called manic depression.  Either way, it is an illness characterised by extremes of mood and feeling; a serious condition with extreme highs and extreme lows. We all feel better at some times than others but sufferers of Bipolar will have an impaired ability to function in normal life.

Periods of mania may result in a sufferer talking non-stop for days on end, experiencing racing thoughts and inappropriate elation. She may have increased energy, be hyperactive and be unable to sleep. Virginia heard voices, she didn’t interact with people, she became incoherent and jumbled her words.

Periods of depression may result in suicidal thoughts,  impaired ability to remember or concentrate  or  to make decisions. A sufferer may be extremely tired, sleeping far more than usual, disinterested in ordinary life, sad and anxious. Virginia suffered headaches and refused to eat at times.

Virginia’s doctor, George Savage, thought that her mood swings were caused by infections in the roots of Virginia’s teeth. This was consistent with the medical theory of the 1920s. As a result, Virginia had three teeth removed. Needless to say, it didn’t help and Virginia became angry and  distrustful of medical opinion to such an extent that she refused help during her last illness which ended in her suicide.

Other treatments that Virginia was prescribed included a rest cure. Virginia was told that she should not read or write. Poor Virginia needed to do both these things to make sense of her mental chaos. It was perhaps the worst ‘cure’ possible.

It is common for this illness to appear in teenage years and this was certainly the case with Virginia who had her first episode aged 13 when her mother died. Life events may have triggered her breakdowns; her mothers death, her fathers death, her brother’s death, her marriage even, as she suffered a breakdown shortly after her honeymoon.

Causes of Bipolar are not really fully understood but nowadays treatments are available. Medication became available from around 1950. Sadly all these advancements in medicine were too late for Virginia.

It has been said that some mental disorders can involve above average creativity and it is interesting that other famous sufferers of Bipolar include Beethoven and Tolstoy, Keats and Vincent Van Gogh. Sir Isaac Newton also suffered, as did Sylvia Plath and Sir Winston Churchill.




E M Forster (1879 to 1970) writer

First things first:

Q. What does E M stand for?

A. Edward Morgan



E M Forster was another one of the Bloomsbury ‘writers’, alongside Lytton Strachey and Virginia. ‘Writer’ doesn’t do him justice though. He was one of the leading English writers of the 20th century; a novelist, essayist, a social and literary critic and he lectured on literature at Cambridge University.

Although he was never a full ‘Bloom’ he related to the group because he was on the same page regarding non-conformity, the importance of personal relations and the dislike of old fashioned Victorian views.

Both Forster’s parents died in his childhood and he was left with an inheritance of  £8,000 (about £750k today). This money allowed him to be a writer.

The Schlegel sisters of Howards End (note, no apostrophe) are based to some degree on Vanessa and Virginia Stephens. This novel deals with the antagonism between two families, one interested in literature and art and the other in business.  Looks like I need to add this to my reading list.

Forster declined a knighthood in 1949.

His five famous novels: I bet you have heard of at least four of them.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)

The Longest Journey (1907)

A Room with a View (1908)

Howards End (1910)

A Passage to India (1924)