Monthly Archives: November 2015

David (Bunny) Garnett (1892 to 1981) writer

I don’t know why but I expected David Garnett to be, well, not that interesting. How wrong I was. From literary parents, botany, bookshops and big houses to women turning into animals, complicated relationships and  Aspects of Love.

Q. Why ‘Bunny’?

A. Garnett, as a child, had a coat made of rabbit skin which earned him the lifelong nickname of ‘Bunny”

Garnett was a student of botany at The Royal College of Science. He was not a Cambridge person but he was a member of Adrian Stephen’s poker group where he met Duncan Grant. David and Duncan became a couple. They both lived with Vanessa Bell who was also having a relationship with Duncan. Vanessa at this time was married to the art critic, Clive Bell but she had a daughter (Angelica) with Duncan. Twenty years later, David married Angelica. Confused? So am I.

David was from a very bookish family. His father, Edward Garnett, was a reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape and his mother was a distinguished translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev which enabled the Russian classics to be introduced to many British readers.

After the First World War, David opened a bookshop in Bloomsbury. It was here that he got to know several members of the Bloomsbury group who met there to discuss art and literature. On 30 March 1921 Garnett married Rachel Marshall and they had two sons.

In 1922 he had great success with a fantasy novel titled:

Lady into Fox.


Photo: Courtesy of Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

This short novel is about a new wife, Sylvia, who, when out walking in the woods with her husband, physically turns into a fox.  He smuggles her home under his coat and dismisses the servants.

If you had asked me to guess what David Garnett had written a book about I would not have guessed this in a million years.

Anyway, Sylvia who started out just a bit foxy in her ways but was still able to eat human food, sit at the dining table and sleep in their shared bed and such like, eventually takes on increasingly wild characteristics and her husband is beside himself, becoming depressed and anxious. You don’t say. Unable to cope any longer he releases her into the wid. He is pleased when she returns to show him her five new cubs. He gives them all names and plays with them every day. In the end, Sylvia is killed by dogs during a hunt. 

This guy certainly has a much more vivid imagination than me and it is certainly one to add to my reading list. Not a genre I would normally choose but I am intrigued with this.

The novel was a huge success and earned him a couple of major literary awards. The money he made from this book enabled him to buy Hilton Hall, an early seventeenth century house near Huntingdon.

Still married to Rachel Marshall, in 1938 Garnett began having an affair with Angelica and after his wife died of breast cancer in 1940 he married Angelica and went on to have four children with her.

Garnett continued to write novels and in 1955 he wrote the best selling Aspects of Love on which Andrew Lloyd Webber based his musical.

Garnett split up with Angelica and moved to France. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1981. There was no funeral and his body was given to a French hospital for teaching purposes.


Marjorie (Trekkie) Parsons

An English artist, painter and illustrator. Trekkie wrote and illustrated ‘Bells across the sand’ a book of rhymes with pictures.

Trekkie was born Marjorie Tulip Ritchie. Tulip was her mother’s maiden name, so it formed a double barrelled surname and not a pretty ‘middle’ name as you may think. Trekkie was a nickname that she preferred to use instead of Marjorie.  Trekkie’s family came to England from South Africa in 1917 when she was fifteen and she went on to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

Trekkie had a passion for poetry and a love of flowers. She painted still life, portraits and scenes. I have found a lovely painting, ‘Sunflowers’ that I want you to see. I can’t show you it here as I am a bit unsure as to the copyright status. Have a look via this link instead:

Sunflowers by Trekki Parsons

Trekkie first met Leonard when they were neighbours in London. She was twenty two years younger than Leonard and they had quite an unconventional life together. Trekkie remained happily married to her husband, Ian Parsons, until he died. However, she would spend the week with Leonard and the weekends with Ian. She would have separate holidays with each of them, would act as hostess for each of them, have fabulous parties with Ian and travel to France, Greece and Israel with Leonard.

It seems that Trekkie was very likeable, she was attractive, kind and amusing and made Leonard very happy after Virginia’s death. Apparently it was quite a chaste relationship, as she was essentially loyal to her husband but she and Leonard were very close despite this. Trekkie never wanted to have children though her husband quite liked the idea of a traditional family life. It seems that she ‘spent her whole life trying not to have children.’

Being loyal to Virginia, I feel quite sad that Virginia’s writing room in the garden at Monk’s House eventually became Trekkie’s studio instead but, seeing as I really like Leonard, I can overlook this as Trekkie did make him very happy.


Aestheticism and Instrumentalism (Eliot and Brecht)


My essay and the diary I was keeping at the time. Out of interest my essay was marked at 87%.

Eliot’s modernism is primarily led by aesthetic considerations while Brecht’s is driven by his political agenda.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement? Discuss with reference to Life of Galileo and at least two poems from Prufrock and Other Observations. 

The idea that literature should reflect or even intervene in modern social and political concerns was challenged by many modernists, who emphasised the aesthetic dimension of their work. But, as Brecht’s views indicate, an interest in relating quite consciously to the social, political and ideological currents of the time was also a powerful source of energy for certain twentieth-century modernists.[1]

Walder’s comments explore the juxtapositions of aesthetic and instrumental considerations in modernist writing and may suggest that some writers place a higher emphasis on one of these positions. But, as Gupta states, texts generally do not fall neatly into either of these categories. No writers with ‘primarily aesthetic principles were indifferent to social and political realities’ and similarly, ‘primarily instrumentalist’ writers were not ‘indifferent to aesthetic criteria’.[2] However, I hope to show that Eliot’s modernism was primarily led by aesthetic considerations whilst Brecht was driven by his political agenda.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ in order to illustrate how Eliot’s modernist poetic structure rejected the traditional conventions of the late nineteenth century and raised questions about reality and the ‘truth’ by its self conscious style and technique. I intend to illustrate how the mundane is made aesthetically pleasing, and how Eliot’s modernism aesthetically imparts a sense of fragmentation and personal individuality and a concern with understanding the self and the meaning of life. I will then consider Life of Galileo and show how Brecht’s modernism is used to encourage social change by use of the effects of alienation and the epic theatre. I will show how Brecht is influenced by Marxist views, his work reflecting the doctrine that individuals are conditioned by their social circumstances and can change if their circumstances change, and how the play encourages audience engagement by providing links to contemporary society. Finally I will consider the techniques used by Brecht to persuade the viewer to reflect on the degree of responsibility that the scientist has to the world.

Realist writings aimed to convince the reader that real life was being represented and indeed, George Eliot in her novel, Middlemarch actually sort to convince us of this reality by subtitling her novel, ‘A Study of Provincial Life’. Eliot however, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ invites us to expect a poem about love but we soon experience a conflict between our expectations and the content of the poem as this is ‘not in any obvious way a love song.’[3] Unlike the novel, this is puzzling and raises questions about the ‘truth’ but is perhaps also suggestive of a general uncertainty about the world. Eliot is perhaps using this confusion to reflect the myriad of possible human responses to the representation of reality. His modernism, by rejecting realist techniques, may encourage the individual thought that realism sought to curb but does not overtly channel those thoughts in a particular direction.

The dreary setting is transformed into something beautiful as the ‘yellow smoke’ (p. 3) is likened to a cat with all its connotations of feline grace. This ‘grace’ is confirmed in the fourth stanza as the smoke ‘slides along the street’ (p. 3). The transformation of an ordinary topic into an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ work juxtaposes the beauty of language with the environment and suggests that the ordinary can be transformed by language.[4] Eliot’s modernism uses poetic language to transform the mundane into pleasing imagery in order to unite the dull and commonplace with the beauty of poetry. Eliot’s emphasis on the beauty of language shows how he is led by aesthetic considerations, though of course, poetry as a genre is more suited to such considerations.

The rhyme scheme of the first stanza of this poem (a a b c c d d e e f g h) is irregular and consists of half rhymes, such as ‘hotels, shells’ (p. 3). The line lengths follow no standard pattern or metre. The number of lines per stanza varies widely from just two, to the longer stanzas which all contain twelve lines. The result contributes to a sense of informality, fragmentation and confusion, and adds to a sense of rambling thoughts. The ‘yellow fog’ of the evening gives way to ‘the taking of a toast and tea’ and to the worry of a ‘bald spot’ and the contemplation of the ‘universe’ (p. 4). This diverse sequence of thoughts is not unlike the stream of consciousness technique associated with Virginia Woolf and highlights an emphasis on inner random thoughts, which she considered more realistic than the presentation of thoughts in a linear progression, whilst also suggesting that all certainty and regularity has disappeared. Eliot’s modernism shows a primary concern with innovative use of technique and not with political persuasion. 

Eliot uses punctuation, as a form of Symbolism, to convey a more precise expression of something that is difficult to express by language alone. In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the use of ellipses, ‘To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . ’ encourages the reader to stop and ponder what this question might be (p. 3). The ellipses in question actually seem to hint at the poet persona’s inability to express his feelings; there are no words to adequately articulate his awe of the universe and he finds it ‘impossible to say just what I mean!’ (p. 6). This searching is emphasised by the frustrated and rhetorical question ‘Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ (p. 3). The indentation of several lines ‘And how should I begin?’ (p. 5) and ‘that is not it, at all’ (p. 6) stresses the yearning questioning of the poet persona and the inability to reach any answers. A feeling of something being unanswerable pervades the poem and, indeed, there are fourteen uses of the question mark. This punctuation throughout adds to a sense of human powerlessness and searching to successfully understand the meaning of life. Overall, the poet’s use of fluid punctuation with frequent use of caesura and enjambement draws attention to the construction of the poem as a work of art and invites consideration of its aesthetic qualities.

In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ symbolism is evident in the depiction of the street lamp. Its personification ensures that it is seen as a more active presence than the passive presence of the poet persona and we are encouraged to consider an inanimate object with the human capacity for thought and speech. Similarly, we can consider humans as automatons acting mechanically. Indeed, the poem suggests this reversal in ‘so the hand of the child, automatic, / Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay,’ (p. 16). The human is portrayed as the automaton and it is the inanimate toy that is personified by ‘running’. The reality of the street setting contrasts with this obvious unreality to suggest that the ‘man-made’ element of society may control an individual who therefore loses some degree of freedom in his life. Eliot’s modernism, by upsetting reality in this way, draws attention to an individual’s position in society but primarily highlights a new aesthetic approach.

A characteristic theme of modernist poetry was time and its passing and artificiality. In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ each stanza begins with an announcement, ‘twelve o’clock’, ‘half-past one’ (p. 15). Eliot’s work shows a ‘somewhat agonized consciousness of the passing of time’.[5] The announcement of time pervades the poem and its repetition highlights its presence. Though we are encouraged to focus on this passing of time we are also drawn to its artificiality as the time is announced by a street lamp, ‘The lamp said, /’four o’clock,’’ (p. 17). As well as inviting us to view happenings in the present time, ‘the cat which flattens itself in the gutter’ (p. 16), the poem also encourages a reflection on past times, ‘Memory!/You have the key’ (p. 17). We are therefore aware of the existence of current clocked time alongside remembered times which promotes a feeling of disorientation. Time, split into minutes and hours, is an unnatural concept, which is only a valid phenomenon in the present, and ceases to exist as one remembers the past. This striking of the clock reminds the reader of human mortality and of the transience of human existence and aesthetically provides an underlying structure to the poem. 

Rorrison, in his commentary to Life of Galileo states that:

For Brecht the traditional, or dramatic theatre was a place where the audience were absorbed into a comforting illusion which played on their emotions and left them drained, but with a sense of satisfaction which predisposed them to accept the world as they found it. What he himself was looking for was a theatre that would help to change the world.[6]

Brecht’s development of the ‘alienation’ effect and of ‘epic’ theatre served Brecht’s political agenda by discouraging an audience from empathising with the characters on stage, leaving viewers emotionally uninvolved and free to reflect on what they have seen rather than be encouraged to accept a predetermined view. Alienation refers to those effects that prevent us from identifying too closely with characters and epic suggests an emphasis on narrative rather than dramatic action and ‘appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason’.[7]

In Life of Galileo we are immediately distanced from the action on stage as the play opens with an explanatory headline and ditty which informs the audience of Galileo’s scientific intentions. This ditty, sung by a chorus in Losey’s film version of the play, draws attention to the artificiality of the scene. The audience is not invited into a ‘realistic’ setting but is made aware of the stage as a constructed art which encourages a detached interpretation. Though the title of the play should suggest, to an informed audience, the nature of the plot, this additional information removes any last suspense that an audience might feel. The result is a focus on narrative and context rather than on dramatic experience.

The creation of Galileo as a character also serves to ensure that the reader does not instinctively endear him/herself to Brecht’s protagonist. We are invited to witness the initial intimate scene showing Galileo ‘washing down to the waist’ (p. 5) and can therefore identify with him in an everyday context, despite his being one of the ‘most important scientists in history’.[8] Galileo is presented as enthusiastic in his teaching, ‘let’s examine it’ (p. 6) and Brecht’s use of technical jargon such as ‘armillary sphere’ and Galileo’s insistence on using the technical term ‘describing a circle’ (p. 5) ensures that we are made aware of Galileo’s scientific brilliance. However, Brecht does not present the scientist as faultless. Instead, he allows Galileo to be deceitful and cruel. Galileo shows no guilt as he presents the telescope as his own invention ‘with deep joy’ (p. 20) and he shows no remorse for breaking off his daughter’s engagement. Brecht’s modernism contributes to his political agenda by encouraging the audience to form their own views on the morality of the scientist.

The theories of Marxism suggest that the nature of mankind is determined by an individual’s social conditions and that people will change if their conditions change. Brecht believed that literature could ‘change society and the way people think.’[9] In scene 8 of Life of Galileo, the Little Monk explains to Galileo how his parents’ religious view of life is essential to their understanding of the world and that any change to this would upset their ‘feeling of stability’       (p. 65). Galileo’s rejection of the Monk’s plea to keep the ‘peasants’ ignorant and his insistence that the enlightened could go on to ‘develop the virtues of happiness and prosperity’ (p. 66) despite the upheaval to their social understanding, endorses Brecht’s view that people react to differing conditions. Though the Monk is saddened by the potential plight of his parents, Brecht refrains from engaging the audience’s emotion by ensuring that we are left with an image of the Monk absorbed in a new manuscript eager for further scientific knowledge. The Monk clearly does not relish, for himself, the ignorance he desires for his parents. This contradiction encourages the audience to consider the pros and cons of upsetting the political status quo.

Brecht’s play ‘remains the most searching examination of the ethics of science that has been written for the stage’.[10] Galileo’s finding that ‘there is no difference between heaven and earth’ (p. 24) had enormous implications for society in the early seventeenth century but to a twentieth century audience, Galileo’s findings are accepted facts. In scene 15, an audience in the 1930s would be aware of the infancy of aircraft and the very real possibility of the benefits of commercial air travel. Andrea’s comments that ‘people can’t fly through the air on a stick’ (p. 113) would have amused viewers who were aware of such scientific advance. However, this known benefit of science is contradicted by the scene’s opening ditty that urges caution in using scientific knowledge ‘lest it be a flame to fall/Downward to consume us all’ (p. 110). Brecht’s reference to the possible consequences of the atom bomb serves as a contemporary reminder to the audience of the responsibility that scientists have to the world and lead us to question whether indeed, Galileo was right to continue with his research or whether accepting the Church’s desire for status quo would have been the more responsible option.

The scope of this essay has considered works from two very different genres. By its nature, poetry is a medium more suited to the expression of aesthetic considerations and drama to political comment and the primary considerations of the writers in question may be influenced by or reflected in the genre of choice. However, I hope to have shown how Eliot’s modernism which shows ‘aesthetic and poetic daring’[11] by rejecting traditional poetic structures and themes, explores the differing notions of reality and truth and encourages an inner reflection on human awareness. Eliot’s modernism and its ‘fresh and invigorating’ form which is not constrained by rhyme and punctuation, and which challenges our understanding of the ‘truth’, creates a sense of fluidity away from the constraints of previous traditions of writing. A new way of writing and a new way of seeing the world, perhaps. The result is the creation of poetry which draws attention to its construction in order to encourage reflection on inner thoughts and impart a consideration of man’s changing position within society without seeking to change it. Brecht’s writing on the other hand, with his choice of historical subject matter, encourages a new contemplation of the political implications of scientific advancement and seeks to initiate change. Although the play does not answer any questions on the ethics of science, at least it raises them for the audience to consider. Brecht’s use of alienation and epic theatre was primarily to influence his audience in order to ‘upset people into changing the way they saw things’ and his furtherance of Marxist doctrines served his political agenda.[12] In order to initiate political change Brecht sought to ‘make the spectator into an actor who would complete the unfinished play’.[13]


Brecht, B. (1994) Life of Galileo, trans. by J. Willett, with Commentary and Notes by H. Rorrison, Methuen Student Editions, London: Methuen.

Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (eds) (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: debates in Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

Eliot, T.S. ([1917] 2001) Prufrock and Other Observations, London: Faber & Faber.

Gupta, S. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2005) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader, Texts and Debates, London: Routledge in association with the Open University

Open University A300 course material – CD2 (readings by T S Eliot)

Open University A300 course material – DVD2 (Galileo, directed by J Losey)

[1] Walder in Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 326

[2] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 225

[3] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[4] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[5] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 253

[6] Brecht, (1994), p. xxxv

[7] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 129

[8] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 324

[9] Quote taken from A300 tutorial handout by Dr. M Denby

[10] Brecht, (1994), p. xli

[11] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 272

[12] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327

[13] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327

Clive Bell (1881 to 1964) art critic


Clive Bell died in the year that I was born. Clive was another Cambridge graduate (he gained a second class degree in History) and was from a wealthy background. His father was a civil engineer who made his fortune in the family coal mines.

Clive became Vanessa’s husband and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. However, the marriage didn’t last too long and the Bells drifted into a lasting friendship instead. He remained part of the family really and later on in 1939, he actually lived at Charleston when Vanessa lived there with Duncan Grant.  Not your conventional set up.

Clive  spent much of his time reading and writing. He was a believer in ‘Art for arts sake’ and was primarily concerned with aesthetic rather than instrumental considerations.  Aestheticism and Instrumentalism were two major cultural and intellectual movements in modernist art and literature. Followers of Aestheticism believed in art for its own sake;  those inclined towards Instrumentalism believed that art should have  a purpose; social, moral, political. In reality though, no artist was completely indifferent to either school of thought.

You may be interested to read my essay on Eliot and Brecht, an aesthete and an instrumentalist. My essay on modernism shows how Eliot’s  poetry rejected traditional conventions of the late Victorian era and made the mundane aesthetically pleasing. It also shows how Brecht’s Instrumentalism is used to encourage social change. Not for the faint hearted.

Roger Fry (1866 to 1934) artist


(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Roger Fry Self Portrait

Photo: Roger Fry (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Roger was another Cambridge bod, reading natural sciences. After gaining a first class (what else?) at Cambridge he went on to study painting in Paris and in Italy. My ‘berries’ don’t do things in halves. Fry went on to act as European advisor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and went on to organise the exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’. It all sounds very grand. Fry stuck his neck out and made it known that he thought artists such as Van Gough and Cezanne were the ones to watch, despite other art critics of the day not agreeing with him. Fry went on to teach Art History at the Slade School of Fine art and also founded the Omega Design Workshops which produced furniture, fabrics and carpets.

He was married in 1896 but his personal life was not without problems. His wife became seriously mentally ill and Roger had the almost impossible task in 1910 of agreeing, with her doctors, that she should spend the rest of her life in an asylum. That year, Fry met the Bloomsbury Group and the rest, is history. He did have a brief affair with Vanessa but then he found long term happiness with Helen Maitland Anrep. He died suddenly after a fall in 1934.

I really wanted Roger to be related in some way to Stephen Fry but my resident genealogist can find no link. Shame. He is closely related to the chocolate maker though.


Photo: Fry’s Creams by Kate Hopkins

Dorothy in 1936

Dorothy …. An ordinary year …. family, community, getting by and hard work

In 1936 Dorothy was a wife and mother to two girls aged five and six. There was an age difference of just fifteen months between her daughters, Joyce and Hilda. Like Virginia, she suffered with headaches; migraines. She would lay on the sofa with a vinegar pad on her forehead. Also like Virginia, she had a husband who took care of her when she was suffering.

Dorothy had a happy childhood and in 1936 was in the seventh year of her long and happy first marriage. A community existed that looked out for each other, provided friendship and support. Like Virginia, Dorothy came from a big family (four boys and four girls) and had a close relationship with her siblings.

Being a wife and mother would have been hard work. Dorothy Wilson, in Memories of Royston says ‘it was hard work being a wife and mother in those days and being a husband and dad wasn’t easy either.’

‘The men worked down the pit’ she says, ‘that’s when they had work to go to’.


I am struggling to find exact references to 1936 but Dorothy Wilson says that in Royston in 1931, they had just one cold water tap, gas lights, and a black leaded coal fire and oven. Relatives; grandparents, aunts, cousins, lived nearby and the children would play football and cricket. They would fly kites and ride bikes.

I can imagine my grandma (‘nana’) taking her children to the park, and going to the Coop where everything was weighed out from huge canisters; the sugar and flour and butter.  The butter would be ‘cut in pats and patted out into grease proof paper’. Dorothy would return home and start making bread and perhaps bake some buns. Some days she may make a meat and potato pie for when Frank came home from work. People had a pride in their houses and liked everything to be neat and clean.

Dorothy might get up at half past five to make Frank his ‘snap’ for work and then she would start washing clothes, the manual way, and washing the floors. She would look out for the milkman’s horse and cart and then go to him with her jug.

Dorothy wasn’t rich and she didn’t have servants like Virginia did. She didn’t travel abroad and she didn’t have a house in the country. Dorothy wasn’t an intellectual and she had fewer opportunities and fewer luxuries. However, she was happy.

Virginia in 1936


Virginia – 1936 wasn’t a great year really … agitation, headaches, writing and worrying. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia began 1936 with headaches and her head bursting with ideas. She was in the country, having spent a miserable Christmas at Monk’s House in Sussex. She was looking forward to returning to London.

In her diary entry for January 3rd Virginia mentions that she had to find £70 (about £4k) ‘out of her hoard’ to pay for her share of the house. This meant that her hoard was reduced to £700 (about £44k). Virginia’s efforts at this time were in finishing The Years. She was still unwell and wrote that her ‘head is still all nerves’. She ends the entry for this day by saying that she ‘ordered a sirloin and we shall go for a drive’.

On the 5th January Virginia reports that her’ head is quiet today’ Her health sounds like it was paramount in her mind and she was wary as one false move ‘means racing despair, exaltation, and all the rest of that familiar misery’.

On the 16th January Virginia reports that ‘seldom have I been more completely miserable’. This was because she was dissatisfied with The Years. In to February and Virginia is still reporting headaches and having to lay still to vanquish them.

March sees Virginia walking round Kensington Gardens discussing politics. She writes briefly about Europe and Labour Party meetings and about Hitler. She mentions how near the guns are and how she can see them and hear a roar. She refers to answering the ‘incessant telephones’ and having done nothing but walk and work during this ‘laborious Spring’.

In June she notes that the previous two months had seen her battle a dismal and almost catastrophic illness but that she is finally recovered. She refers to ‘the divine joy of being mistress of my mind again’.

In November, Virginia writes again of the headaches and of the suffering she endured while writing The Years, describing it as being ‘like a long childbirth’. She forced herself into her room, in her nightgown, with a headache and had to lay down after writing a page.

Virginia seems to go from the depths of despair, convinced of the failure of her novels, to being ‘exalted’ when Leonard reads her work and comments on it favourably. Her moods are up and then down.

So, we get a hint of Virginia’s life in 1936. Walking, writing, troubled by political events, battling mental health problems, worrying over the quality of her writing, not believing in her abilities, taking to her bed, keeping her diary and trying to stay calm for the sake of her sanity.

Overall, a difficult year. I get the impression of a troubled agitated lady, in turmoil over her writing, struggling day to day and never quite finding peace.

Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles by Amy Licence (2015)

Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles by Amy Licence.


I have just read the second biography on my reading list. This biography immediately piqued my interest with its reference to an ‘Ophelia-like suicide’ so, with my Hamlet knowledge being a bit rusty, I had to investigate further. Please see my ‘Getting Sidetracked’ page for more on this.

What have I learned?

Amy Licence spends some time writing about Virginia’s illness. She refers to the family doctor, Dr Savage and his diagnosis of neurasthenia and his recommendation of rest cures. She mentions that Virginia and Leonard faced the dilemma of whether to have children or not because of Virginia’s poor mental health. Dr Craig advised against motherhood on the grounds that Virginia’s poor health may be hereditary. A second doctor, Hyssop, confirmed Craig’s opinion that Virginia should not be a mother. It seems though that at some stage, shortly after her marriage, Virginia may have wanted to have a baby.

Licence discusses Laura, Leslie’s daughter by his first wife Harriet Makepeace Thackeray. Laura had difficulties that were misunderstood by her family and it is likely that she had Down’s Syndrome. She had been born three months prematurely. Her father’s attempts to teach Laura to read left him frustrated and impatient and led him to consult Langdon Down in 1885 who thought it unlikely that Laura would improve. Laura was sent to an institution when she was aged 21 and she died there aged 75. It seems that Virginia was less than sympathetic and described her step sister as ‘a vacant eyed girl whose idiocy was becoming daily more obvious’.

Virginia’s mother died in 1895 and Virginia was uneasy and angry abut the way she was expected to behave as a result.

Amy Licence describes the social code as, ‘a choking morass of veils and crepes, dark heaviness, the pungent scent of lilies and women weeping into handkerchiefs’

Rituals were to be adhered to, as outlined in Victorian household manuals, which covered details such as who should wear what and for how long. All the theatricality associated with grief alienated the teenaged Virginia. She felt like she was acting a part and the lack of freedom to grieve probably resulted in her first breakdown.

Life in 1936 – Virginia and Dorothy

Births and Deaths

Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941)

My Grandmother, Dorothy (1910 to 1990)

Right. To get all this into some perspective in my mind, Virginia was 28 years older than my Grandmother.

Virginia was born into the remaining 19 years of Victoria’s Reign – a ‘Late Victorian’. Dorothy missed the Victorian times and the following nine year reign of Edward V11 and was born 20 days after the accession of George V.

Both Virginia and Dorothy lived during the reigns of George V, Edward V111 and George V1. My ladies shared the years 1910 to 1941 so have 31 years of common ground in history. When Edward V111 abdicated in 1936 Virginia was 54 and Dorothy was 26. Both were adults during this ‘scandal’ in 1936 which is going to be the year of my focus.


Both Virginia and Dorothy would no doubt have been reading, on that December morning in 1936, some version of the astounding newspaper headlines. So, given that my ladies now have some shared experience I will explore what each of their lives would have been like in that year of 1936.

This is a snippet of my nan’s writing. She was recording her memories a few years before she died and this valuable source is going to be my inspiration for imagining her life in 1936, 28 years before I was born.

unnamed - Copy


Below are Dorothy and her first husband Frank with their daughters Hilda (my mum, left) and Joyce (my auntie, right) in about 1934. I couldn’t find a photograph that I know for certain to be 1936 so this is the nearest I can get. It’s only a couple of years so let’s pretend that the photo is 1936. Dorothy’s role was as wife and mother to two young children at this time. Dorothy would have been 26 years old. She went on to be very happily married to Frank for twenty nine years, until he died in 1958.

Below are Virginia and Leonard at around the same time. Virginia would have been 54. She went on to be happily married to Leonard for … twenty nine years …. until she died in 1941.


Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisèle Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund – IMEC Images © National Portrait Gallery, London

After Frank’s death, Dorothy had another long and happy marriage to Amos. They were married for twenty eight years, from 1960 until he died in 1988.

After Virginia’s death, Leonard went onto have a long relationship with Marjorie Parsons for, yes, you’ve guessed it, twenty eight years until he died in 1969.

My couples are more similar than we may have originally supposed.


In 1936 Dorothy would still be struggling to come to terms with her brother’s death. She was 26 years old and her brother, Claude, only nineteen. Claude was killed on the 12 September 1935 in a mining accident when there was an explosion underground at North Gawber Colliery. Eighteen other men were killed that day and 4,000 friends and family assembled at the pithead anxiously waiting for news. I can only assume that Dorothy was one of them. To add to the tragedy, Claude was only working that day as a favour for his brother John, to cover his shift for him. John had a nervous breakdown as a result of Claude’s death, never recovered and died in Storthes Hall Psychiatric Hospital in 1988.

Virginia also lost her brother, Thoby, in 1906. Virginia was 24 years old and Toby was 26. Thoby died of Typhoid that he contracted while on holiday in Greece. Like John, Virginia’s mental health suffered as a result of bereavements, first her mother, then her father and then her brother.

Both my ladies, in their mid twenties, knew what it was like to loose a brother under tragic circumstances. To lose anyone is terrible but to lose someone so young and so unnecessarily is tragic. Both ladies would know incredible heartbreak while they were very young adults. Virginia would have said goodbye to Thoby as he travelled to Greece, unaware of the tragedy that would unfold and to Dorothy, that day would have been like any other with her brother going off to work as normal but, sadly, he never came home again.

Home in 1936

In 1924 Virginia and Leonard moved to Tavistock Square, London.


Photo of Tavistock Square, taken by C Ford March 04. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

My own photo of New Street where Dorothy lived in 1936

I have just come across another coincidence. Virginia’s mother, Julia, died at the young age of 49 years. Guess how old Dorothy’s husband, Frank, was when he died? We certainly seem to have a lot of number coincidences in the lives of these two ladies.


Leonard Woolf (1880 to 1969) thinker



Photo: My own taken at Monk’s House, September 2015

Leonard Sidney Woolf was an author and political theorist. He was a British man of letters and publisher who influenced both literature and politics.

Q.  A (wo)man of letters?

A.  A (wo)man who is devoted to literary or scholarly pursuits.

In 1899 at the age of 19 Leonard won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met most of the other Bloomsberries. In 1904 he moved to what is now Sri Lanka to become a cadet in the Civil Service. To become a cadet the prerequisite was a first class honours degree in order to even be able to sit the exams. A very exclusive group.

To be honest though, much of the above doesn’t mean a great deal to me. Political Theorist? Cadet in the Civil Service? Who are these sorts of people?

Well, the following people were political theorists that I remember from my degree days. Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, Friedrich Engels. Even Plato, Cicero and Marx. Big names. So, in my quest for understanding, I can put Leonard in to some sort of ‘place’ in my mind. Also, when I think of high ranking officials in the Civil Service I think of people like Chris Patten in Hong Kong. Leonard was not your average type of guy.

Well, Leonard resigned from his role in 1912 partly because he fell out with Imperialism and partly to marry Virginia. He then published The Village in the Jungle, a novel based on his Sri Lanka experiences but from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, not the colonisers. Another one to add to my reading list perhaps. I am reminded of Things Fall Apart, Achebe (another of my favourites).

Woolf went on to join the Labour Party and the Fabian Society and contributed to the New Statesman. In 1916 he wrote International Government, proposing an international agency to enforce world peace.

Leonard spent much of his life caring for Virginia and after her death he fell in love with a married artist, Trekkie Parsons.

I think I would have liked Leonard. It seems he was a man of integrity who worked hard for the right reasons. Apparently he never published a book purely for profit and he turned down a high position in the Civil Service in the hope that Virginia would marry him.