Monthly Archives: April 2016

Virginia’s A to Z – A Review

Well it has been a little over three months since I started Virginia’s A to Z. My intention was to increase my knowledge of all things Virginia by researching subjects starting with every letter of the alphabet. Here’s what I have learned.


  • I have learned about some of the people in Virginia’s life – I have learned about Virginia’s brothers, her half brothers, Ethel Smith, the Freshwater Circle, Katherine Mansfield, the Pattle Sisters, Leslie Stephen, Quentin Bell, Ralph Partridge, Vita Sackville West, and Dr Octavia Wilberforce.
  • and the ventures she was involved with – The Hogarth Press and the Omega Workshops.
  • and the writing of course – Judith Shakespeare, An Unwritten Novel,  Stream of Consciousness, and just how many novels, short stories, biographies, non fiction, autobiographies and plays she wrote.
  • not forgetting the lifestyle – Cambridge, dogs, travelling, the Memoir Club, the X Society.
  • and the bad things like Virginia’s illnesses and abuse.
  • and true to form, I got a bit side-tracked with The Yellow Wallpaper.

Z is for …


The Zanzibar Hoax

My thanks again to Brenda for telling me about this prank. Without her, my Virginia A to Z would have been a letter short and would have ended with ‘Y’.

The Zanzibar Hoax took place in 1905 and was the idea of an eccentric prankster named Horace de Vere Cole who was great friends with Virginia’s brother Adrian. Adrian joined Horace in his prank of pretending to be the Sultan Of Zanzibar visiting Cambridge University. Adrian was perhaps part of his delegation while Horace was the man himself.

The real Sultan was on an official Royal Visit to London so it wasn’t too much of a leap of imagination to think he may attend an ‘unofficial’ ceremonial visit to Cambridge as well. He certainly fooled the Mayor of Cambridge but he didn’t make it to Buckingham Palace like the real Sultan did.

This period of time, the early 1900s was quite a time for practical jokes and Horace’s aim was to poke fun at the establishment and at pompous authority figures. He loved the theatre and loved dressing up; Vanessa thought he was creepy; me too.

A Short Story

I am posting something a bit different today.  Yesterday’s post about The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has received some interest from one of my sisters. My sister, like me, is a book lover and a Literature graduate. She is also a Women’s Studies graduate with a  keen interest in women’s lives and writing.  After reading my post about The Yellow Wallpaper, she reminded me of a story that she wrote quite a while ago which, like Gilman’s story, illustrates a man’s attitude to a woman’s mental health. 


The End of the Rainbow

I knew immediately that I had been diluted. I had expected it for a while and I had worried about how humiliatingly public it might be, but it had finally happened peacefully in my sleep.

The human body is normally 70% water. I think in general, women become more dilute over time but my estimate, as I lay there, was that I was now about 97% H2O. I couldn’t tell what the rest of me was, or which part of me had been displaced, but the outline of my body was wavy now, unstable and blurred where it merged with the delicate daisy print of my sheets. As I gingerly felt the bed with my hands, arms stretching out slowly as if fearing that the crocodile under my bed might bite them off suddenly, I was relieved to find it was dry. I had not spilled over. You heard such stories. I quickly pulled my arms back and folded them across my chest. I needed to think, so I lay quite still, as still as I could in the circumstances. But, water finds its own level, and any movement sent a tidal wave from my feet to my frown that made me feel quite funny. I recalled the impossibility of stepping in the bath without sound or splash, despite my best efforts as a child. Also, I remembered trying to make the bath water look like I had never washed in it. I had wanted to show him how clean I was in the hope that it might make him realise how dirty he was without my having to spell it out. It hadn’t worked.

So….what now? No one is ever prepared for dilution. We know it will happen, like the menopause, but no one talks about it. Like starting your periods. Or how awful motherhood can be. Of course, I knew intuitively that a woman who had not had children, unless of course she had been unable but desperate, could expect to suffer more. In that case, I guess I was in for a pretty rough ride.

I could never see the point. Never felt that thing you are meant to feel. Women like me are unnatural, sick, and God will punish me with a painful dilution. But a painful dilution is no reason to bring a child into this world. I still stick by that. Ouch; the pain has started quickly, in my feet; it’s the water trying to escape I suppose. The extremities.

Most who looked at me would say I looked fine. They obviously haven’t had their dilution, or else are men. My husband. A mathematician. Cambridge. Now Professor of something. Comes home late. Works at home all weekend. Fathered a son (not mine) and a daughter (not mine). I have learned to be so proud. He could have been a doctor or a psychiatrist, but he preferred numbers, rationality, black and white; not people and feelings and endless shades of grey.

As well as wet, I now felt grey. I had actually lost my colour long ago, but until now, I had always felt a colour. I had once been orange and red and yellow and I had fizzed like champagne. I went to Paris, to The Louvre. I had darkened first, to black, which had its comforts, I don’t mind black, but then I faded. Over time, you know. It just happened. Crept up on me really. The dilution left me Pale Platinum. Pale like the sky, just visible to me now. I would wait until the next cloud had passed.

There it went. ‘Don it’s time to get up,’ I nudged my husband, asleep at my side. He sat up without preamble, thin legs hanging over the side of the bed. He strode purposefully out of the room. He hadn’t noticed. I should get up now and make coffee. I heard him in the bathroom, water running in the basin. He came into the bedroom for clothes and socks. I mumbled that I had a headache. He grabbed his jacket, shoes. He said see you later have a nice day.

Y is for …

The Yellow Wallpaper

What on Earth is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman doing in my Virginia A-Z?

The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892 and is considered to be an important work of feminist literature. It exposes (masculine) attitudes to women’s health, particularly mental health by charting the descent into insanity of an unnamed narrator and protagonist, as a result of the rest cure prescribed by her husband, a doctor. I have read this story many times, and never without thinking of Virginia Woolf.

The doctor has rented a house for the summer and arranges it so that his depressed wife is confined to an upstairs room for total rest. She would have preferred the nicer room downstairs with its view and outside access but he insisted on this rather less pleasing room. The windows have bars on them.

Some reviews refer to the lady in question as Jane. Jane is mentioned at the very end of the story but it is confusing about whom it refers and it has been said that it may even be a mistake for ‘Jennie’, the doctor’s sister who is keeping house for them. I believe that she is unnamed, or as good as.

The rest cure was developed by an American neurologist, Silas Weir Mitchell, in the late 1800s as a treatment for nervous illnesses, and was primarily prescribed for women. The cure involved isolation from friends and family, constant feeding and no talking, reading or writing for as much as eight whole weeks.

In The Yellow Wallpaper the doctor’s wife (I am annoyed now) is forbidden from reading and writing in order to recover from her depression and ‘hysterical tendency’.  Her treatment also consists of enforced bed rest and isolation, even being kept away from her new baby. However, the lady writes secretly but hides her work to avoid repercussions from her husband. Basically we see a lady who has no mental stimulation and with the absence of anything to do, or people to talk with, she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper. Her imagination takes over, she is convinced there is a woman lurking and creeping behind the paper.

The lady has no identity, she is confined to one room in the home, she doesn’t participate in any outside activity and is controlled and oppressed by her husband. The domestic sphere is the only place for her. Because she wanted to work and go outside she has been dismissed as irrational and ‘mad’.

I am not suggesting that all these thing remind me of Virginia and her situation, but the rest cure certainly does. Virginia was prescribed bed rest and was limited to a couple of hours a day of writing during her illnesses. Leonard was keen that she stayed in the country to avoid over stimulation in London. This cure was common at the time for females, with bed rest, plenty of food and under stimulation considered to be the best approach. Ultimately in the story, the lady descends into worsening mental health … as did Virginia.

By the way, men at the time were not prescribed the ‘rest’ cure but the ‘west’ cure – outdoor living, physical activity, keeping journals about their experiences, companionship, etc. Theodore Roosevelt apparently was prescribed the west cure.

The Yellow Wallpaper was written as an attack on the rest cure and the way it ignored a woman’s opinion and treated her as a passive object of treatment.

X is for …

X Society

I am grateful to my blogging friend Brenda for pointing me in the direction of the X Society for the twenty fourth post in my Virginia Vignettes A to Z. The letter X is always difficult in any alphabetical list. Apart from X-ray, xylophone and Xmas what else is there? X doesn’t even take up half a page in the dictionary.

So, I was so relieved when Brenda told me about this society. I thought I was going to have to find out whether Virginia ever had Xmas dinner, or indeed whether she ever played the xylophone. Seriously though, there are currently over 700 societies at Cambridge University.  These societies add to the enrichment of students’ university lives and there is probably a society for any subject you may be interested in. Societies range from the Amateur Boxing Club, the Ancient Literature Society, Badminton, and Bridge, right through to the Vegan Society, Volleyball and the Yacht Club.

In 1899 Lytton Strachey arrived at Trinity College, the same time as Thoby Stephen. Lytton introduced Thoby to the Reading Club. The Reading Club had five members and they all met in Clive Bells’ rooms. The five men (Lytton Strachey, Toby Stephen, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf and Saxon Sydney Turner) later became founders of the Thursday Club, which became the Bloomsbury Group. This same circle of friends were also members of other clubs; the Midnight Society and the X Society.

Brenda tells me that the X Society was a play reading group of undergraduates at Trinity College. It devoted itself to reading drama. Groups such as this provided further opportunities to learn, visits were organised, perhaps there were guest speakers and lectures. Students would meet with a shared interest and debate their subject. Societies would be (and probably still are) formal, there would be rules regarding aims and discipline, together with procedures regarding finance, subscriptions and complaints.

Very little specific information about the X Society exists and I don’t believe it exists under that name today but I reckon that somewhere in the current list of 700 societies, there will be something pretty close.

Brenda has a fabulous blog. Please visit.



W is for …

Dr Octavia Wilberforce, Virginia’s doctor

Octavia was born in 1888 and had a limited education of sporadic music, history and literature lessons followed by one full formal year of learning at age 16. Aged 22 she decided she wanted to be a doctor and despite her parents being against it, her father cutting her out of his will and the backlash of refusing to marry the man that her father wanted her to, she started at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1913.

At this time, only 3% of qualified doctors were female but despite the odds and the prejudice she had her own general practice by 1923, and she became Head Physician at Sussex Hospital for Women.

Leonard arranged for Virginia to be treated by Dr Wilberforce in 1941 when the familiar signs of her depression and mental turmoil began again. He made an urgent appointment for Virginia who maintained that nothing was wrong and resisted all efforts of help. Virginia presented to the doctor as thin, restless, vacant, shaking and tired. Dr Wilberforce could only prescribe rest, fresh air and good food and explained some of her symptoms as being due to smoking too much and eating too much cream and milk.

Leonard and the doctor did consider the possibility of Virginia being cared for in an asylum  but they decided on sending Virginia home to be looked after by Leonard.

But it was too late for Virginia, she decided to die the very next day.

V is for …


Victoria Mary Sackville-West (1892 to 1962)


William Strang [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vita was born at Knole House, Kent, into an aristocratic family. She was home educated, in the main, and became a poet, novelist, biographer, travel writer, critic, historian and garden designer; a very impressive CV. She married Harold Nicolson in 1913 when she was 21 and they had an open marriage, each having same sex relationships. They had two sons, Nigel and Benedict.

As a woman, Vita couldn’t inherit Knole House when her father died and it passed in to the hands of a male cousin, Charles. In the 1930s Vita and Harold bought Sissinghurst Castle where Vita created the beautiful, and famous, gardens. In the 1940s, Vita had a weekly column in The Observer entitled In Your Garden. The castle and gardens are now managed by the National Trust but it was Vita’s original garden design that provided inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Vita’s novels include The Edwardians, a Bildungsroman centred around the aristocracy of the early 1900s and All passion Spent. More to add to my reading list!

It was in the 1920s that Vita became close to Virginia. Leonard knew about their affair but he never objected as all he wanted was for Virginia to be happy. Though Vita’s relationship with Virginia didn’t last more than a few years, they remained friends until Virginia’s death in 1941.

Vita was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Companion of Honour and a Justice of the Peace for Kent.

A Companion of honour is a reward for outstanding achievement in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry and religion. Vita is in good company with Steven Hawking, Dame Judi Dench and David Hockney.

Vita died at Sissinghurst, at the age of 70 in 1962.

U is for …

An Unwritten Novel

20160404_170553 an unwritten novel

An Unwritten Novel: an extract

An Unwritten Novel is a short story from The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. It is a mere ten pages long so I figured, how hard can it be? I had been reading it, very slowly,  for about twenty minutes and my husband asked the question, ‘what is it about?’ I looked at him and replied ‘I haven’t the faintest idea’.

Well, I read it to the end, rather in the manner of a four year old learning to read but stopping short of pointing with my index finger; and then read it again and then a third time and well, it started to mean something to me, sort of. This sentence made me laugh:

‘So we rattled through Surrey and across the border into Sussex’

It is about a woman on a train who you can’t help but think of as being Virginia herself, as the train is travelling from London to  Lewes, which were the locations of Virginia’s homes. This woman is reading a newspaper and, over the top of the paper, she catches sight of a fellow passenger, another woman, who looks unhappy. The newspaper lady creates an imaginary life for the unhappy lady, who she calls Minnie, and gives her a fictional sister in law, Hilda, and a home life where she is introduced to children at Hilda’s dinner table and showed upstairs to unpack. The newspaper lady then imagines that Minnie has committed a crime, but what crime she doesn’t settle on; and that her baby brother has been killed by scalding water.

This is how Virginia ‘tells’ us her narrator’s thoughts about the plans she has for this imagined character’s life.

Neighbours – the doctor- baby brother – the kettle -scalded – hospital – dead.

What we have is a fictional piece of work with a fictional lady on a train who is creating a fictional character within this fiction. Virginia’s newspaper lady narrator goes on to create another character in Minnie’s life, James Moggridge and we see how she has got completely carried away in creating a fictional life for this unhappy lady on the train.

When the journey ends for ‘Minnie’ at Eastbourne the newspaper lady offers to help her with her bags but is then surprised when actually the lady is being met by her son. The invented biography of ‘Minnie’ did not correlate with the fictional ‘real life Minnie’.

Gosh, a difficult one, but I somehow felt that I had been inside Virginia’s mind, seeing her imagination at work and her thought processes … and it was a fascinating place to be.