Category Archives: Biographies

A Beautiful Book

Virginia Woolf’s GARDEN. The story of the garden at Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf's Garden

I was getting ready to go out to meet some friends yesterday evening and there was a loud knock on the door. I grabbed my purse because I assumed it would be the window cleaner calling for his payment. But, when I opened the door there was a gentleman standing there with a  parcel from Amazon in his hand. I hadn’t ordered anything from Amazon so I was a bit confused but I confirmed my name and he assured me the parcel was mine so I brought it indoors and opened it.

It was a gift from my special Dorset friends for helping them to move house last week. It is THE most gorgeous  book. Not only does it appeal to my passion for all things Virginia, but it appeals to my love of gardening and my very new love of photography. The photographs are stunning. It is:

The story of the garden at Monk’s House

and having visited Monk’s House it means such a lot. I absolutely adore it and can’t stop looking at it. Something to cherish.

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

Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles by Amy Licence.

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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.

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris (2011)

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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.