Category Archives: Virginia’s World

Virginia’s first car 1927

Virginia and Leonard bought their first car in 1927 as a result of the success of To the Lighthouse. By all accounts it was either a Singer Junior or a Singer Senior.  I don’t have a photograph of either of these but today I went for breakfast to The Carding Shed, Hepworth, where there is a display of classic cars. One of these was a 1929 Chrysler Saloon which, although not the same as a Singer, will give you an idea of what The Woolfs’ car looked like.


Photo: my own

The car gave Virginia freedom from walking, cycling or travel by train. It allowed her to travel thousands of miles as far as Italy, France and Ireland. Both Virginia and Leonard had driving lessons and after only a few weeks Virginia was able to drive alone in the countryside. However, not long after her initial enthusiasm for driving, she drove into a hedge and preferred to be a passenger after that.

Here is a little bit of driving history:

In 1903 the first driving licences were introduced in order to identify vehicles and their drivers. However, no test was necessary. The licences cost the equivalent of £25 today.

in 1927 Virginia started to learn to drive. She would never have had to take a driving test. The speed limit at this time was 20mph.

In 1935 testing became compulsory for all new drivers. A candidate would arrange to meet the examiner in a railway station or somewhere as no test centres existed at this time.  Windscreen wipers were used for the first time.

Keeping up with the Joneses?

I her diary for July 1927 Virginia commented about the car that ‘the Keynes have one too – a cheap one’. Presumably hers was an expensive one.


Image courtesy of Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

For information, the average price of a new car in 1927 was £380 which is the equivalent today of nearly £21k.


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.

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.




The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


First edited by Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father.

The original dictionary was conceived in 1882 and first edited by Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen. Leslie had to organise the work of more than 600 contributors to the dictionary and he himself researched and wrote 378 of them.

An editor – a person having managerial and sometimes policy-making responsibility related to the writing, compilation, and revision of content for a publishing firm or for a newspaper, magazine, or other publication.

The dictionary has entries detailing the lives of those men and women who have made British history. Those given an entry may be British people who have ventured overseas and overseas people who have lived in Britain and have made a significant contribution to British history. The idea is not just to include public figures but to include those people who are largely unknown as well; the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the entertainers, the authors and so on.

Not all the entries are about ‘good’ people, there are the notorious ones in there too, and the criminal. With this in mind it seems a bit erroneous to say that it is an honour to be included in the National Biography, but you get the idea.

Today the dictionary comprises over 60,000 entries written by over 11,000 contributors who are historians, scholars and experts in their field.

The biographies that were written in Leslie Stephen’s day have now been re-written and updated to reflect modern times and many more entries have been added.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography only has entries about deceased people, never those that are still living and some entries are longer than others. Winston Churchill for example has an entry of 25,000 words!

The dictionary is always a work in progress, with new facts about existing entries coming to light and, with people dying all the time, new entries being made.

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.