Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

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.

T is for …



My first experience with knowing someone who had been ‘abroad’ was in the late 1970s when a school friend went to Spain and my grandparents went to Malta and I think my dad went to Germany a couple of times, work related.

People that I knew didn’t really venture very far for their holidays and I suppose I naively thought that the 1970s was the first time people did that sort of thing. Well I was wrong, Virginia et al were doing it long before then.

Here is a summary of Virginia’s travels.

In 1896 Virginia went to France with Vanessa. She must have gone with her parents or some other adults as she was only 14 in 1896.

In 1904 she went to Italy with Vanessa and Violet Dickinson

In 1905 she went to Spain and Portugal

In 1906 she went to Greece. This is when Thoby caught Typhoid and sadly died.

in 1908 Virginia visited Italy with the Bells.

in 1911 she travelled to Turkey

In 1912 Virginia and Leonard honeymooned in Provence, Spain and Italy

In 1923 she went to Spain

In 1927 she went to France and Sicily

In 1929 Virginia and Leonard visited Germany. They spent the 17th to the 21st January in Berlin. They were joined by Vanessa and Quentin and by Duncan Grant who were touring galleries there. Virginia is reported to have suffered badly from the sea sickness drug that she had taken and on her return home, she went to bed for a few weeks to recover.

In 1935 Virginia enjoyed a car tour through Holland, Germany and Italy.

Virginia was clearly very well travelled but apparently she always felt more comfortable at home, specifically in London which she loved most of all, and in Cornwall.

S is for …


Stream of Consciousness

Well, I had to cover this at some point didn’t I?


I  understand the ‘Stream of Consciousness’ technique to be the written version of what is going on in a character’s mind.

The modernist writers were the pioneers of this technique. James Joyce takes the credit for inventing this new type of writing in his first novel,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916. and Virginia developed it in Jacob’s Room in 1922.

Have you ever thought about thoughts? They occur so randomly and often fleetingly in your mind, jumping about from one thing to another, that they are hard to pinpoint. Actually capturing them in the first place and then writing them down seems near impossible.

I find the whole idea of thought fascinating. Do we all think partly in words and partly in pictures? Do we have to understand language to be able to think in words?  I suppose we must; I couldn’t think in German for instance. Do we have to be able to see to think in pictures? Thoughts are incredibly difficult to stop as well, as my attempts to ‘think of nothing’ during yoga practice have testified.

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that describes in words what is going on in the minds of characters; and from this we learn much about them and their personality and history etc. The story can be told through the characters’ thoughts and feelings and not through a structured plot so this written equivalent of mind chatter is not necessarily logical. How many times have you been thinking about one thing and suddenly the thought has gone and you’re thinking about something else completely different?

Written down, on the page, this technique may lack punctuation and appear random and unstructured and be very difficult to read and understand. At first attempt it may appear as nonsense even. It is compelling though; we are inside a character’s mind seeing it at work.

When we come across this technique in fiction, the odds are that we find it difficult. I certainly do. But it is engrossing and challenging and awesomely clever.

Difficult but worth it.

R is for …

Ralph Partridge (1894 to 1960)

The Bloomsberries certainly had some complicated relationships and Ralph Partridge was no exception. Ralph was born in 1894 so he was twelve years younger than Virginia. He was educated at Oxford and by the age of twenty three was a major in the Army during the First World War.

Ralph  visited Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey at Tidmarsh Mill in Berkshire.  He soon moved in with them both and became the third member of the household. Both Dora and Lytton were in love with Ralph.  Ralph was heterosexual, Lytton was not. Dora and Ralph had an affair but her heart was always with Lytton.

Ralph went to work at the Hogarth Press where he earned enough money to marry Dora in 1921. She married him to stop him going abroad as Lytton had come to rely on his friendship. Always thinking of Lytton first.  All three of them went on Honeymoon to Venice.


Ham Spray House


By Charles Richard Sanders [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1924 Lytton bought Ham Spray House and invited the married Dora and Ralph to live with him. The living arrangements started as Ralph moving in with Dora and Lytton at Tidmarsh and ended up with Dora and Ralph moving in with Lytton at Ham Spray. Confused?

Ralph left Dora in 1926 when he fell in love with Francis Marshall. Dora never really loved him as she was in love with Lytton. When Lytton died in 1932 Dora shot herself rather than live without him. She was only thirty eight.

Ralph married Francis in 1933 and they were rarely apart.  Francis was a Cambridge student but (like all women at that time) couldn’t get a full degree. The Partridges  travelled together, they ballroom danced, enjoyed music and had a very close marriage until he died of a heart attack in 1960. Francis lived until 2004 and died at the age of 104.

Q is for …


Quentin Bell (1910 to 1996)

Quentin was the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf.  Here is his impressive C.V.

  • Art historian, critic, biographer, author, sculptor, artist, lecturer.
  • Lecturer in Art History, University of Durham
  • Professor of Fine Art, University of Leeds
  • Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University
  • Professor of Fine Art, University of Hull
  • Professor of Art History, University of Sussex

Quentin’s biography of Virginia Woolf earned him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; one of the oldest literary awards with prizes for biography, fiction and drama. He was awarded the prize in 1972 and he was in very good company. Lytton Strachey also won the biography prize in 1921 for Queen Victoria; David Garnett won the fiction award in 1922 for Lady into Fox, and E M Forster won in 1924 for Passage to India.

Quentin married Anne Olivier Popham, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, with two honorary doctorates from the York and Sussex Universities. Quentin and Anne had three children; Julian (artist), Cressida (textile designer, interior designer and cake decorator), and Virginia (writer).

I have mentioned that Quentin Bell was Professor at Leeds University. The University campus boasts a range of public art but Bell’s Levitating Woman, also known as The Dreamer  is the most popular and I cant wait to see it. The best bit? Leeds is my home town so its only about thirty minutes drive to the University. I will of course show you my photographs but for now, please use this link.

Quentin Bell: The Dreamer

I have now been to see this artwork and have taken a few photographs. Please visit my ‘cultural afternoon (part 1)’ post to see how I got on (it is under the ‘places of interest’ menu).

P is for …


The Pattle Sisters


Virginia’s Grandmother, Maria Pattle; one of the Pattle sisters.

Adeline de l’Etang, a French aristocrat, and James Pattle, of Calcutta, had ten children; nine girls and a boy.  James, Eliza and Harriett all died as children. The remaining seven girls came to be known as the Pattle sisters. One of them, Maria was Virginia’s grandmother. The others were her Great Aunts.

The siblings (all born between 1812 and 1828) were Adeline, James, Eliza, Julia Margaret, Sarah, Maria, Louisa, Sophie, Virginia and Harriett.

The sisters were famous for their beauty and they were the ‘toast’ of Calcutta and Kensington. They were good looking, high spirited and unconventional and they certainly caused quite a stir in Victorian Society.  Virginia and Sophia made aristocratic marriages and Julia became a famous photographer. Between them they had a huge circle of influential, literary, artistic and political friends and were part of the well known social and cultural life in London. Maria married Dr John Jackson who was a highly respected physician in India. Maria and her daughters spent much time in London. One of Maria’s daughters, Julia, was to become Virginia Stephen’s (Woolf’s) mother.

Virginia Woolf certainly descended from a high profile family. William Thackeray is reported to have been besotted and to have said abut Virginia Pattle that ‘when she comes into the room, it is like a beautiful air of Mozart breaking on you’. He described her as a ‘young lady with every kind of perfection, a charming face and a perfect form’.