Words Darren Hawes
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
“…it is done; & I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, & calm, & some tears…”
If one name is synonymous with the word Bloomsbury, it’s that of Virginia Woolf. Although her time as a resident of the area was relatively short, it nevertheless provided her with a crucial space in which to bloom creatively. In return, she added immeasurably to the literary character of Bloomsbury, and her influence is still visible today.
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in Kensington on the 25th of January 1882. Her father was a notable historian, and her mother modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites; it is safe to say Virginia was exposed to the creative world from a very young age. Losing her mother in 1895 and her father in 1904, at a time where education for women was virtually unheard of, she turned to her brother Thoby, who was studying at Cambridge, telling him: “I don’t get anybody to argue with me now, and feel the want. I have to delve from books painfully and all alone.” And this is how the 22-year-old Virginia came to move out of her home at Hyde Park Gate, accompanied by her sister Vanessa and her brother Adrian, and venture into the emancipating and disreputable atmosphere of Bloomsbury from her new address at 46 Gordon Square.
It was at this time that things really started happening for the eager Virginia. With the help of some family acquaintances, the inelegant district slowly began to come alive for her. It was this simple change of address that led to her metamorphosis from an impatient young woman to a literary visionary. A friend, Violet, introduced her to the Guardian where she took on the position of literary critic. Soon after, she was writing for the Academy and the National Review and contributing weekly reviews to the Times Literary Supplement. Bloomsbury opened up a wondrous new world for Virginia, allowing her to gain the experience she needed. Simultaneously, it was here, in this still rather dubious area of central London, that the stuff of artistic legend was made and the Bloomsbury Group began to form.
It all started when Thoby invited a few select friends from Cambridge University to spend Thursday nights at 46 Gordon Square. Virginia found herself a part of something – a group of people who were throwing off the shackles of a stagnant Victorian decorum. One such instance is recorded in her collected autobiographical writings: “Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress. ‘Semen?’ He said. Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laughing.” Such seemingly trivial incidents illustrate the genesis of the Bloomsbury Group and paved the way for Virginia’s break with the restrained artistic past as she embraced the possibilities of the future.
Of course, such gatherings would soon enough become a sort of movement, as this group of artists, writers, critics and philosophers became something bigger – a loose collective we now know as the Bloomsbury Group. Countless articles could be written about every controversy, racy happening and rumour that the group gave rise to. As historian Charles Snow puts it, they “believed in pleasure… They tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles or more complicated geometric figures, well then, one accepted that too.”
The fledgling group of pleasure-lovers was not without its tragedies. In 1906, doctors mistook typhoid fever for malaria and, at the age of 26, Thoby Stephen was dead. In 1931, Virginia would credit her completion of her ground-breaking experimental novel The Waves to her youngest brother, writing that “it is done; & I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, & calm, & some tears, thinking of Thoby & if I could write Julian Thoby Stephen 1881-1906 on the first page. I suppose not.”
Seeking solace after another major loss, Virginia turned to her sister, Vanessa for support. Alas, there was little to be found there, as Vanessa had recently been courted by and subsequently engaged to Clive Bell, a man Virginia described as “having more taste, I think, than genius.” Her sister’s forthcoming nuptials meant that it was time for Virginia to move away from 46 Gordon Square. Luckily, she was able to find a place not too far from Bloomsbury. In a letter to a friend, she says that: “Adrian and I try to get a house, and I hope I have found one now in Fitzroy Square.”
There is, of course, much more to say about the life and times of Virginia Woolf, but for now we can only turn the page on this chapter of her life in Bloomsbury as a new one opened up in neighbouring Fitzrovia, just across the Tottenham Court Road. Witness to fresh beginnings and seismic cultural shifts, Bloomsbury had shaped Virginia as much as she has come to shape it. Through the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia met her future husband, Leonard Woolf, whom she married on the 10th August 1912. This year also saw Virginia hit with an extreme bout of depression that forced her to leave the city and take up temporary residence in Asham House, Sussex. This residence was to become the couple’s holiday retreat until 1919 and a viable location for Virginia’s writing. Indeed, it was here she put to pen to paper and produced her debut novel, The Voyage Out (1915).
28th March 1941, Monks House, Sussex: Virginia pens a thoughtful letter and leaves it for her loving husband to find. Putting on her coat and walking out of the door, Mrs Woolf proceeds to line her pockets with stones and pebbles. She walks with purpose towards the section of the River Ouse close to her home. She steps calmly into the water until it comes over her head and she disappears under its waves and ripples. Virginia Woolf lives on in Bloomsbury, the area that allowed her creative soul to flourish; but for such an artist, her real immortality is in her words.