Bringing Virginia Woolf back to life

by georgehep

I have enjoyed two weeks holiday on a grand tour down south. I have visited chocolate box places like Saffron Walden, Rye, Chichester and Lyme Regis. I have remembered old times with longstanding friends, told long winded tales and listened to theirs in return.  I am increasingly convinced that visiting friends is the only good reason to travel.

I have walked along cliff tops, listened to chamber music and watched village cricket. I have paid a ridiculous sum in a fashionable restaurant for a turbot plucked out of the sea that very day and I have met Marie Bartholomew.

To explain why a chance encounter  with Miss Bartholomew was the stand out moment of my holiday, I must try to unravel my lifelong fascination with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of the last century, and her husband Leonard, author, journalist, politician and sage.

The late Jimmy Morris, my English master, as teachers were more appropriately called in those days, maintained that E. M. Forster was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Morgan Forster was a confidante of the Woolfs. On another day, I would make the case for Graham Greene but Virginia Woolf is right up there too and, to my mind, no one writes more beautifully.

A good cameo of  Virginia’s writing can be found in one of her first short stories which has just been reissued in Two Stories, to mark the centenary of The Hogarth Press. The Press started life in 1917 on the Woolf’s dining room table with a second hand printing machine  as Leonard’s idea to give Virginia some occupational therapy.

Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’,  is one of her first free flowing attempts to break away from the traditional novel form that was to find its apogee in The Waves 14 years later. Woolf is not an easy read but is well worth the effort.  The lyricism of her writing and her sensitivity to human feeling is incomparable especially when accompanied with a glass of chilled white wine.

I trawl bookshops in the vain hope of finding an early edition from the Hogarth Press, perhaps one of those printed by the Woolfs themselves. Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, designed the covers so they treasured by affectionados, but produced in modest numbers and long since ferreted away in libraries and collections.

Hogarth’s  jaw dropping  list included The Wasteland, perhaps the greatest long poem of the twentieth century, T S Eliot being another friend, and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.  Leonard’s unorthodox but successful  business model astonished the publishing trade and is worthy of a Harvard case study.

My fascination with the Woolfs extends to their role as members of the Bloomsbury Group who kicked over the traces of the Victorian age in their lifestyles, their culture and their thought. They were always up for what Virginia described as a ‘lark’ such as the occasion when they disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and were entertained by the Royal Nay and inspected the fleet.

In his autobiography, Leonard describes returning to Bloomsbury in 1911 after seven years as a civil servant in what was then Ceylon, to be amazed by the outpouring of art at the controversial post  impressionist exhibition, the  performances of Russian ballet at Covent Garden  and falling in love with Virginia, who was one of the great beauties of her day.  He adds, honestly, that anyone meeting Virginia in the street would regard her as odd.

Civilisation, he believes, was destroyed by the first world war and then  battered by the barbarism of Hitler. The Woolfs  carried cyanide pills in case Hitler invaded. Writing in the swinging sixties, by then it his late eighties, Leonard Woolf is one of the most poignant witnesses of the century.

The Bloomsberries wrote extensively, kept diairies and left ephemera like holiday snapshots that have been endlessly mulled over for deep meaning. Their influence may be exaggerated. Virginia was well regarded in her life time but no one expected that so many books and thesis would follow in her wake including, for example, a study of her relations with her servants and an imagined novel of her time in the United States, where she never set foot. Enough!

I have read the books, visited the exhibitions and seen the movie ( the moody Hours) but never expected to meet someone who actually knew the Woolfs. Then came the unexpected  highlight of the holiday, on a visit to their home in Sussex, now a National Trust property. I arrived in the nick of time to hear a talk by Marie Bartholomew, aged 87.

Her father was the Woolf’s gardener and she recounted watching from her bedroom  window as the visitors in their party frocks arrived  at the Woolf’s house across the road;   how  her father argued with Leonard  over horticulture and how Mrs Woolf lived in a world of her own. It was as if it had happened yesterday.

I dared not ask Marie Batholomew about that day in March 1941 but without prompting she told how Leonard how banged on their door in desperation  whilst they were eating their lunch and asked her father  to help him look for Virginia who had waited until Leonard was out of the way, left a letter for him on the mantelpiece and set off to the river.


Published in Newcastle Journal on 22nd August 2017