Literary haunts: Virginia's London walks

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Virginia Woolf walked London's parks for inspiration, and to find solace from her dark moods. Seventy years after her great-aunt's death, Emma Woolf argues that you can still find her restless spirit there

"Oh, life, how I have dreaded you, oh, human beings, how I have hated you... how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube!"

What rush-hour commuter has not felt this same irrational flash of hatred toward fellow passengers as expressed in the experimental novel The Waves? It is hard to believe that Virginia Woolf died 70 years ago today. The language, the setting and the sentiments of this 1931 novel are both formal and yet curiously modern.

On this, the 70th anniversary of her death, it's intriguing to wonder what Virginia Woolf – my great aunt – would have made of London today. She would surely be surprised to find the British Library no longer in its rightful place, and completely lost among the skyscrapers and one-way systems of the docks and Tower Bridge. On the other hand, one can easily imagine her people-watching and scribbling notes in a café in the heart of the city, or eavesdropping on conversations on the top deck of what she called the omnibus.

One of Virginia's greatest pleasures in London was "street-haunting"; it provided inspiration for her writing and solace when she felt depressed. In a low moment in 1934, she wrote: "I'm so ugly. So old. Well, don't think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives."

But what was Virginia's London like? Her daily walks – and those of her most famous character, Mrs Dalloway – along Piccadilly and Whitehall and through the royal parks would be largely unchanged in 2011. She would find her Bloomsbury squares (Gordon, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Tavistock and Mecklenbugh) authentically restored, although more upmarket than in her day. It was here that the Bloomsbury Group began in the early years of the 20th century – and thanks to the numerous blue plaques, these houses are now well out of the price range of young writers and artists today.

So much has been written about Virginia Woolf since her suicide seventy years ago. On 28 March 1941, in the grip of yet another nervous breakdown, she left her home at Rodmell in Sussex and walked to the nearby River Ouse. There she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the fast-flowing waters. She could swim but she allowed herself to drown. Her husband, Leonard, discovered her missing within hours but her body was not found until three weeks later by children playing by the river.

As well as what is already documented, there are the family stories. As children, we ate our meals on the large kitchen table where the Woolfs started the Hogarth Press (the press on which they published The Waste Land in 1923) and the wooden table still stands in my parents' kitchen. I loved my father's anecodotes of his uncle and aunt: how Leonard invited Tom Eliot for lunch and "all he gave me was a bag of chips and a bottle of ginger beer"; how Virginia referred to my father as "the boy with the sloping nose"; how Leonard was so careful that he used newspaper instead of lavatory paper at home; how Virginia likened Eliot to "a great toad with jewelled eyes"; how she described Leonard, in letters announcing her engagement, as "a penniless Jew".

But what was Virginia really like? My father (who lived in Leonard's London home for 30 years) remembers his aunt as: 'volatile, mercurial, moody... She could be quite sharp – she looked sharp, her face was sharp. When you arrived at their house, she would ask you about your journey and she wanted every detail. "OK, you came by train. Tell me about the people in the carriage," she'd probe... It was the novelist's search for copy, ideas. Leonard referred to this as "Virginia taking off".

My father recalls how she would recycle information: "You'd tell her something, a little story or an account, and the next week she would have built it into a big deal, exaggerating everything. By the time she'd finished the fictionalisation of an incident, it could be amusing but it could also be embarrassing for the person at the centre of things. She would do this with anyone who visited the house."

It should be remembered that the cult of Virginia – the conferences and guided tours and tea-towel-fame – didn't begin until the 1960s; in her lifetime she was no literary colossus. It also seems important (at least to a Woolf) to correct the common misconception of Leonard as a stern disciplinarian, the stifling caretaker of Virginia's fragile genius. He was her carer, certainly, and without him it's unlikely that she would have survived her repeated breakdowns or written many of her best novels.

Yes, he moved her out of London to Richmond when she was falling into yet another nervous breakdown – and yes, she enjoyed satirising the deathly dullness of the suburbs – one recalls the line from The Hours: "Between Richmond and death, I choose death." More seriously, Virginia depended on London for her creative spark, writing in 1923: "I sit down baffled and depressed to face a life spent, mute and mitigated in the suburbs..." It is clear that tranquil Richmond did not stimulate or inspire her.

However, Richmond was a productive time for the Hogarth Press, which they started at Hogarth House in 1917. They bought the small press on impulse one afternoon, walking through Holborn, and when it was delivered there was nowhere to put it but the dining room. In 1923, Virginia wrote to Vita Sackville-West: "We don't dine so much as picnic, as the press has got into the larder and the dining room." (As someone who grew up in a publishing house, with parcels of books underneath – and sometimes on top of – my bed, I have every sympathy.) The Hogarth Press was a commercial success publishing, among others, TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and EM Forster.

Whatever Virginia thought of the "suburbs", Leonard was not the joyless, controlling jailer that he has often been portrayed as – far from it. Virginia's nervous breakdowns could at times be so severe that they required four nurses to physically hold her down. Leonard knew that the bustle of central London, the stress of finishing each book, the endless socialising, was simply too intense for his wife. (One should also remember that both world wars unfolded during her adult life, the bombs beating a constant backdrop to novels such as Jacob's Room.) As Virginia herself admitted, Leonard sacrificed his own life and work to keep her going. He was, my father remembers, "a kind and enormously caring person".

There is no doubt that Virginia was a complex and demanding woman, judgemental, at times even malicious. She was jealous of other writers, she was snobbish and anti-semitic. In 1930, reflecting on her marriage, she told Ethyl Smyth: "How I hated marrying a Jew – how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles – what a snob I was."

Seventy years after Virginia's death, what strikes me is the honesty of her writing. In letters and diaries, in her fictional characters, she's a writer who wants to get at the truth. A letter written to Leonard during their courtship in 1912, expresses her reservations: "As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no attraction in you. There are moments – when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no more than a rock." For a young woman in 1912, her voice still seems completely fresh and remarkably self-aware, although Leonard may have winced at her directness.

This Bloomsbury marriage may have been sexually barren (so say the gossips) but there is no doubting the profound emotional and intellectual fulfilment they gave each other. Though Virginia felt no strong physical attraction for Leonard, she got "exquisite pleasure" merely from holding his hand. It's interesting to compare her feelings in 1912 with a diary entry in 1937, describing an afternoon with Leonard: "We walked around the square love-making – after 25 years can't bear to be separate... You see it is an enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete."

Of course, any attempt to sum up a writer will be partial. But to read Virginia's letters and diaries, to walk the same London streets, and to speak to those that knew her is the most rewarding way to approach her life and work. Her final letter to Leonard renders meaningless all the speculation and rumours which have surrounded Virginia since her death: suspicions of childhood abuse, sexual frigidity and lesbian tendencies, her childlessness and mental illness, the failure of her marriage. To me, Virginia's final words read more like a love letter than a suicide note:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another one of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

V.

In the end, perhaps it's best to let the writer's words speak for them. A century after she went "street-haunting" in London, you can still find Virginia out there. If I choose, I can put down my pen right now and walk to the Cock Tavern on Fleet Street. As newlyweds in 1912, Leonard and Virginia rented rooms at nearby Clifford's Inn and took their daily meals at the Cock Tavern. The ideal place, then, for a 70th anniversary toast to Virginia Woolf.

If you're curious about what Virginia and Leonard were really like, here's a fascinating interview: therumpus.net/

For more on Virginia's London walks: Virginia Woolf, Life and London, A Biography of Place by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. (cecilwoolf@gmail.com, 020 7387 2394)

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