Literary haunts: Virginia's London walks

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform