If you wish to know Britain then I would suggest reading Virginia Woolf. Virginia lived most of her life in London, and it is in London that she felt the contradictions of the country in which she lived. Big Ben is a familiar landmark by which Britain is widely known. In Mrs Dalloway Big Ben's chimes ring out over the capital and hold the place together. The way Big Ben pulls London together contrasts with a second clock running a little slower, chiming two minutes later.
"...but here the other clock, the clock which always struck two minutes after Big Ben, came shuffling in with its lap full of odds and ends, which it dumped down as if Big Ben were all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just, but she must remember all sorts of other little things besides - Mrs Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices - all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke which lay flat like a bar of gold on the sea" (P141).
Britain has generally been a similarly contradictory society, with a history of formality along with eccentricity.
22, Hyde Park Gate
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 into a large household living at 22 Hyde Park Gate near Kensington Gardens in west London. Both of Virginia's parents had lost their former partner. Leslie Stephens had originally been married to Harriet, daughter of William Thackery, who died in 1875. Julia had married a young barrister, Herbert Duckworth, who died in 1870. These two families, and their combined four children, came together when Stephen and Julia married in 1878. Four more children followed, Vanessa in 1879, Thorby in 1880, Virginia in 1882 and Adrian in 1883. This family lived at Hyde Park Gate in a house with two stories rather hastily built on top of the original town house.
Hyde Park Gate is much as it was during Virginia's life. The nearest underground station is at Gloucester Road. Walk up Gloucester Road towards Kensington Gardens. Turn left when you meet Kensington Road and continue a short distance until you reach a left hand turning into Hyde Park Gate. Baden Powell once lived at number 9, Winston Churchill at number twenty eight. Look for the extra two floors on top of number 22, down at the end of the cul-de-sac.
After looking at number 22, you might want to retrace your steps up Hyde Park Gate to Kensington Road, and cross to the Queens Gate of Kensington Gardens. The Stephens children would play in Kensington Gardens. The Round Pond was a favourite place to play. Here they would sail model boats and go skating during severe winter weather. In The Years the Round Pond is vividly described.
"It was admirably composed. There was the white figure of Queen Victoria against a green bank; beyond was the red brick of the old palace; the phantom church raised its spire, and the Round Pond made a pool of blue. A race of yachts was going forward. The boats leant on their sides so the sails touched the water. There was a nice little breeze."
Virginia's chaotic but secure childhood world changed when she was thirteen. In May 1895, her mother died. Virginia had a breakdown, for which a doctor prescribed outdoor exercise and no lessons. Virginia's older sister Stella died a few months later, taking another mother figure away from Virginia. In 1904 her father died and Virginia suffered a severe breakdown. It was in 1905, while Virginia was still ill, that she moved from her childhood home to the Bloomsbury area of London, which she was to make famous. Rents were lower here, and it was convenient for the Slade art school where her sister Vanessa studied. Virginia lived at 46 Gordon Square with Vanessa, and her brothers Thorby and Adrian. Virginia saw the move as "a curious transition from tyranny to freedom". It was at 46 Gordon Square that the "Bloomsbury Group" formed. This was a group of Adrian and Thorby's rather intellectual friends from Cambridge. The first of the Bloomsbury Group Thursday evenings took place at Gordon Square in March 1905. The first few meetings are usually described as being rather awkward, with the men feeling shy around Virginia and Vanessa. But after a while they loosened up, and went from shy awkwardness to making sex one of their favourite topics for discussion.
46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury
The original group consisted of the Stephens children, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Clive Bell. Desmond MacCarthy was a brilliant and charming conversationalist who became editor of the New Statesman. He never produced the great book he promised, except as Virginia put it: "in that hour between tea and dinner, when so many things are not merely possible, but achieved." (Quoted in Virginia Woolf's London by Jean Moorcroft Wilson)
Saxon Sydney-Turner was introverted and ferociously intellectual, rarely being seen by day at Cambridge. Virginia was terrified when Thorby told her that Sydney-Turner knew all of Greek literature by heart. He was a civil servant at the Treasury, where he lived a quiet, withdrawn life. Clive Bell, by contrast, was a hearty outdoor type who had hardly opened a book until he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he discovered Shelley and Keats and nearly went mad with excitement. According to Thorby, Clive was "a sort of mixture of Shelley and a sporting country squire". Lytton Strachey was perhaps the most striking person in the group, eccentric and brilliant, in the habit of keeping quiet and then attacking with devastating irony. In later years other people came and went, members including John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and E.M. Forster.
In 1907, following Thorby's death the previous year, and Vanessa's marriage to Clive Bell, Virginia moved to nearby Fitzroy Square. She lived here with Adrian, with whom she did not get on very well. Fitzroy Square was not a happy place for Virginia. She was jealous of Vanessa's marriage, and flirted with Clive as a result. This caused much hurt. In 1911 Virginia moved to 38 Brunswick Square, little of which now remains. Here she lived until the following year with four men: Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes, Adrian, and Leonard Woolf. This was a very sociable phase, with many parties and comings and goings between the inhabitants of Brunswick Square and Gordon Square. Virginia was growing close to Leonard Woolf, who was on extended leave from his job with the Ceylon Civil Service. As their relationship became stronger, Leonard accepted that a life with Virginia would have little physical dimension. He loved her "for her mind," which was fortunate. Leonard left his job and married Virginia in August 1912. He was rational and stable, and seemed the perfect partner for the unstable Virginia. He was to nurse her through illnesses and breakdowns - Virginia was to describe the level headed Leonard sitting on the edge of her bed considering her symptoms "like a judge".
Hogarth House, Richmond
The Woolf's began their married life at 13 Clifford's Inn, off Fleet Street (now replaced). They were happy here for a short while, Leonard working on a new novel, and Virginia finishing The Voyage Out, which she had worked on for five years. Finishing the novel brought on the worst breakdown Virginia had ever suffered. On 9th September 1913 she took an overdose of the sleeping draught Vernol, and was only saved by prompt action from Leonard.
As a result of this breakdown Leonard decided that Virginia would do better away from the excitements of London. His wife, much as she loved London, agreed. The couple moved to 17 The Green, Richmond in October 1914, a house that still stands. In December that year they arranged to move the short distance to Hogarth House in Paradise Road. The move was about to take place when in February 1915 Virginia descended into an even more terrifying mental breakdown. The move to Hogarth House was made with four psychiatric nurses helping to control Virginia. Virginia spent her first nine months at Hogarth House in a state of insanity. Strangely she wrote of being incredibly happy at this time: "I've had some very curious visions in this room... lying in bed, mad, and seeing the sunlight quivering like gold water, on the wall. I've heard the voices of the dead here. And felt, through it all, exquisitely happy."
At Hogarth House Leonard thought that some interesting manual work might help his wife rest from her writing. They bought a small hand press on impulse one afternoon walking up Farringdon Street. After a month's practice the Woolfs produced Two Stories, to which both contributed. They stitched the one hundred and fifty copies into paper covers, and enjoyed a good response. They went on to publish Prelude by Katherine Mansfield in 1918, and in 1919 published Poems by T.S. Eliot, Kew Gardens by Virginia, and The Critic In Judgment by John Middleton Murray. In 1923 Hogarth Press published the first edition of T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land. A copy of all Hogarth's hand printed publications are held at the British Library, close to Bloomsbury. Hogarth House survives in Paradise Road, Richmond.
In October 1923 Leonard reluctantly agreed to a move back to London, which his wife missed desperately. They moved to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. Virginia wrote most of her greatest novels here, published by Hogarth Press in the basement. Virginia was so excited by the move that Leonard feared a possible relapse. She was back close to Gordon Square on which the Bloomsbury Group was still centred: Clive and Adrian were at number 50, Vanessa at number 37, Maynard Keynes at number 46, where Virginia herself had first lived when she left Hyde Park Gate.
It was during the early 1920s that Virginia had an affair with the writer Vita Sackville West. This relationship, and Vita's grand home at Knole in Kent was to inspire the novel Orlando. A facsimile manuscript copy of Orlando can be seen in the Gallery at Knole.
Reading Room at the British Museum
At Tavistock Square Virginia would work three hours in the morning, in what was once a billiard room, furnished with a cheap piece of matting, a table, a bed, a bookcase, an old armchair, some artificial flowers, and a few pictures provided by Vanessa. Sometimes she would take the short walk to the British Museum, and work in the famous Reading Room where so many famous writers worked under the legendary domed roof. Virginia felt she was at the centre of the world. It was during her years at Tavistock Square that she wrote Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), The Years (1936). With the publication of Orlando in 1928 Virginia Woolf had become a best selling writer. These were good years, of success, and freedom from depression and breakdown. More money meant a slightly more comfortable life. During these years Virginia achieved a perfect balance between the excitement of life in her beloved London, and times of peaceful recovery at Monk's House in East Sussex.
Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury makes for a lovely walk. I started at Russell Square Underground Station, and walked down Bedford Way. At the bottom of Bedford Way, Tavistock Square is straight in front of you, and Gordon Square is a left turn. In Tavistock Square you will see a statue of Virginia placed there by the Virginia Woolf Society. I suggest finishing the walk by returning to Russell Square, and then visiting the British Museum's wonderful Reading Room, where Virginia and so many other famous writers and thinkers once worked.
Virginia enjoyed her years at Tavistock Square, thriving on the balance between her life in London, and the peace she found at Monk's House. The outbreak of war in 1939 upset this balance. Tavistock Square suffered bomb damage, which included extensive damage to number 52, the site of which is now occupied by the Tavistock Hotel. The Woolf's took out a lease on 37 Mecklenburgh Square, but never really had a chance to settle in. The danger of bombing forced long stays at Monk's House. Visits to London were brief. In February 1940 Virginia wrote: ".... the walk to the Tower; that is my England: I mean if a bomb destroyed one of those little alleys with the brass bound curtains and the river smell and the old woman reading I should feel - well, what the patriots feel."
At Monk's House Virginia fell into introspection. The war depressed her. She was worried about her next book, Between The Acts. Leonard became concerned and persuaded her to see Dr Octavia Wilberforce on 27th March 1941. The next morning she wrote a note to Leonard:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel I 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 until 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 that 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 that two people could have been happier than we have been." (Quoted in Virginia Woolf's London by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.)
Virginia walked away from Monk's House and drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse.
Clocks - Canary Wharf, London
Going back to the clocks which began this article, Virginia thought of clocks as bringing things together and pulling them apart. Clocks are described in Mrs Dalloway as "shredding and slicing, dividing and sub dividing..." Clocks measure time and divide it into little categories of past and future. In the same book, however, Big Ben pulls together the city of London, different people doing different things around Westminster all hearing those same bells. Big Ben chimed for Virginia Woolf in the same way that it chimes for any visitor to London today. Time divides and yet brings things together, and this irony explains the feeling that the whole of Mrs Dalloway's life seems to be held on one sunny day in 1920s London. And beyond her life the eons that have gone and are to come are somehow also with her on that one day:
"As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent's Park Tube Station, still the earth seemed green and flowery; still though it issued from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses, still the old bubbling, burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasure, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain."
Mrs Dalloway hoped that she would survive "somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things". Time brings beginnings and endings, and somehow denies them. When I went to London to take photographs for this page I was delighted to see yachts on the Round Pond, just as they were described in The Years.