Virginia Woolf was born on this day (25 January) in 1882. Here’s a piece I wrote about her time (& mine) in Richmond, Surrey. It came second in the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain writing competition and is featured on the Rate My Words Website:
VIRGINIA & I
Paradise Road. Who could resist? Intuition steers me along this perfectly pleasant street, which, inevitably, falls far short of its designation. Yet there are always gems that glitter in the midst of the mundane, and I am drawn by the kingfisher flash of a blue plaque affixed to the wall of number thirty-four. It reads:
‘In this house, LEONARD and VIRGINIA WOOLF lived, 1915-1924, and founded the Hogarth Press, 1917’
In October, 1914, two years into their marriage, Leonard and Virginia Woolf decamped to Richmond-upon-Thames, a tranquil town that spills down the side of a steep hill until its sprawl is halted by the encircling river. Virginia, aged thirty-two, was particularly fragile having barely survived a bout of melancholia brought on by the stress of completing her first novel, The Voyage Out. Leonard hoped that a fresh start at a safe distance would save her from the destructive whirl of bohemianism.
How extraordinary. I am thirty-two, and I too have just arrived in Richmond with my husband of four years, rucksacks on our backs and buzzing with excitement. It is our first visit, but fired up with the daring that accompanies relative youth, we decide to live here with the ease that one might chose between having a coffee in a Costa or a Starbucks. We start a new chapter, eighty-four years almost to the moment after Leonard and Virginia arrived in our new home town.
We are daring, but not foolish. We want to get the measure of the place before anchoring ourselves too firmly, and look for signs that read ‘to let’ and not ‘for sale’. Virginia was wary too. Although it had nearly done for her, she missed the maelstrom of Bloomsbury life and feared that she would soon tire of the tranquility prescribed by Leonard. They took lodgings at 17, The Green, a lovely Georgian townhouse with a distinctive Dutch gable that lifts it above its neighbours. We walk past it on our way to The Cricketers, seven doors down. Our temporary home is close by: a modest apartment located eighty-four years and five minutes’ walk away in a starter development that overlooks the District line, the link that kept Virginia plugged into the hedonism of London.
Virginia loved to walk; she spent happy hours exploring the contained beauty of Kew Gardens or the rugged antiquity of Richmond Park, or strolling along the tree-lined banks of the Thames as it unwound around these vast green spaces. As winter closed in, the couple sank into the comfort of their first floor drawing room, and read companionably as the soothing pops and hisses of a roaring fire filled their silence. At breakfast, their Belgian landlady, Mrs. Le Grys – who Leonard described as, ‘an extremely nice, plump, excitable flibbertigibbet, about 35 to 40’ – would chat through the menu for the day with a much recovered Virginia.
On January 25, 1915, the day she turned thirty-three, Virginia agreed to three things: to take a lease on Hogarth House, to buy a printing press, and to acquire, ‘a bulldog, probably called John’. We stay too, and buy an airy, inter-war apartment on the very same road, after it has morphed from Paradise to Sheen. Their new home was the right-hand side of a divided Georgian country house; from her attic window, Virginia could see the pagoda in Kew Gardens. Two tumultuous years passed before the printing press arrived, but ‘John’ remained notional.
The move did not go smoothly. Theirs that is, ours is fine. Virginia fell dreadfully ill, and was hospitalised when her errant mind took to conjuring up terrifying hallucinations. In April, she moved to Hogarth House, accompanied by four private nurses, two by day and two by night. She lay in bed, ‘listening to the voices of the dead’ or watching the sunlight, ‘quiver like gold water on the wall’. At times she was demented, lashing out and babbling incoherently.
Wartime air raids terrorised Richmond two decades before our block was built – the Belgian munitions works in Clevedon Road providing an attractive target. Leonard and Virginia retreated to their cellar, where they perched uncomfortably on wooden boxes, clutching torches in unsteady hands as they listened to the whine of the sirens, the screech of falling bombs, and the ‘at-at’ response of anti-aircraft fire. Virginia recorded it all in her diary.
We are spared the horror of aerial bombardment, but live through another national crisis: England is riddled with foot and mouth disease, and towering pyres dominate news broadcasts. Disinfectant-infused mats litter doorways and pavements, and Richmond Park closes in an attempt to protect the herds of red and fallow deer that have roamed freely since 1529. When peace returned, Virginia recorded the drunken celebrations in her diary. Her words soar like the fireworks that exploded over the Thames:
‘Red and green and yellow and blue balls rose slowly in the air burst, flowered into an oval of light, which dropped into minute grains and expired.’
We commute to conventional jobs, caught up in the swarm that abandons Richmond every working day, but Leonard and Virginia remained at home. They took delivery of a small hand press and an assortment of old typeface, and learned their new trade from a sixteen-page pamphlet. A congenital tremor in Leonard’s hands – a minor inconvenience that kept him safe from a war in which one of his brothers was killed and another left badly injured -made it impossible to set type, so he ran the press machines instead. Virginia knelt on the drawing room floor, laboriously setting each line, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, and soon discovered that sorting out print was,
‘the work of ages, especially when you mix the h’s with the n’s, as I did yesterday’.
Yet it was also:
‘exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying’.
Satisfying too was the editorial freedom that allowed the Hogarth Press to print only those books that, ‘the commercial publisher would not look at’. As Two Stories – their first publication, which contained: ‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf, and, ‘Three Jews’ by Leonard Woolf – rolled off the presses, they saw that the ink had adhered unevenly– thick in places and lacking in others. A failure to proofread allowed a plethora of misspellings and poor punctuation to slip through, but the title page bore the imprint ‘Hogarth Press, Richmond 1917’, and a brand new publishing house was born.
During the seven years that the Hogarth Press operated out of Richmond, sixteen of the thirty-two books published were printed by Leonard and Virginia. These included Kew Gardens, Virginia’s delightfully vibrant evocation of one of her favourite local haunts. The Bloomsbury set provided plenty of material, and the couple turned work away, rejecting T.S. Elliot’s suggestion that they publish Ulysses by a young Dubliner named Joyce. Early success allowed them to buy the building, reuniting its divided halves.
The fleeting contentment that Virginia found in Richmond evaporated; in 1923, she confessed: ‘I sit down baffled and depressed to face a life spent, mute and mitigated in the suburbs’. They relocated to lovely, lively Bloomsbury, and there she enjoyed a period of intense creativity, but war returned and their Mecklenburgh Square flat was destroyed in the Blitz. Virginia was floored, and felt too jaded to re-enter the fray. On March 28, 1941, she left her Sussex home, filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse. She left behind a last love letter to Leonard, thanking him for
‘the greatest possible happiness’.
On January 23, 2001, two days short of Virginia’s birthday, I give birth to a tiny, perfect baby boy. I love my London child, but parenthood triggers my own descent into despair. I have never felt as lost and lonely as I do during those days when I push a pram along streets that once held so much joy. Brought low by isolation, and long, empty days spent in the company of a newborn, I spiral down, gripped by debilitating panic attacks that trick me into believing that I am dying and that no-one else will care for my son.
This, despite the fact that my capable and loving husband, who takes over at night and on week-ends, is a twenty-minute train ride away and constantly at the end of a phone line; anxiety cannot easily be rationalised away. I leave Richmond, no longer able to trust myself to be alone with my little one. I close the door on our lovely garden flat, and walk past Leonard and Virginia’s old home on my way to the train station. I will never live here again.
I feel so connected to Virginia. She looms large and I am minute in her shadow, yet I have shared her suburban existence. I would treasure a tiny measure of her brilliance – she burned so very brightly – but I will settle for the modesty of my own talent as long as I can keep hold of the equilibrium that returned to me but eluded her so cruelly.