Words Darren Hawes
Illustrations Lucy Bayliss
“Somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived.”
We’ve all seen them, dotted around the buildings of Fitzrovia, London, the whole of the UK even. Small blue circles that present our connection to the past, our past; our collective unconscious. 29 Fitzroy Square houses such a plaque, as do several of the properties in the picturesque Georgian square. However, this one betrays an address bubbling with creative activity, for not only did it play host to one, but two seminal authors of the twentieth century. First, George Bernard Shaw lived here between 1887 and 1898. The second name is one I’m sure you’ve heard of, Virginia Woolf née Stephen, who lived here from 1907 to 1911.
Not everyone was overjoyed about Virginia’s choice of property, shared with her half-brother, Adrian. As Woolf wrote of a friend, “Beatrice comes round, inarticulate with meaning, & begs me not to take the house because of the neighbourhood.” A view I’m sure we’ve all had at some point about this under-appreciated creative backwater so close to central.
Like the flâneurs whose words make up the articles in this journal, Woolf travels the streets of London, from Victoria St to Regents St, via Oxford St and Brooke St, exploring the shifting nature of place in time and the minds formed around it. But what is it about the area that so fascinated Mrs Woolf? What is so captivating to the most bohemian centre of the Capital in the early twentieth century?
Of course, Virginia was no stranger to London: she was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in Kensington, on the 25th of January, 1882. Her father a notable historian, and mother a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, Virginia was exposed the creative industry from a very young age.
The places of her youth had a strong influence on her work. Frequent holidays in St. Ives were adapted for the setting of To The Lighthouse (1927), transposing the Cornish town for the Scottish Isle of Skye. It is therefore unsurprising that the areas of London Virginia called home would become a lasting motif for many of her works – most notably the deliciously described streets that link Oxford Circus to Regent’s Park.
During the time Virginia was living at Fitzroy Square, she became part of a famed group of writers, artists and critics that lived just on the boundaries on what is now Fitzrovia. Virginia’s sister Vanessa, writer E.M Forster, the post-impressionist Roger Fry and Virginia’s husband-as-of-1912, Leonard Woolf are just a few of the names linked to a creative collective known as the Bloomsbury Group.
This group would have a profound impact on young Virginia. For one thing, it was scandalous for the male-oriented world of academia to allow women to get involved in their creative endeavours, yet it was that members of an exclusive ‘Cambridge society’ did just that in their adventure of literary proportions.
It was within this group that Virginia would find inspiration for her famous work, Mrs Dalloway (1925). Her strongest emotion is towards the city itself, and the freedom given by being a part of the group allowed the author to explore what makes it tick: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London.” A century later and these scenes are still fresh in our minds; the rumble of the city goes on, unabated and unplugged.
Allowing our minds to move across the pond we can see how Woolf’s words influence today: In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), New York continues on from London’s template, we are introduced to an area that “was once the centre of something new and wild; something disreputable; a part of the city where the sound of guitars drifted all night out of bars and coffeehouses; where the stores that sold books and clothing smelled the way [Clarissa] imagined Arab bazaars must smell.” This snippet of the city so good they named it twice began in London; in Fitzrovia; right on our doorstep.
Alas, it was not to last for poor Virginia Woolf. The busy city environment she loved so much was quickly becoming detrimental to her physical and mental wellbeing, in 1912 she began to take long breaks at Asheham House in Sussex. If Fitzrovia and the surrounding districts formed the basis for Virginia’s fiction, it was Asheham House where she put pen to paper, and it was here that she finished her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915) – which also introduces the character of Clarissa Dalloway, eponymous protagonist of her later work.
On the 29th of May, 1912 she agreed to marry Leonard Woolf – four months after the initial proposal. Biographer, Quentin Bell calls this “the wisest decision of her life.” They married in August that year. In 1917, after several more bouts of depression that have led to the speculation that Mrs. Woolf suffered a form of Bipolar Disorder, the two decided to move into the country, buying up a property in Richmond, Surrey and setting it up as a base for their newly founded Hogarth Press.
Over the years, Virginia would flit back and forth from Surrey to London – her health making this journey less viable as time went by. Who can forget the scene in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of The Hours (2002) where Nicole Kidman’s Virginia leaves the house and wonders to the station in order to get a train to take her back to the city?
Like so many of these tales, Virginia’s must come to an end. It’s the 28th of March 1941. Virginia has been left alone in the house. She pens a thoughtful letter and leaves it for her loving husband to find. Putting on her coat and walking out of the door, Virginia proceeds to line her pockets with stones and pebbles. She walks with purpose towards the section of the River Ouse close to her home. She walks calmly into the water until it comes over her head. Disappearing under its waves and ripples. It is here that she was able to find peace. And it is with a sombre tone that I leave you with her final words, written with the love and affection for her caring husband. Farewell Mrs. Woolf, sleep tight as the city never left.
“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another 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.”