The House as Muse

By Valerie Andrews

Virginia Woolf at Monk's House. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“What cuts the deepest channels in our lives are the different houses in which we live. ” — Virginia Woolf

In Virginia Woolf At Home, Hilary Macaskill describes the novelist’s family residence in Kensington, her childhood summers in Cornwall, and the homes she later made in Bloomsbury and with her husband, Leonard.  Any devoted fan of Woolf’s will already be familiar with her fondness for domestic spaces.  Her characters meditate on the meaning of life as they arrange the roses in a crystal vase or notice how the sunlight falls upon the pattern in the carpet.  For them, the house is a living, breathing thing.  A companion for their deepest thoughts.

Consider The Waves, where objects have a palpable presence: How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table,” says  Bernard, “Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being  myself.”  

In a similar way, Rhoda is calmed by her surroundings:  “Let me touch the table — so — and thus recover my sense of the moment.  A sideboard covered with cruets; a basket full of rolls; a plate of bananas — these are comfortable sights.”   The words, “let me” are an incantation, a ritual way of asking permission to approach the soul or consciousness of a house.

Virginia Woolf’s own homes were pleasing to the eye yet they were also a spiritual refuge, a bulwark against loss and change, a deep reflection of her inner life.  In this new and amply illustrated book, Macaskill shows us how the writer’s world unfolds with every move.  Throughout, she refers to her subject as Virginia, as if having studied all her homes, she has earned the right to address her as a friend.

22 Hyde Park Gate

Virginia Woolf at home with her parents. By Spudgun67 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38321796

Virginia was raised in  “a little backwater of a street” near Kensington Gardens and Albert Hall. 22 Hyde Park Gate was a dark Victorian, with no electricity, busy William Morris wallpaper, black trim, and so much crimson velvet in the decor that the children referred to it as “the red gloom.”

When the newly widowed Julia Duckworth met Leslie and Minna Stephen, the couple’s happiness was so complete she felt like an intruder.  The very next day, Minna died in childbirth, and Julia stepped in to help.  Three years later, she became the mistress of Hyde Park Gate, bringing her three older children, then rapidly producing four more. In her memoirs, Virginia referred to the upstairs bedrooms as the “sexual center, the death centre of the house,” and considered how grief had shaped them all. 

Leslie was a celebrated critic given to bouts of melancholy and Julia was a pre-Raphaelite beauty who, devastated by the loss of her first husband, devoted herself to charity work.  In To the Lighthouse,  Virginia explored the unusual dynamic of her parents’ marriage.  Here we meet Mrs. Ramsay, whose warmth and intelligence everyone in the family longs for, yet she’s always off tending the sick and the poor.  Mr. Ramsay, a philosopher who fears his work will be forgotten, is somehow too present, exhausting the household with his relentless demands for sympathy and attention.    

In the novel, as at Hyde Park Gate, there is source of consolation: Art. 

 As Macaskill writes of Virginia’s childhood home, “there is  a glimpse of an intriguingly different atmosphere, a little side room that was largely the preserve of Vanessa and Virginia, close companions from the start. With several windows and a skylight, this was ‘a cheerful little room, almost entirely made of glass,’ as Vanessa describes it, and it was here that the sisters perfected their different roles agreed from childhood…Vanessa would be the artist, Virginia the author…Vanessa remembered how she would paint, while Virginia read aloud: ‘I can still hear much of George Eliot and Thackeray in her voice.’” 

These sisters would be saved by creativity. Early on, they learned the value of having a painting studio and a writer’s garret.  “A room of one’s own” to call forth the muse.

Talland House, St. Ives

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Talland_House,_c1882%E2%80%931894.jpg#/media/File:Talland_House,_c1882–1894.jpg

In summer, the family repaired to a large house in Cornwall; the children meandered over  the rocks and tide pools, collected moths, and spent afternoons in gardens, playing cricket — activities captured by their aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.    

Virginia and Vanessa playing cricket at Talland House. Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

St. Ives, of course, is the source of Virginia’s lifelong love affair with the sea. One has only to look at the view from the sitting room at Talland House, to see why she kept returning to this expansive landscape in her novels.  The BBC journalist Adrian Masters took the photo below on a recent pilgrimage to this villa, showing the rolling lawn that Woolf transposed to the Hebrides in To the Lighthouse.  

“In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,”  Virginia wrote much later, in her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past.   “The country was intensified, after the months in London,” and formed “the best beginning to life conceivable.”

Photo of the view from Talland House, St. Ives, Cornall by Adrian Masters. Leslie Stephen sold the property when the hotel in the foreground was built, blocking the view to the sea.

This Eden provided a relief from the formality of the London house, and the company of Virginia’s older brothers, especially George, who made her feel like an “unfortunate minnow shut up in the same tank with an unwieldy and turbulent whale.”   

In 1895,  Julia Stephen died from overwork and Virginia, now 13, suffered her first breakdown.  Her oldest sister Stella capably ran the household but died suddenly after a failed operation. In these years, Virginia felt the full weight of Leslie’s demands. To please him, she devoured MacCauley’s five-volume history of England,  learned to play billiards, and served afternoon tea for his literary friends (among his colleagues were  Thomas HardyRobert Louis Stevenson, Edmund Gosse, and Henry James).  

While Vanessa attended art school, Virginia continued to write in her attic room. After visiting the residence of Thomas Carlyle, she recorded her impressions for the magazine Good Housekeeping. For the rest of her life, she would be a keen observer of other people’s homes. 

Bloomsbury

By 1902, Leslie was deaf, and suffering from cancer, and in need of constant care.  He died two years later.  Virginia, now in her early 20s, endured another breakdown, as if she could not bear one more alteration in the character of her home. She stayed first with her doctor just outside of London, then with her close friend Violet Dickinson. An imposing woman, about six-feet tall, Violet took the younger woman into her heart, giving her a dose of much-needed maternal love. 

 In the meantime, Vanessa sold the family house at Hyde Park and  got rid of its dark  furnishings. She set up house in Bloomsbury in rooms that were  “full of air and light,”  decorating them with green and white chintz.  When Virginia returned, she found the change exhilarating. The house was also larger, and more expansive, affording the sisters more room to paint and write.  

Bloomsbury, Virginia wrote, was  “the most beautiful, most romantic place in the world.”  On the top floor, she had a bedroom and sitting room with views of the treetops at Gordon Square.  She also had a cat, a table, and a bookcase, and the weekly stimulation of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal salon of artists and intellectuals, organized by her brother Thoby.  This house and its company suited her: Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Roger Fry were among the regular visitors, and  Virginia was soon on her way to becoming a celebrated critic, writing first for a clerical publication called The Guardian, then for the Times Literary Supplement, which would be her literary home. 

 

Virginia's home at Fitzroy Square. Wikimedia commons

The Bloomsbury idyll ended in the fall of 1906, as Thoby died suddenly of typhoid fever on a trip to Greece.  Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell and the couple took over the house at Gordon Square.  Feeling rejected, Virginia set up housekeeping nearby at Fitzroy Square with her younger brother Adrian.  For the first time, she was choosing her own furniture.  to start, she banished all arm chairs from the parlor. One can imagine why: Nothing makes a room look more funereal than a group of straight-backed chairs lined up against a wall. 

When Vanessa carted the baby and his paraphernalia around on a family holiday, Virginia decided that children were too much work and would impinge upon her ideal of a quiet home.  Under pressure to marry, and perhaps feeling alone and unprotected, Virginia accepted  a proposal from her friend Lytton Strachey who thought this partnership would allow him to conceal his homosexuality from London society.  Regretting  this ruse, he backed out and urged his friend Leonard Woolf to marry her instead.     

 Leonard was eager to comply but Virginia was now more cautious, suggesting they take a house with her brother Adrian, and his artist friend, Duncan, at Brunswick Square.  Leonard could have the top floor for his bedroom and his study and they would see how things went.

In 1910, Virginia had bought her first country home,  a modest brick building in Sussex Downs she’d named  Little Talland House and where she tried her hand at cooking, first a hare soup that she was delighted “took only ten minutes to prepare” and then a tapioca pudding.  The following summer she invited Leonard to visit her there, and after many long walks in the country, she ceased to address him formally as “Mr. Woolf.” 

Married Life

Leonard and Virginia Woolf, just before their marriage. Wikimedia Commons

When Virginia married Leonard in May 1912, she wrote,  “We expect to be terribly busy and never to have a real house.” At first, they were careless about their living arrangements, taking rooms at Clifford’s Inn, an old building that was “rather beautiful and incredibly ancient.”  It was also drafty and dirty, with soot flowing through the windows, and soon Virginia was in poor health. 

 In 1914 the couple moved to Hogarth House, in Richmond, a suburb on the outskirts of London.  There Virginia completed The Voyage Out, and the couple acquired a tabletop printing press, bringing out titles by Katherine Anne Porter and T.S. Eliot. The house became the center of a publishing enterprise, and the Woolf’s marriage blossomed as a creative partnership.

Their surroundings grew more stylish as well.  Virginia furnished their rooms with vibrant pieces from the Omega Workshop, in Fitzroy Square where Roger Fry,  Duncan Grant and Vanessa produced brightly painted screens and tables, along with fabrics, pottery, and clothes.  

The Omega Workshop By Roger Fry - Own work CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9521146

Ashenham

The Woolfs had a talent for acquiring real estate, and they soon purchased Asheham, a Regency house in Sussex.  The war had begun and  daily life was grim.  The saving grace was Vanessa’s move to a nearby place called Charleston, where she painted “every inch of the house… a different colour.” 

Virginia convalesced at Ashenham, after her first suicide attempt. Macaskill mentions this critical event in passing, then goes to describe Leonard’s passion for growing vegetables and Virginia’s attempts at baking bread,  but we need to make a deeper connection here between the author’s home and inner life. For Virginia, houses were a second skin.  For her, a place could be nurturing one moment, and insufferable the next.  Her  years with Leonard were marked by flights between the country and the city as if her life depended on it. And in the end, perhaps it did.  

 As a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, notes, at one point, Virginia and Leonard “seemed to be collecting houses like spare change. Virginia herself…described the situation in a letter to her old tutor: ‘Did Leonard tell you how we bought a house in Lewes, and then saw one we liked better at Rodmell, and so bought that, and have now sold the first house, and have only 3 cottages in Cornwall, and Asheham, and the house in Rodmell and Hogarth House to live in?’”

While Virginia tried to pass this off as an amusing pastime, I wonder if this constant making and remaking of home was related to her longing for her mother.  

In Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped her World,  Gillian Gill observes:  “From toddlerhood, Virginia was an exceptionally quick, articulate, vivid, affectionate child. By roaring and wailing and climbing out onto window ledges, she did everything she could to attract attention, but in the big household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, she could never hold it for long. ‘Can I remember ever being alone with [my mother] for more than a few minutes?’ Woolf later asked herself, and she was almost glad when she fell ill as a child, since then Julia would come to her bedside and take care of her.”

 

For years, Virginia experienced periods of intense activity followed by illness and depression. Perhaps setting up house was, for her, a life-affirming act.  An all-consuming activity like starting a new book, that could provide the highs of engagement and discovery while offering  a distraction from old feelings of abandonment and loss.    

Tavistock Square

After nine years at Hogarth, Virginia had had enough of house repairs and suburban solitude and looked to London as a “a reviving fire.”   Following some rough and tumble house-hunting in 1924, the Woolfs moved to the heart of the city at 52 Tavistock Square.   Virginia commissioned panels for the sitting room, to be painted by Vanessa and Duncan Grant and began to entertain in earnest.   

As Leonard began working for the Labour Party, the Hogarth Press became Virginia’s project.  Its catalogue now included Robert Graves, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Forster and Maynard Keynes and eventually, the works of Sigmund Freud in translation.  

 By now Virginia had also developed a special friendship with Vita Sackville-West. Vita had been raised at Knole, an historic 1,000-acre estate with 365 rooms, one for each day of the year, that Virginia described as “more like a town.”  She  contributed two books to the Hogarth list, Seducers in Ecuador, and The Edwardians, and gave Leonard an adoring cocker spaniel, perhaps to compensate for her growing interest in his wife.

Monk's House

By Oliver Mallinson Lewis from Oxford, United Kingdom - Picture 009, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3678660

Back in 1919, the Woolfs had acquired Monk’s House in Lewes, and it was here that Virginia’s relationship with Vita deepened and she did her most ambitious work. While at Monk’s House, she wrote Orlando,  a sprawling book that began as a joke and turned into a feminist fantasy spanning four centuries. Knole, Vita’s ancestral estate, was the setting,  and she inspired the main character — a gender-crossing aristocrat who skips through time, having affairs with both women and men.  Her son, Nigel Nicolson, called the novel the “longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

As Virginia finished this tour de force, Knole slipped through Vita’s hands. Once frequented by the Tudors and Thomas Cranmer and given by Queen Elizabeth to her favorite,  Robert Dudley, the estate passed to the next male relative.         

Knole, at Seven Oaks, Kent, Vita's ancestral home and the setting for Orlando.

Undaunted, Vita replaced one labyrinth of history with another, refurbishing a medieval castle and creating a stunning garden at Sissinghurst, while Virginia remained at Monk’s House, finishing The Waves (1931)

“I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me,” says a character in that novel.  “I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns. I am rooted, but I flow.”

Virginia had completed two books and navigated the end of her affair with Vita.  But it was the writing of The Years, and the renovation of Monk’s House that brought her close to madness.  She kept feeling she was done with the book, then the story would spring to life again, demanding yet another rewrite.  At the same time Bedford Estates was insisting on changes to the property, including a new boiler, new paint and some general improvements.  During construction, the meals tasted of plaster, the cook was surly, the housekeeper quit, and her replacement stepped on Leonard’s spectacles.  For a time, the house was all a jumble and nothing seemed to turn out right.

The Last Move

In 1938, the Woolfs had to vacate Tavistock Square, and their new rooms at 37 Mecklenburg Square required a good deal of work.  Plans were made for renovating kitchen and bath. But when the building was heavily damaged by a bomb the following year, the couple moved full-time to the country, with many others who were fleeing the London Blitz. 

When they first acquired Monk’s House, this isolated property lacked the most basic amenities.  But over the years, Virginia had worked her magic. The rooms were spacious and bright.  The parlor and the dining room were now one large open area. And the rooms were painted a calm sea green, a hue that made Virginia’s guests feel as if they were living underwater.  Leonard had been busy, too, constructing an ever-expanding green house and conservatory, though the two often fought over the price of glass.

Sitting room, Monk's House. By Daderot - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58121836
Virginia's Bedroom at Monk's House. Image couresty of Wikimedia commons.

When she finished the manuscript for Between the Acts, Virginia grew restless.  Leonard knew how much she needed the counterpoint of city life to keep her mind in balance,  but this time, there was nothing to be done.  As his wife became more agitated, he feared the worst.  One day he found Virginia’s walking stick abandoned by the river. After her death in March of 1941, Leonard remained at Monk’s House, preserving her papers, and working in the garden, feeling at any moment she might reappear.    

In 1968, he won several prizes from the local horticultural society for his vegetables.   He died the following year. 

Macaskill ends her book telling us what became of Virginia’s homes.  One of her London houses is a hotel with a bar named after her, another a business center.  Talland House remains a private residence, overlooking the lighthouse and the St. Ives bay.  Maintained by the National Trust,  Monk’s House, looks like the Woolfs have just stepped out for a walk.  The table is set, the books neatly stacked in piles, the walls still painted that serene sea-foam green, and adorned with Vanessa’s vibrant paintings.  This place remains a testament to a domestic life that often seemed so full and perfect that Virginia longed to preserve it forever, saying “Stay, thou are so fair!”   

Monk’s House is now closed for the winter, but if you make a pilgrimage there in spring, you’ll find her serene aesthetic and see the place in all its glory.  The house stands like a sentinel at the end of the road, sheltered by a stand of yew trees and surrounded by shining meadow. 

In The Voyage Out, Virginia wrote, “I feel so intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music, and everything beautiful.” 


Valerie Andrews is the founder and chief storyteller of Reinventing Home

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