Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year, Old Book

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. The week between Christmas and New Year's is always a good one for browsing through books received as gifts. Or those bought as Christmas presents for yourself, which is what happened in the case of my favorite. It is a lovely old English edition of Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. The book was published in England in two volumes and this is the second one, covering the years between 1912-1941. It is subtitled "Mrs. Woolf." I bought this biography back in the early seventies when it was first published. I read it from cover to cover and probably owe my passion for Virginia Woolf and her writing to this book. My original copy is pretty tattered from all the reading and underlining and not particularly attractive. I was thrilled when I found this gorgeous edition published in England in 1973 by the Hogarth Press. And that photo is so beautiful and expressive.

Here is a little background on why this book was so important at the time. Shortly before his death Leonard Woolf invited Virginia's nephew Quentin Bell to write her biography and gave him access to all her private documents including the diaries which she kept for most of her life. In addition he had access to important archives, letters, memoirs, and unpublished works of fiction by Virginia Woolf that no one else had seen. Because of all this new material, and of course Quentin Bell's excellent writing, the book was groundbreaking and gave the first realistic portrait of this remarkable woman.

As I looked through the book I was reminded of some of the milestone events in her life. They still take my breath away. Here are a few...

1912 -- The young and beautiful Virginia Stephen gets engaged to and marries Leonard Woolf. Just back from civil service in India, Leonard arrived in London at the age of 32. He was one of Thoby Stephen's closest friends and classmates from Cambridge and a member of the Apostles, the exclusive intellectual club at Cambridge. Bloomsbury friends and family such as Lytton Strachey and Vanessa Bell had long thought Leonard a good match for Virginia and strongly encouraged the engagement. In their opinion, he seemed to be the only person worthy of her as well as the only person equipped to love and care for this brilliant and fragile young woman.

1915 -- The publication of her first book "The Voyage Out." It received good reviews and was called  an original work of genius.

1917 -- She and Leonard buy a printing press and start the Hogarth Press. Their first publication was a book of two stories: "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia and "Three Jews" by Leonard. Although it began as a hobby to relieve Virginia's stress, the Hogarth Press became a very successful business and published many renowned British authors such as T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackville-West.

1919 -- They buy Monks House in Sussex in order to have a country retreat near Virginia's sister Vanessa. Leonard designed a garden for Virginia and, as she earned more money from her books, they turned Monks House into a comfortable home. Both she and Vanessa hosted some of the most famous writers and artists of the time at their neighboring country retreats.

1922 -- Virginia meets Vita Sackville-West for the first time and is swept off her feet by this larger than life personality. She was fascinated by Vita's aristocratic background and spent time at Vita's ancestral childhood home Knole House. (Imagine Downton Abbey but bigger) This grand country house and estate would provide the inspiration for Virginia's later novel "Orlando." The novel was Virginia's gift to Vita who was unable to inherit Knole because she was a woman. Their friendship/affair had a huge impact on Virginia's life.

1925 - 1928 -- Virginia writes her three famous novels: "Mrs. Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," and "The Waves." These books are considered her masterpieces. They put her on the map as one of the great modernists and, in many people's opinion, the most innovative writer of the twentieth-century. She became a literary celebrity and took part in the exciting arts and social scene that was happening in London in the twenties. She was even photographed for Vogue magazine.

1928 -- "Orlando" is published and becomes a turning point in Virginia's career as a successful novelist. It sold twice as many copies in the first six months as "To the Lighthouse" sold in its first year. She was finally making money and her brilliance was widely acknowledged. These were probably her happiest and most productive years.

1928 -- Virginia is a celebrity when she goes to Cambridge to read to the women's colleges two papers that will become "A Room of One's Own." This famous feminist book includes the line: "A woman must have money and a room of one's own if she is to write fiction."

Sometimes finding a beautiful copy of an old book can give it new life. This lovely edition made me go back and revisit a biography from long ago and the visit was definitely worthwhile.

By the way, did you watch the first episode of the final season of Downton Abbey last night?
There were Bloomsbury references! Edith shows her London flat to Rosamund and mentions writers she has met there such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. This was the exact year that "Mrs. Dalloway" was published. Love finding these connections!

Wishing you a year of old and new books!


  1. Fascinating post Sunday, I must re-read Virginia Woolf. Happy New Year.

  2. I did notice that! I only wish that Julian Fellowes had put them in the show. :)

    I was lucky enough to meet Quentin Bell and his wife Anne Olivier Bell when I was in college. They were visiting and someone asked me to escort them to the college bookstore. I pinch myself sometimes that I've actually met someone who knew Virginia Woolf, never mind being her nephew.

    1. Audrey, what an exciting experience. I agree with you about Julian Fellowes, he should have put them in the show. Maybe it will happen in the future. I would love to see Edith finding her place in the literary scene that was happening in London in the twenties. As a publisher or editor, not sure what her position is, she should be meeting a lot of the luminaries of the time.

  3. I watched the episode last night and thought of you immediately of course, when Edith was talking.
    I love to find beautiful hardcover editions of older books that I love too.

  4. Sunday, as always your posts are such an inspiration. I have this book, but not that wonderful copy you have. It makes me want to finish it which I must confess I haven't done. I, too, noticed the reference to Bloomsbury on Downton. Just can't seem to get enough of Bloomsbury. I feel sure you have the book about Virginia Woolf's Garden? It is lovely. Right now I am rereading The Olive Farm, by Carol Drinkwater. Happy New Year to you and your readers.

  5. I loved your information on Virginia Woolf. Please post more blogs like inspiring

  6. Loved reading this post. This sounds like something I need to find. Oh, I did hear Edith's comment about meeting Virginia Woolf. She was so calm. Happy New Year! I hope all is going well. Hugs!

  7. I just discovered your blog....instantly fell in love!

  8. Great post as usual. I have this same edition and I like it very much. The Hermione Lee biography of Virginia Woolf is on my to be read pile but based on the size of it it keeps getting put to the bottom of the pile! . Also thank you for you book recommendations for Christmas a few posts ago. I have since read The Bronte Cabinet and liked it very much. I live in the North of England but only visited the Bronte Parsonage for the first time recently so the book was a good way to explore the sisters lives further. Have you seen- Charlotte Bronte by Claire Harman- I heard her speak at a book event recently and am looking forward to reading this.