Today marks 137 years since Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born. It is truly a testament to her life and work that we still discuss her writing today, so much so that the BBC have included her in a list of Icons: The Greatest Person of the Twentieth Century.
My birthday. L. slid a fine cow’s horn knife into my hand this morning. Nelly knitted me a pair of red socks which tie around the ankle, & thus just suit my state in the morning.
This, from Virginia’s diary in 1918 was written while she lived in Richmond with her husband, Leonard. What a way to start a diary entry on your birthday! Nelly, (or Nellie) refers to one of Virginia’s servants, Nelly Boxall, who stayed with the Woolfs for many years.
Not many people realise, but Richmond was extremely important in Virginia’s life, but the town’s reputation has been tarnished by a quote invented by the screenwriter of the film The Hours, Sir David Hare. ‘If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.’ so the fictional quote goes, uttered by Nicole Kidman playing Virginia. This has been taken as truth, rather like the quote: ‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life.’ which has, mistakenly, been attributed to Woolf. Instead, this appeared in the book The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, but was never written or said by Virginia.
Virginia and Leonard moved to Richmond in 1914 because it was thought that the area would be more beneficial to Virginia’s health than central London. Indeed, it was also close to Burley House (or Burley Park) in Twickenham, which was a rest home where Virginia stayed at least four times to try to conquer her mental issues. After lodging with Mrs le Grys at 17, The Green, Richmond, the couple found, and fell in love with, Hogarth House on Paradise Road. A very aptly-named street, as for me, Richmond was to be Virginia’s saviour.
During their time in Richmond, the couple founded The Hogarth Press. Leonard believed that having a hobby would be good for Virginia’s health. It wasn’t on,y good for that, but it was crucial for her career. It allowed her to publish her own work without the stress of it being criticised by publishers. It was after the TLS had printed a favourable review of her short story, Kew Gardens, which kick-started her career. The couple were overwhelmed with requests for copies that they had to have help with printing. As well as this, and her other novels, The Hogarth Press printed important works by, among others, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and E.M. Forster.
Here have I waited 25 days before beginning the new year; & the 25 is, not unfortunately my 25th, but my 39th birthday; & we’ve had tea, & calculated the costs of printing Tchekov.
The above from 1921, three years before leaving Richmond and Hogarth House. Upon leaving the town, Virginia wrote that ‘nowhere else could we have started the Hogarth Press.’ And I believe she was right. You can learn more about her time in Richmond with my book, Virginia Woolf in Richmond, as hardback from aurorametro.com or as a discounted ebook for a limited time.
With the BBC’s nomination of Virginia for their Icon programme, it seems madness that she doesn’t have any more recognition in Richmond other than a blue plaque. There is a small bust of her in Tavistock Square, but Richmond is the place that really shaped her. Aurora Metro is campaigning for the first full-size, bronze statue of Virginia Woolf, to be placed by the Richmond riverside. With planning permission granted, we now need to raise funds to make Laury Dizengremel’s statue a reality. Visit aurorametro.org to make a donation, and follow the Twitter account @VWoolfStatue.