Book Review: “The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club” by S.P. Rosenbaum

The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club” by S.P. Rosenbaum, published in January, explores a little known aspect of the Bloomsbury Group.

Although not much is known about the club and hardly any documents about it have survived, Rosenbaum, a noted Bloomsbury Group biographer who has written countless books on the famous literary group, such as “Victorian Bloomsbury” and “The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary,” managed to gather whatever scraps of information remain on the club in the various member’s diaries and letters to present in this book.

The Memoir Club was a sort of writing group set up in 1920 to encourage its members, which included Molly and Desmond MacCarthy, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Mary Hutchinson, E.M. Forster and Maynard Keynes, to write and finish their memoirs, according to the book:

“According to some accounts, including one by E.M. Forster, Molly MacCarthy started the Memoir Club in an attempt to get her wonderfully conversational, endlessly procrastinating husband to write his memoirs. It was to be a resurrection of the Novel Club that, as was mentioned, she futilely started before the war to get Desmond to finish the novel he had begun. The Novel Club, which included neither Forster nor the Woolfs, seems to have failed because other members could not finish theirs either, or in some cases even start them. Memoirs might be easier, it seems; Desmond of course never wrote his either, though he did manage to read some pieces to the club.”

Unfortunately, many of the 125 memoirs written by the club were lost, including two early memoirs written by Virginia Woolf, but 80 works survived and about 20 of them remain unpublished. One of the most infamous memoirs to come out of the club was Virginia Woolf’s account of her half-brother, George Duckworth, and his incestuous behavior towards her after her mother died.
Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club review
The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is noteworthy because it comes at a time when almost every aspect of the Bloomsbury Group has been thoroughly documented and dissected. Just when it seems as though there wasn’t anything left to say about the group, this book provides a look at a new and relatively unknown side of the group.

Not only does the book document the club’s memoirs and written work, it also gives readers some insight into the Bloomsbury Group’s literary influences. In the chapter “Ancestral voices, Cambridge Conversations,” Rosenbaum discusses the influence Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had on some members of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly with his Mausoleum Book, an unofficial autobiography of sorts that Stephen wrote about his wife, Julia Jackson Stephen, after she died in 1895:

“Stephen’s grieving lamentations, literary and literal, left his children cold, but the emphasis on affections friendships remained a fundamental value of theirs and their friends in Memoir Club. Maitland in his 1906 biography of Stephen quoted a passage from The Mausoleum Book about how regretting love because it brought sorrow was what Stephen called a sin against the Holy Ghost of one’s best affections. Lytton Strachey quoted the passage to Maynard Keynes as a rather ‘magnificent thing.'”

Friendship was indeed a fundamental part of the Bloomsbury Group and the Memoir Club. The book does a great job of highlighting these close friendships and the overall dynamics of the club, such as in the following passage about Maynard Keynes:

“Though he only read a few memoirs, the club remained important to him. Clive Bell remembered Keynes saying years later after one of the dinners preceding a meeting ‘if everyone at this table, except myself, were to die tonight, I do not think I should care to go on living.'”

Unfortunately, Rosenbaum died while writing The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club and one has to wonder how differently it would have turned out if he had completed it. The unfinished sixth chapter, titled “Old Bloomsbury,” is merely a page and a half long but probably would have provided an interesting history of the group. Rosenbaum had planned four additional chapters, titled “Beyond Bloomsbury, “The War” “Later Bloomsbury” and “Posthumous Bloomsbury” and even left behind some notes and preliminary sketches of these planned chapters, which would have included discussions on Virginia Woolf and the Women’s Cooperative Guild, Leonard Woolf’s Ceylon memoirs as well as Forster’s Indian Letters.

Despite being unfinished, The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is still a worthy read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Bloomsbury Group and its memoir club. Virginia Woolf fans might be a bit disappointed with the lack of information on her memoirs but fans of the Bloomsbury Group as a whole will still enjoy this intimate, if incomplete, glimpse into the club and the group.

The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club is available at

How Virginia Woolf Inspired the Bechdel Test

It was recently revealed that the Bechdel Test, the feminist benchmark for movies that first originated in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985, was indirectly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of One’s Own,” according to an article in The Week magazine:

“In the original strip, a couple discusses whether they want to go to a movie and get some popcorn. One isn’t sure, because she has a rule: ‘I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements,’ she explains. ‘One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.’ When her girlfriend says those criteria are good, but pretty strict, she responds, ‘No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien. The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.’ Having walked past three uber-masculine posters for movies about mercenaries, barbarians, and vigilantes, the two women give up on the idea of a film altogether, and go home to make popcorn. The sentiment wasn’t new; as Bechdel later explained, it came from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the novel, Woolf’s narrator responds to a surprising book she is reading. ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.’ When it comes to female literary characters, ‘so much has been left out, unattempted,’ Woolf’s narrator thinks. She struggles to think of texts that show women as friends, and marvels at texts that show women having ‘interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity.’ Sixty years after A Room of One’s Own, those observations remained accurate, and almost 30 years after Bechdel’s strip, they still are.”

The article’s source is a blog post written by Alison Bechdel herself, in November of 2013, during which she discusses the little-known origin of the Bechdel Test:

“I speak a lot at colleges, and students always ask me about the Test. (Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books.) (I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!) But at one school I visited recently, someone pointed out that the Test is really just a boiled down version of Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, the ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ chapter. I was so relieved to have someone make that connection. I am pretty certain that my friend Liz Wallace, from whom I stole the idea in 1985, stole it herself from Virginia Woolf. Who wrote about it in 1926.”

Since the comic strip was published more than 29 years ago, the Bechdel Test has become an important part of the discussion on modern cinema. Yet, as the article in The Week magazine points out, it has also become widely misunderstood and is sometimes criticized as merely a flawed and simplistic metric that ranks films based on a technicality when all it was ever intended to be was a tool to promote discussion and awareness of gender equality in film and media. The test is not the be-all and end-all of movie reviews, it is merely a way to get audiences talking about the way women are represented in movies.

Aside from being a feminist benchmark for movies, it is evident from these articles that the Bechdel Test is also a testament to the influence Virginia Woolf still has on not just literature, but all modern art forms, and is living proof that her ideas live on even decades after her passing.


The Week Magazine; Girls on Film: Why the Bechdel Test Is Still So Valuable; Monika Bartyzel; March 14 2014:

Dykes to Watch Out For: Testy; Alison Bechdel; November 8 2013:

Flickr: Alison Bechdel:

Mirror Productions Developing a New Virginia Woolf Film

A London-based production company, Mirror Productions, is currently developing a film based on Eileen Atkins play “Virginia and Vita” according to an article on

“The company is in development on actress and screenwriter Eileen Atkins’ long-gestating feature adaptation of her play Virginia and Vita, about the turbulent love affair between literary trailblazer Virginia Woolf and the author Vita Sackville West.

‘Eileen has found a good ally in my partner Evangelo,’ Baxter told Screen. They have been working on the script, which is now out with directors of note, one of whom will be approved by Eileen.’

‘We’ve had quite a bit of verbal interest in the script,’ he continued. ‘Once we have our director on board I’m hopeful we can get moving on it later next year.'”

Mirror Productions is spearheaded by Simon Baxter and producer Evangelo Kioussis.

Atkins has been involved in a number of Virginia Woolf productions. In addition to writing the play “Virginia and Vita,” she also wrote the script for the 1997 film “Mrs. Dalloway” and acted in the 2002 film “The Hours.”

Since the film is still in the early stages of production there is no word yet on casting or a release date.


Screen Daily; Mirror Preps Eileen Atkins Virginia Woolf Biopic; Andreas Wiseman; Dec 16 2013:

Book Review: “Virginia Woolf’s Garden” by Caroline Zoob

Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” published in November, is a fascinating look not only at the sprawling garden at Virginia’s country home, Monk’s House in Rodmell, but also at the effect the garden had on her life and work.

Although I’ve been reading Virginia’s letters and diaries for years and have heard all about the garden, I had never seen a photo of it in its entirety and had absolutely no idea how large and expansive it was. The book presents the garden in large, beautiful color photographs as well as detailed maps and numbered diagrams complete with the names of the plants found in each section of the garden. There’s also numerous before and after photos depicting the way the garden looked when the Woolf’s lived there and how it looks now.

The photographs in “Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” taken by Caroline Arber, are stunning and capture the beauty of the garden in all its glory. Having a bit of a green thumb myself, but with no garden to tend to, the images made me both envious of and happy for Virginia that she had such a beautiful retreat from the world. The garden, and Monk’s House in general, was clearly a sanctuary for Virginia and also a source of inspiration at times, as can be seen by the many appearances gardens, flowers and fish ponds make in the books Virginia wrote while living there. Virginia actually wrote in the garden, in a small converted shed she called her “writing lodge.” She walked through the garden every morning on her way to her lodge and it was in this garden and lodge that she wrote some of her most famous works.

"Virginia Woolf's Garden" by Caroline Zoob

“Virginia Woolf’s Garden” by Caroline Zoob

The author of “Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” Caroline Zoob, lived at Monk’s house for 10 years as a tenant (The National Trust lets the house out to a live-in tenant in exchange for upkeep of the garden and grounds.) Zoob does a fantastic job chronicling the history of Virginia and Leonard’s life at the house, from the moment they first purchased it in 1919 until their deaths decades later. The book details how the garden was a source of pleasure and a place to escape from the chaos of London but was also, at times, a source of friction between Virginia and Leonard due to large amounts of time and money he spent on it. Virginia occasionally complained of the financial upkeep of the garden, once stating “We are watering the earth with our money!

Zoob also punctuates the text with amusing anecdotes from the Woolf’s garden, such as the time the Woolf’s pet marmoset climbed up one of the fruit trees in the garden and refused to come down:

“By the gate is a large lime tree which was planted before 1919…It was up this tree that Mitzi, Leonard’s pet marmoset, escaped one day and refused to come down, not even tempted by the bait of honey, her favorite treat. Leonard had taken Mitzi in on a temporary basis to nurse her back to health. They took to each other and Mitzi stayed, inseparable from Leonard and intensely jealous. With a perfect understanding of his pet’s nature, he summoned Virginia to the bottom of the lime tree and proceeded to kiss her. Instantly Mitzi jumped down from the tree in a jealous rage. Every time I weeded or planted white narcissi and hyacinths under that tree I thought of them standing beneath it, kissing, with a marmoset flying through the branches to oust the competition.”

Zoob writes not only of the Woolf’s life at Monk’s house, but also of her own. One of the most interesting parts of the book is in the last chapter where Zoob discusses the types of visitors that come to Monk’s house. The house had its fair share of ignorant, uninformed visitors who would ask ridiculous questions like “so why were people so afraid of her then?” and “are those her cats?” (a reference to Zoob’s own cats who lived at the house with her). These visitors made Zoob all the more appreciative of the true Virginia Woolf fans visiting the house on personal pilgrimages. Zoob details how she was at first puzzled by but then came to appreciate how they would cry and hug in the garden or sob at the front gate, thinking it was the gate Virginia walked through on her way to drown herself in the nearby river (Virginia actually left through a different gate, which is no longer in use). These anecdotes and stories help bring Monk’s House to life and demonstrate why it’s more than just an old cottage in a tiny English village.

Any fan of gardening or horticulture in general would truly love and appreciate this book. Yet, I think the true Virginia Woolf fans, the pilgrims who have been to Monk’s house and were moved by the experience or the ones who want to go but haven’t had the opportunity yet, would absolutely cherish it. I’m pleased that the National Trust entrusted Monk’s House to Zoob for so long and I’m especially grateful that she shared her experience with us through this book. “Virginia Woolf’s Garden” is a definite must-have for any Virginia Woolf fan.

“Virginia Woolf’s Garden” is available at

Virginia Woolf to Appear on Season 4 of Downton Abbey

Actress Christina Carty has been cast to portray Virginia Woolf on season 4 of the popular period drama Downton Abbey.

Not much is known about Woolf’s role in the new season but according to an article in The Telegraph, Lady Edith meets Woolf at a party with the Bloomsbury group while working as a newspaper columnist in London. Several stills of Carty as Woolf have recently surfaced, suggesting she appears in more than one scene.

Since season 4 of the show is set in 1922, Woolf would have been 40 years old at the time and would have just published her novel “Jacob’s Room.” Although she was well-known in literary circles at the time, Woolf didn’t become famous until the publication of her widely popular novels “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To The Lighthouse” in 1925 and 1927.

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf in Downton Abbey copyright Nick Briggs Carnival Films I

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf in Downton Abbey (Carnival Films Photo)

Despite the fact that the characters on Downton Abbey are purely fictional, Woolf did often mingle with aristocrats in real life, such as Lady Ottoline Morrell and Vita Sackville-West (although Morrell and Sackville-West were rather unconventional aristocrats for their time).

The fourth season of Downton Abbey will premiere in the UK on Sept. 22, and in the US on Jan. 15, 2014.

According to, although Woolf was portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the Oscar award-winning film “The Hours,”  she has only appeared as a character in a television series a handful of times over the years:

♦ Muchachada Nui (2010): Epsiodes #4.7, #4.11 and #4.13. Played by Joaquin Reyes
♦ London (2004): Played by Harriet Walter
♦ Art That Shook the World (2002): Episode titled “Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” Played by Joley Richardson
♦ Tom & Viv (1994): Played by Joanna McCallum
♦ A Room of One’s Own (1991): Played by Eileen Atkins
♦ Ten Great Writers of the Modern World (1988): Episode titled Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Played by Eileen Atkins
♦ Une femme, une epoque (1981): Episode titled “Virginia Woolf.” Played by Maud Rayer.

Update: Jan 6, 2014: Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf’s cameo was cut from episode one of season four of Downton Abbey. Carty, as Virginia Woolf, still appeared briefly in a scene at a literary party but she only appeared for a few seconds and had no spoken lines or introduction.

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf in Downton Abbey copyright Nick Briggs Carnival Films II

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf (Carnival Films Photo)

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf in Downton Abbey copyright Nick Briggs Carnival Films III

Christina Carty as Virginia Woolf (Carnival Films Photo)


Internet Movie Database: Virginia Woolf (Character):

Daily Mail; Things Heat Up For Lady Edith in Season Four of Downton Abbey While Her Sister Lady Mary Still Grieves Matthew’s Death; Sept 11 2013:

The Telegraph; Downton Abbey: “We Don’t Want Anymore Deaths”; Sept 12 2013:

Poll: Virginia Woolf’s Best Book?

Virginia Woolf was an ambitious and prolific author who wrote not only novels but also nonfiction books. Woolf, in fact, wrote so many groundbreaking, best-selling books that is often difficult for critics and fans to determine which is her best work.

While many fans feel Woolf’s best-selling novel “Mrs. Dalloway” is her masterpiece, others claim her nonfiction book “A Room Of One’s Own” is her best work. So what do you think? What is Virginia Woolf’s best book?

Virginia Woolf on Henry David Thoreau

In July of 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote an article commemorating the 100th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau‘s birth for the Times Literary Supplement. Woolf, surprisingly, was an admirer of American writers like Thoreau and felt they were more inventive and adventurous than any British writer to date.

What is interesting about this essay is that, despite Woolf’s exclusively upper class British upbringing, she understood Thoreau better than most modern-day American readers and even more so than some of his own peers, such as Woolf’s American godfather James Russell Lowell. Woolf saw Thoreau not as a misanthropic hermit trying to hide from society in the woods but as a “noble” rebel attempting to teach his fellow man his unique philosophy on life through his writing and actions. It was as if she saw him as she saw herself, a misfit trying to invent a new way of life, much like she and her fellow Bloomsbury group members were attempting to do in 20th century London.

Virginia Woolf photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1917

Virginia Woolf photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1917

In recent years, many literary critics have even drawn comparisons between the Bloomsbury group and the Concord transcendentalist writers, which include Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Alcott, nicknaming them the “American Bloomsbury.” Woolf seems to have picked up on these similarities well before anyone else did and instead of distancing herself from her American counterparts, fully embraced them.

Woolf’s essay on Thoreau, despite the fact that it was published nearly a century ago, remains to this day one of the most insightful, thoughtful and intelligent tributes to this all too often misunderstood man.

Here is the essay in its entirety as it was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on July 12, 1917:


Thoreau by Virginia Woolf

A hundred years ago today, on 12 July, 1817, was born Henry David Thoreau, the son of a pencil-maker in Concord, Massachusetts. He has been lucky in his biographers, who have been attracted to him not by his fame so much as by their sympathy with his views, but they have not been able to tell us a great deal about him that we shall not find in the books themselves. His life was not eventful; he had, as he says, ‘a real genius for staying at home’. His mother was quick and voluble, and so fond of solitary ramblings that one of her children narrowly escaped coming into the world in an open field. The father, on the other hand, was a ‘small, quiet, plodding man’, with a faculty for making the best lead pencils in America, thanks to a secret of his own for mixing levigated plumbago with fuller’s earth and water, rolling it into sheets, cutting it into strips, and burning it. He could at any rate afford with much economy and a little help to send his son to Harvard, although Thoreau himself did not attach much importance to this expensive opportunity. It is at Harvard, however, that he first becomes visible to us. A class-mate saw much in him as a boy that we recongise later in the grown man, so that instead of a portrait we will quote what was visible about the year 1837 to the penetrating eye of the Rev. John Weiss:

‘He was cold and unimpressible. The touch of his hand was most and indifferent, as if he had taken up something when he saw your hand coming, and caught your grasp on it. How the prominent grey-blue eyes seemed to rove down the path, just in advance of his feet, as his grave Indian stride carried him down to University Hall. He did not care for people; his class-mates seemed very remote. This reverie hung always about him, and not so loosely as the odd garments which the pious household care furnished. Thought had not yet awakened his countenance; it was serene, but rather dull, rather plodding. The lips were not yet firm; there was almost a look of smug satisfaction lurking round their corners. It is plain now that he was preparing to hold his future views with great setness and personal appreciation of their importance. The nose was prominent, but its curve fell forward without firmness over the upper lip, and we remember him as looking very much like some Egyptian sculpture of faces, large-featured, but brooding, immobile, fixed in a mystic egoism. Yet his eyes were sometimes searching, as if he had dropped, or expected to find, something. In fact his eyes seldom left the ground, even in his most earnest conversations with you…’

He goes on to speak of the ‘reserve and inaptness’ of Thoreau’s life at college. Clearly, the young man thus depicted, whose physical pleasures took the form of walking and camping out, who smoked nothing but ‘dried lily stems’, who venerated Indian relics as much as Greek classics, who in early youth had formed the habit of ‘settling accounts’ with his own mind in a diary, where his thoughts, feelings, studies, and experiences had daily to be passed under review by that Egyptian face and searching eye – clearly this young man was destined to disappoint both parents and teachers and all who wished him to cut a figure in the world and become a person of importance. His first attempts to earn his living in the ordinary way by becoming a schoolmaster was brought to an end by the necessity of flogging his pupils. He proposed to talk morals to them instead. When the committee pointed out that the school would suffer from the ‘undue leniency’ Thoreau solemnly beat six pupils and then resigned, saying that school-keeping ‘interfered with his arrangements’. The arrangements that the penniless young man wished to carry out were probably assignments with certain pine trees, pools, wild animals, and Indian arrowheads in the neighbourhood, which had already laid their commands upon him.

But for a time he was to live in the world of men, at least in that very remarkable section of the world of which Emerson was the centre and which professed the Transcendentalist doctrines. Thoreau took up his lodgings in Emerson’s house and very soon became, so his friends said, almost indistinguishable from the prophet himself. If you listened to them both talking with your eyes shut you could not be certain where Emerson left off and Thoreau began ‘…in his manners, in the tones of his voice, in his modes of expressions, even in the hesitations and pauses of his speech, he had become the counterpart of Mr. Emerson.’ This may well have been so. The strongest natures, when they are influenced, submit the most unreservedly; it is perhaps a sign of their strength. But that Thoreau lost any of his own force in the process, or took on permanently any colours not natural to himself the readers of his books will certainly deny.

The Transcendentalist movement, like most movements of vigour, represented the effort of one or two remarkable people to shake off the old clothes which had become uncomfortable to them and fit themselves more closely to what now appeared to them to be the realities. The desire for readjustment had, as Lowell has recorded and the memoirs of Margaret Fuller bear witness, its ridiculous symptoms and its grotesque disciples. But of all the men and women who lived in an age when thought was remoulded in common, we feel that Thoreau was the one who had least to adapt himself, who was by nature most in harmony with the new spirit. He was by birth among those people, as Emerson expresses it, who have ‘silently given in their several adherence to a new hope, and in all companies do signify a greater trust in the nature and resources of man than the laws of the popular opinion will well allow’. There were two ways of life which seemed to the leaders of the movement to give scope for the attainment of these new hopes; one in some cooperative community, such as Brook Farm; the other in solitude with nature. When the time came to make his choice Thoreau decided emphatically in favour of the second. ‘As for the communities,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I think I had rather keep bachelor’s quarters in hell than go to board in heaven.’ Whatever the theory might be, there was deep in his nature ‘a singular yearning to all wildness’ which would have led him to some such experiment as that recorded in Walden, whether it seemed good to others or not. In truth he was to put in practice the doctrines of the Transcendentalists more thoroughly than any one of them, and to prove what the resources of man are by putting his entire trust in them. Thus, having reached the age of twenty-seven, he chose a piece of land in a wood on the brink of the clear deep green waters of Walden pond, built a hut with his own hands, reluctantly borrowing an axe for some part of the work, and settled down, as he puts it, ‘to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

And now we have a chance of getting to know Thoreau as few people are known, even by their friends. Few people, it is safe to say, take such an interest in themselves as Thoreau took in himself; for if we are gifted with an intense egoism we do our best to suffocate it in order to live on decent terms with our neighbours. We are not sufficiently sure of ourselves to break completely with the established order. This was Thoreau’s adventure; his books are the record of that experiment and its results. He did everything he could to intensify his own understanding of himself, to foster whatever was peculiar, to isolate himself from contact with any force that might interfere with his immensely valuable gift of personality. It was his sacred duty, not to himself alone but to the world; and a man is scarcely an egoist who is an egoist on so grand a scale, a sense of beholding life through a very powerful magnifying glass. To walk, to eat, to cut up logs, to read a little, to watch the bird on the bough, to cook one’s dinner – all these occupations when scraped clean and felt afresh prove wonderfully large and bright. The common things are so strange, the usual sensations so astonishing that to confuse or waste them by living with the herd and adopting habits that suit the greater number is a sin – an act of sacrilege. What has civilisation to give, how can luxury improve upon these simple facts? ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!’ is his cry. ‘Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.’

But the reader may ask, what is the value of simplicity? Is Thoreau’s simplicity simplicity for its own sake, and not rather a method of intensification, a way of setting free the delicate and complicated machinery of the soul, so that its results are the revere of simple? The most remarkable men tend to discard luxury because they find that it hampers the play of what is much more valuable to them. Thoreau himself was an extremely complex human being, and he certainly did not achieve simplicity by living for two years in a hut and cooking his own dinner. His achievement was rather to lay bare what was within him – to let life take its own way unfettered by artificial constraints. ‘I do not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise recognition, unless it was quite necessary, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…’ Walden – all his books, indeed – are packed with subtle, conflicting, and very fruitful discoveries. They are not written to prove something in the end. They are written as the Indians turn down twigs to mark their path through the forest. He cuts his way through life as if no one had ever taken that road before, leaving these signs for those who come after, should they care to see which way he went. But he did not wish to leave ruts behind him, and to follow is not an easy process. We can never lull our attention asleep in reading Thoreau by the certainty that we have now grasped his theme and can trust our guide to be consistent. We must always be ready to try something fresh; we must always be prepared for the shock of facing one of those thoughts in the original which we have known all our lives in reproductions. ‘All health and success does me good, however far off and withdrawn it may appear; all disease and failure helps to make me sad and do me evil, however much sympathy it may have with me or I with it.’ ‘Distrust all enterprises that require new clothes.’ ‘You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else.’ That is a handful, plucked almost at random, and of course there are plenty of wholesome platitudes.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 and Henry David Thoreau in 1856

Virginia Woolf in 1902 and Henry David Thoreau in 1856

As he walked his woods, or sat for hours almost motionless like the sphinx of college days upon a rock watching the birds, Thoreau defined his own position to the world not only with unflinching honesty, but with a glow of rapture at his heart. He seems to hug his own happiness. Those years were full of revelations – so independent of other men did he find himself, so perfectly equipped by nature not only to keep himself housed, fed, and clothed, but also superbly entertained without any help from society. Society suffered a good many blows from his hand. He sets down his complaints so squarely that we cannot help suspecting that society might one of these days have to come to terms with so noble a rebel. He did not want churches or armies, post offices or newspapers, and very consistently he refused to pay his tithes and went into prison rather than pay his poll tax. All getting together in crowds for doing good or procuring pleasure was an intolerable infliction upon him. Philanthropy was one of the sacrifices, he said, that he had made to a sense of duty. Politics seemed to him ‘unreal, incredible, insignificant,’ and most revolutions not so important as the drying up of a river or the death of a pine. He wanted only to be left alone tramping woods in his suit of Vermont grey, unhampered even by those two pieces of limestone which lay upon his desk until they proved guilty of collecting the dust, and were at once thrown out of the window.

And yet this egoist was the man who sheltered runaway slaves in his hut; this hermit was the first man to speak out in public in defence of John Brown; this self-centered solitary could neither sleep nor think when Brown lay in prison. The truth is that anyone who reflects as much and as deeply as Thoreau reflected about life and conduct is possessed of an abnormal sense of responsibility to his kind, whether he chooses to live in a wood or to become president of the Republic. Thirty volumes of diaries which he would condense from time to time with infinite care into little books prove, moreover, that the independent man who professed to care so little for his fellows was possessed with an intense desire to communication with them. ‘I would fain,’ he writes, ‘communicate the wealth of my life to men, would really give them what is most precious in my gift…I have no private good unless it be my peculiar ability to serve the public…I wish to communicate those parts of my life which I would gladly live again.’ No one can read him and remain unaware of this wish. And yet it is a question whether he ever succeeded in imparting his wealth, in sharing his life. When we have read his strong and noble books, in which every word is sincere, every sentence wrought as well as the writer knows how, we are left with a strange feeling of distance; here is a man who is trying to communicate but who cannot do it. His eyes are on the ground or perhaps on the horizon. He is never speaking directly to us; he is speaking partly to himself and partly to something mystic beyond our sight. ‘Says I to myself,’ he writes, ‘should be the motto to my journal,’ and all his books are journals. Other men and women were wonderful and very beautiful, but they were distant; they were different; he found it very hard to understand their ways. They were as ‘curious to him as if they had been prairie dogs’. All human intercourse was indefinitely difficult; the distance between one friend and another was unfathomable; human relationships were very precarious and terribly apt to end in disappointment. But, although concerned and willing to do what he could short of lowering his ideals, Thoreau was aware that the difficulty was one that could not be overcome by taking pains. He was made differently from other people. ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’ He was a wild man, and he would never submit to be a tame one. And for us here lies his peculiar charm. He hears a different drummer. He is a man into whom nature has breathed other instincts than ours, to whom she has whispered, one may guess, some of her secrets.

‘It appears to be a law,’ he says, ‘that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.’ Perhaps that is true. The greatest passion of his life was his passion for nature. It was more than a passion, indeed; it was an affinity; and in this he differs from men like White and Jefferies. He was gifted, we are told, with an extraordinary keenness of the senses; he could see and hear what other men could not; his touch was so delicate that he could pick up a dozen pencils accurately from a box holding a bushel; he could find his way alone through thick woods at night. He could lift a fish out of the stream with his hands; he could charm a wild squirrel to nestle in his coat; he could sit so still that the animals went on with their play around him. He knew the look of the country so intimately that if he had waked in a meadow he could have told the time of year within a day or two from the flowers at his feet. Nature had made it easy for him to pick up a living without effort. He was so skilled with his hands that by labouring forty days he could live at leisure for the rest of the year. We scarcely know whether to call him the last of an older race of men, or the first of one that is to come. He had the toughness, the stoicism, the unspoilt senses of an Indian, combined with the self-consciousness, the exacting discontent, the susceptibility of the most modern. At times he seems to reach beyond our human powers in what he perceives upon the horizon of humanity. No philanthropist ever hoped more of mankind, or set higher and nobler tasks before him, and those whose ideal of passion and of service is the loftiest are those who have the greatest capacities for giving, although life may not ask of them all that they can give, and forces them to hold in reserve rather than to lavish. However much Thoreau had been able to do, he would still have seen possibilities beyond; he would always have remained, in one sense, unsatisfied. That is one of the reasons why he is able to be the companion of a younger generation.

He died when he was in the full tide of life, and he had to endure long illness within doors. But from nature he had learnt both silence and stoicism. He had never spoken of the things that had moved him most in his private fortunes. But from nature, too, he had learnt to be content, not thoughtlessly or selfishly content, and certainly not with resignation, but with a healthy trust in the wisdom of nature, and in nature, as he says, there is no sadness. ‘I am enjoying existence as much as ever,’ he wrote from his deathbed, ‘and regret nothing’. He was talking to himself of moose and Indian when, without a struggle, he died.


“The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol 2: 1912-1918”; Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf published her nonfiction book “Three Guineas” in June of 1938 as a sequel to “A Room Of One’s Own.” The book’s originally title was “Professions for Women” and was intended to be a novel-essay with alternating fiction and nonfiction chapters. Eventually, Virginia separated the fiction and nonfiction sections. The nonfiction section became “Three Guineas” and the fiction section became her novel “The Years.”

The book is a long essay discussing fascism, war and feminism, tying them all together in a series of letters to various organizations that had requested financial donations from Virginia. Although she began working on the book years before, Virginia confessed in her diary that the sudden death of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 became a big influence on the book: “Yes I was always thinking of Julian when I wrote.”

Three Guineas first edition circa 1938

Cover of the first edition of “Three Guineas” published in June of 1938

Virginia’s biographer and nephew, Quentin Bell, sums up the book as a “product of a very odd mind and, I think, of a very odd state of mind. It was intended as a continuation of A Room of One’s Own, but it was written in a far less persuasive, a far less playful mood. It was a protest against oppression, a genuine protest denouncing real evils and, to the converted, Virginia did not preach in vain.”

The inspiration for the book first came to Virginia while she was in the bath one winter’s day in 1931:

“Tuesday 20 January
I have this moment, while having my bath, conceived an entire new book – a sequel to A Room of One’s Own – about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions of Women perhaps – Lord how exciting! This sprang out of my paper to be read on Wednesday to Pippa’s society. Now for The Waves. Thank God – but I’m very much excited!”

Virginia was trying to finish up the last few chapters of her novel “The Waves” when this inspiration struck, making it hard for her to concentrate on finishing the long novel. A few days after she recorded her initial inspiration, she changed the book’s working title to “Open Door” and complained that it was a major distraction:

“Friday 23 January
Too much excited, alas, to get on with The Waves. One goes on making up The Open Door, or whatever it is to be called. The didactive demonstrative style conflicts with the dramatic: I find it hard to get back inside Bernard again….Naturally I am rather used up – can’t make the effort this morning of going on with The Waves. And am 99: & get headaches very easily – Lord, how often this drains my last chapters of their strength! And now Open Door is sucking at my brain too. Such accidents can’t be avoided.”

Virginia Woolf photographed by Gisele Freund at Tavistock Square in 1939

Virginia Woolf photographed by Gisele Freund at her Tavistock Square apartment in 1939

Although excited by her new found inspiration, Virginia put the book on the back burner for many years while she worked on different projects, such as “The Waves” and “The Years.” During this time, she changed the book’s working title numerous times, noting each new title in her diary. In May of 1931, she renamed the book “A Knock On The Door” but then changed it again in September to “A Tap At The Door” before switching back to “A Knock On The Door” the following February, writing to herself “What’s it’s name?” in parenthesis next to the title. About a week later she renamed it “Men Are Like That?” but then dismissed the title for being to “patently feminist.” A week after that, it was retitled “A Knock On The Door” again and then “A Tap At The Door” again in March. In January of 1935, Virginia renamed it “On Being Despised” but then changed it in October to “The Next War” and then to “Answers to Correspondents” the following January in 1936 and then to “Two Guineas” in April.

The book didn’t receive it’s official name of “Three Guineas” until November of 1936 when she first began writing it. Once Virginia finally started on the book, she wrote it quickly over the course of a year and a few months, finally announcing in her diary in January of 1938 that she had just written the last chapter.

Although Virginia often summed up her thoughts on each of her books in her diary after she finished them, she was hesitant to do so for “Three Guineas,” instead writing on December 19, 1938:

“The reception of 3 Gs has been interesting, unexpected – only I’m note sure what I expected. 8,000 sold. Not one of my friends has mentioned it. My wide circle has widened – but I’m altogether in the dark as to the true merits of the book. Is it…? No, I won’t even formulate qualities; for, its true, no one has yet summed it up. Much less unanimity than about Room Of One’s Own.”

“Three Guineas” sold very well and was generally well received by the public but highly criticized by literary critics and Virginia’s friends. Nonetheless, unlike with her other books, Virginia didn’t mind the criticism and barely made note of it, continuing on instead with writing Roger Fry’s biography, which became the last book she saw to publication before her suicide in March of 1941.


“Virginia Woolf: A Biography”; Quentin Bell; 1972

“The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Five: 1936-1941”; Virginia Woolf

Julian Bell & the Bloomsbury Group

The Bloomsbury group was a close-knit group of friends who met during their college years at Cambridge. Yet after Julian Bell, the son of founding members Vanessa Stephen and Clive Bell, died in the Spanish Civil War in July of 1937, the group began to splinter.

According to author S.P. Rosenbaum, who wrote numerous books about the Bloomsbury group, Julian’s sudden death was more than the group could handle:

“The death of Julian Bell….effectively shattered Bloomsbury….Julian’s death belonged to the public events that overwhelmed Bloomsbury and the world.”

Yet Julian’s brother, Quentin Bell, stated that it was the events leading up to Julian’s death, particularly the rise of fascism in Europe, that ruined the dynamic of the group. Since the Bloomsbury group members had been ardent pacifists their whole lives, their neutrality suddenly became irrelevant in the face of fascism and many members of the group, including young Julian, were forced to take a stand on the matter. As the editor of the book “We Did Not Fight: 1914-1918,” published in 1935, Julian wrote in the introduction: “I believe that the war-resistance movements of my generation will in the end succeed in putting down war – by force if necessary” thus distancing himself from the Bloomsbury group’s pacifist ideals.

Julian Bell and Virginia Woolf 1910

Julian Bell and Virginia Woolf in 1910

Wanting to do something about this rise in fascism, 29-year-old Julian signed up to be an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, instead of a soldier, in order to placate his pacifist mother. Little did he realize how dangerous the job was and died from a massive lung wound after his ambulance was hit by a bomb as he drove along a road just outside Villanueva de la Cañada.

As a part of the Bloomsbury group’s second generation, Julian’s death was especially hard on the group. He was the first Bloomsbury child and had been named after his uncle Julian Thoby Stephen who had originally brought the Bloomsbury group members together before his own premature death in 1906, according to the book “Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War”:

“He was at the heart of Bloomsbury as one of Vanessa’s children. Julian was named in memory of his uncle, Julian Thoby Stephen, always known as Thoby, who had died young, at the age of twenty-six. Julian frequently reminded Virginia of Thoby, and now their was this terrible coincidence of their early deaths. Thoby had been the linchpin for Bloomsbury, principally through his close friends at Trinity, Cambridge – Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf. It was virtually in reaction to Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906 that Clive almost immediately married Vanessa and that some years later Leonard married Virginia. It was through Thoby that the young Cambridge men came to the new home of the Stephen children in Bloomsbury…The years between the wars were the golden years of Bloomsbury when the most prominent members of that group of friends came into that eminence. It might be said that the ending of the richest period was marked by the death of Julian, deeply shadowing the lives of Vanessa and Virginia.”

Julian Bell circa 1929

Julian Bell in 1929

Vanessa was completely devastated by the loss of her son and Virginia personally nursed her for weeks after. In a reply to a condolence letter from Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa wrote: “These past few weeks have been really terrible, as you can imagine. But I don’t think I could have survived them if it wasn’t for Virginia’s constant presence and help. But I can’t tell Virginia that. Will you tell her?”

Haunted by this sudden death of her nephew, Virginia wrote about Julian often in her diary that summer and fall:

“Wednesday 11 August: Endless unwritten letters – sympathy about Julian who stalks beside me, in many different shapes…Tuesday 17 August: I often argue with him [Julian] on my walks; abuse his selfishness in going [to war], but mostly feel floored by the complete muddle & waste. Cant share the heroic rapture of the Medical Aid, who are holding a meeting next week to commemorate the six who were killed. ‘Gave their lives’ as they call it…Tuesday 12 October: Nessa went to Paris. Last night she came here, for the first time. We have the materials for happiness, but no happiness. All this summer, I find myself saying that verse, Lowell’s, about those whose coming steps we listen for: the verse about the nephew killed in the war. When Thoby died I used to walk about London saying to myself Stevenson’s verses: You alone have crossed the melancholy stream. Both doggerel I suppose: yet they say themselves spontaneously. With Thoby though I felt we were the same age. With Julian it is the old woman, saying that she wont see the young again. It is an unnatural death, his. I cant make it fit in anywhere. Perhaps because he was killed, violently. I can do nothing with the experience yet. It seems still emptiness: the sight of Nessa bleeding: how we watch: nothing to be done. But whats odd is I cant notice, or describe. Of course I have forced myself to drive ahead with the book. But the future without Julian is cut off. lopped: deformed.”

Although the Bloomsbury group carried on after Julian’s death, his loss, as well as the subsequent deaths of many of its prominent members, including Lytton Strachey in 1932, Roger Fry in 1934, Virginia in 1941, John Maynard Keynes in 1946 and Adrian Stephen in 1948, ensured that the group was never quite the same.


A Sketch of the Past: Bloomsbury’s Lost Poet: Julian Bell in Madrid:

“We Did Not Fight: 1914-1918: Experiences of War Resisters”; Julian Bell; 1935

“Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War”; Peter Stansky, William Abrahams; 2012

“The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary”; S.P. Rosenbaum; 1995

Virginia Woolf’s Best-Selling Books

During her lifetime, Virginia Woolf wrote over 10 novels and numerous non-fiction books that forever changed the landscape of modern literature.

Although Virginia’s earlier books were often met with sharp criticism and poor sales, many of her later books were well-received and quickly became best-sellers.

Virginia’s literary reputation suffered a brief decline after World War II, yet she regained popularity in the 1970s when the second wave of feminism brought her work to the forefront once again. She has since remained one of the most popular British writers of the 20th century and her books are not only still in print but are still big sellers.

Here is a list of Virginia Woolf’s current best-selling books accompanied by their original literary reviews:

Mrs. Dalloway: “Among Mrs. Woolf’s contemporaries, there are not a few who have brought to the traditional forms of fiction, and the stated modes of writing, idioms which cannot but enlarge the resources of speech and the uses of narrative. Virginia Woolf is almost alone, however, in the intricate yet clear art of her composition. Clarissa’s day, the impressions she gives and receives, the memories and recognitions which stir in her, the events which are initiated remotely and engineered almost to touching distance of the impervious Clarissa, capture in a definitive matrix the drift of thought and feeling in a period, the point of view of a class, and seem almost to indicate the strength and weakness of an entire civilization.” – The New York Times, May 1925

Virginia Woolf's Best-Selling Books

First editions of Virginia Woolf’s Best-Selling Books

To The Lighthouse: “It is, I think, in the superb interlude called ‘Time Passes’ that Mrs. Woolf reaches the most impressive height of the book, and there one can find a new note in her work, something beyond the ironic sophistication and civilized human values of ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ In this description of the unused house in the Hebrides, entered for ten years only by old and forlorn women caretakers and the wind and the sea air and the light of the lighthouse lamp, she has told the story of all life passing on, of change and destruction and solitude and waste–the story which more than a little embodies the plot action of the rest of the book, but above all the story which has for man the profoundest human values of all, though for ten years the house itself never received a human guest. The great beauty of these eighteen pages of prose carries in it an emotional and ironical undertone that is superior to anything else that the first-class technician, the expert stylist, the deft student of human life in Mrs. Woolf ever has done. Here in prose of extraordinary distinction in our time: here is poetry” – The New York Times, May 1927

A Room of One’s Own: “Thus Mrs. Woolf has traced the position of the woman writer through the centuries, wittily finishing it off with contrasting pictures of men’s lives and women’s lives even today. We have summarized baldly, whereas Mrs. Woolf speaks for her sex with as much fancy as logic, as much wit as knowledge, and with the imagination of a true novelist. And she speaks for it well. Moreover, she escapes from an attitude of conventional feminism by really arguing in this book not for women but for artists. For, of course, all artists, whatever their sex, need, 500 pounds a year an a room on their own. It is only because women have had them so much less frequently than men that a special plea for them has a special force.” – The New York Times, November 1929

Orlando: A Biography: “In the closing pages of the novel Mrs. Woolf welds into a compact whole what had seemed to be a series of loosely connected episodes. In them she seems to reach down through the whole superstructure of life and to lay bare a new, or at least a hitherto unperceived, arrangement of those ephemeral flashes of memory of perception that go to make up consciousness. Throughout the ages people have remarked that time, under certain circumstances, seems much longer than under certain other circumstances. Mrs. Woolf presents concrete proof that this is not merely an impression, but a fact, by showing of what time, not as a mechanical, but as a human element, consists. She has carried the “stream of consciousness” technique a step further; she has not been satisfied to present a succession of thoughts and sensations passing through the mind; she shows what is behind those thoughts and sensations, whence they spring, and how great their relative value.” – The New York Times, October 1928

Three Guineas: “Woolf’s goal [in Three Guineas] is not merely freedom and equality for race and sex and people, it is human civilization, a civilization which must be better, sounder, and surer than we know.” – The New York Times

The Waves: “But this existence is formal only, and the real reason why ‘The Waves’ comes close, as a novel, to going out of bounds is that its true interests are those of poetry. Mrs. Woolf has not only passed up superficial reality; she has also passed up psychological reality. She is not really concerned in ‘The Waves’ with people, she is hardly concerned in the prosaic sense with humanity: she is only concerned with the symbols, the poetic symbols, of life–the changing seasons, day and night, bread and wine, fire and cold, time and space, birth and death and change. These things treated separately, as facts, are indeed the stuff of a novel; but treated collectively, as symbols, they are the stuff of poetry. In spirit, in language, in effect ‘The Waves’ is–not a poetic novel but a poem, a kind of symphonic poem with themes and thematic development, in prose;” – The New York Times, October 1931

Between the Acts: “As in most of her novels, the cream of ‘Between the Acts’ lies between the lines–in the haunting overtones. And the best of the show–the part one really cares about–happens between the acts and immediately before the pageant begins and just after it is over. So the play is not really the thing at all. It is merely the focal point, the hub of the wheel, the peg on which to hang the bright ribbons and dark cords of the author’s super sensitive perceptions and illuminated knowledge. It is in her imagery, in her felicitous gift for metaphor, for cadence, for exciting association, in her ‘powers of absorption and distillation’ that her special genius lies. She culls exotic flowers in the half-light of her private mysticism along with common earthgrown varieties and distills them into new essences. Her most interesting characters move in an ambiente of intuition. With half a glance they regard their fellow-mortals and know their hidden failures. They care less for the tangible, the wrought stone, than for fleeting thought or quick desire.” – The New York Times, October 1941

Flush: A Biography: “In her efforts, sometimes agonized, to get at the hidden core, the inner springs, of life, Mrs. Woolf must often have felt the inadequacy of mere words. And in ‘Flush,’ which is a brilliant biographical tour de force that brings the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life, she confesses as much. In seeking to record the states of consciousness of a dog, Mrs. Woolf is more successful, it seems to us, than she ever was at adumbration of the psychic life of human beings.” – The New York Times, October 1933

The Years: “Rather this is a long-drawn-out lyricism in the form of a novel, with flying buttresses to sustain its airy and often absent-minded inspirations. There is the minimum of substructure. But there is everywhere, on one lovely page after another, a kind of writing which reveals a kind of feeling that is more illuminating than a dozen well-made and documented novels. Mrs. Woolf has made, or unmade, her novel in the form of a poem or a piece of music.” – The New York Times, April 1937


New York Times; Virginia Woolf’s Richest Novel; Peter Monro Jack; April 11 1937:

New York Times; Books of the Times; John Chamberlain; October 5 1933:

New York Times; Mrs. Woolf Explores the Time Element in Human Relationships; Cleveland B. Chase; October 21 1928:

New York Times; Virginia Woolf Discusses Women and Fiction; Louis Kronenberger; November 10 1929:

New York Times; Poetic Brilliance in New Novel by Mrs. Woolf; Louis Kronenberger; October 25 1931:

New York Times; The Perfect Hostess; John W. Crawford; May 1925:

New York Times; The Genius of Virginia Woolf; October 5 1941; Hudson Strode:

New York Times; Virginia Woolf Explores an English Country Home; Louis Kronenberger; May 1927:

University of Alabama: Contemporary Reviews of To The Lighthouse:

“Feminism: From Mary Wollstonecraft To Betty Friedan”; Bhaskar A. Shukla; 2007