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Virginia Woolf



I know how this story ends; with stones in her pockets and lungs full of river water. I look at her portraits, and fancy I can see death in this woman, even in her living likeness. I detect it in the emptiness of her stare and the hollows of her cheeks. A postcard of a faceless painting seems to augur disaster, her head slumped to one side. I also know, however, that endings are not a good vantage point for understanding a story, so I look again. I look for signs of life, and for the happiness she so readily proclaimed. I locate humour in her eyes, and wit is betrayed by a hand on the hip and a cock of the head. The beginning – or the ending – of a smile curls her lips. I am reminded of the jokes she made, the pet names, the intensity of friendship in an existence that was far from solitary. I recall her ability to solidify momentary experience in words, offering it up like a wriggling fish in a handful of sea water. The more I look, the more I find someone forcefully and stubbornly alive, someone for whom the light and the colours are so bright, that the darkness is doubly unbearable. I search out that brightness in her words, and follow its traces back past a tangle of lovers, past inky fingers on printing presses, past smart conversation in shabby drawing rooms. I follow them until they converge on one place. “There were days of pure enjoyment,” she writes, “I conceive of them at St Ives most readily.”

The child Virginia climbs to the Lookout at Talland House on the ridge overlooking Porthminster Beach. Godrevy Lighthouse sits right of centre in her view, astride its jagged rock. A tailor’s chalk mark on the horizon, there is only the blue of the sky above it, and only the blue of the sea below it, shading into a more Turkish hue, before lapping at the yellow sands. “Suppose I only had Surrey, or Sussex, or the Isle of Wight to think about when I think of my childhood?” the woman Virginia says of her summers in Cornwall, “nothing we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us.” She could fill pages, she says, with memories of the place; the sea, the moors, anemones like jewels in pools. Her very first memory, the base her life stands upon, the “bowl that one fills and fills and fills” is of lying on her bed in the nursery between sleep and wakefulness. The child Virginia counts the waves breaking, “one, two, one, two”. As well as the ecstasy of this first feeling, St Ives also gives her rapture; “It still makes me feel warm,” she says, “as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny; smelling so many smells at once.”

Her father brings her here for her very first summer, and every childhood summer after it. She rides the new train line in from St Erth with her sisters, her brothers, her mother. St Ives, she remembers, is “a windy, noisy, fishy, vociferous, narrow-streeted town; the colour of a mussel or a limpet”. There are no hotels or villas, no beach huts, no buckets, no spades. Few other summer visitors come except for a few itinerant artists, attracted by the light. The child wanders the steep streets watching the cats with their fishbones, and local women with their buckets of dirty water, pouring them from their steps. Just as this Cornish fishing town is no Victorian dainty, so the child is no doll in bows and lace. “Vanessa and I,” the woman smiles at her beloved sister’s name, “were what was called tomboys; that is, we played cricket, scrambled over rocks, climbed trees, were said not to care for clothes and so on.” Talland House is square, “like a child’s drawing of a house”, rented from the Great Western Railway Company. The child peers on tiptoe into a mirror in the hall. Another emotion that stirs in her here for the first time is the inexplicable shame she feels as she stares at her reflection. It never leaves her; none of it leaves her. “At times,” the woman says, hundreds of miles away and decades later, “I can go back to St Ives more completely than I can this morning.

During the child’s tenth summer, clouds gather over the lighthouse in the bay. “Ominous hints,” she says, “reached the nursery.” A blockish beige hotel rises like a portent between the Lookout and the sea, and Julia, the girl’s mother, throws up her hands in alarm; “St Ives will be ruined,” she says. ‘To Let’ notices appear outside the square house on Talland Street, but chance offers a reprieve and no tenants are forthcoming. “Danger,” Virginia the woman says, “was averted.” In the spring of 1895, however, St Ives tilts abruptly on its axis, and slides from the present to the past. Virginia is 13 years old, and Julia is dead. “I have a vision of her now, as she came up the path by the lawn at St Ives; slight, shapely – she held herself very straight.” I look in vain for Julia’s “astonishing beauty” in photographs of an angular, sculptural adult, her face half hidden in a bonnet. I find it in the wide eyes, flowing hair, and troubled complexion of an adolescent, captured on film by a famous aunt. “St Ives vanished forever,” Virginia says. Her father, never wishing to see the place again, turns away.

“It is only by putting it into words,” the writer says, “that I make it whole; this wholeness means it has lost the power to hurt me.” Over the years, the writer writes herself and her world intricately, opaquely at times. She writes across the divide into modernity, leaving the figurative behind, like her contemporaries who busy themselves with paintbrush and chisel. Virginia the writer conjures realities with pen and paper. She calls up flashes of colour, snatches of memory, of emotions, of doubts, of catching moths, and paddling in the shallows. She attracts bright names to her circle, friends, lovers, and brainy talk. She fills her days with companionship and flirtation; Vita, Tom, Dorothy, and always Leonard. They make books together. They live by their politics together in tall cluttered houses. Forever the outsiders, they turn down the accolades and turn back to the printing presses.

The intermittent light of Godrevy Lighthouse illuminates the writer’s inner world, revealing a westerly landscape, and limpet coloured houses clustering around a bright bay. Julia is there too. “It’s perfectly true,” the writer remembers, “that she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four.” Just as the writer writes her past, so her past writes her. One day as she walks around Tavistock Square three decades and more after her mother’s death, To the Lighthouse bubbles from her, fully formed “in a great, apparently involuntary, rush … One thing burst into another,” she recalls, “I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” She transports Cornwall, flora, fauna, lighthouse and all, to the empty space of a sparsely sketched Skye. She pours Julia’s movement and beauty into the upright vessel of Mrs Ramsay. Virginia the child, the woman, and the writer are divided and measured into a constellation of characters, finally coalescing to flow out again through Lilly’s brush onto a completed canvas. This story of Virginia sells better than any other book she writes.

There are holiday flats in Talland House now, and the famous pink light of St Ives shines down over a bustling sea front of ice cream, slot machines, galleries, and cafes. The child has gone, as has the woman and the writer, Julia and Vanessa, Leonard and Vita, Charlie Pearce, and old Mr Wolstenholme in his beehive chair. Virginia’s St Ives can still be found, however, beside the train tracks, in the back streets, between the high tides and the low. The leaves are still there, and the flowers, the ants and the rooks, the sea shells and the waves. The sounds she heard, the smells she smelled, the colours and the memories remain, “an incongruous miscellaneous catalogue, little corks that mark a sunken net.”

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

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