On 9–10 June, for London’s Open Garden Squares Weekend, the University of London held a series of tours and talks on ‘Leading Women’ associated with Gordon Square and its gardens. These included Dr Elizabeth Dearnley’s introduction to the code-breaker and garden historian Mavis Batey and – here – Dr Philip Carter on Virginia Woolf and the formation of the Bloomsbury Group.
A walk round Bloomsbury takes you past many houses with blue plaques which commemorate the homes and achievements of former residents. Of these, none is more celebrated than the writer and critic Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).
You’ll find plaques to Woolf at No. 29 Fitzroy Square, where she lived between 1907 and 1911; at Brunswick Square, near the Foundling Museum, and (since April 2018) on the Tavistock Hotel, Tavistock Square, which marks the site of No. 52, her home between 1924 and 1939. Here she wrote some of her best known novels, including To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway (which will be discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell at this ‘Dallowday’, 20 June 2018, at the British Library).
Several squares in Bloomsbury can therefore lay claim to Virginia Woolf. But these later phases in Woolf’s life came after the important years 1904 to 1907 when she lived at No. 46 Gordon Square adjacent to the University of London’s main precinct. It is Gordon Square – to which Virginia moved in October 1904 – that marks the start of her adult life as a professional writer, and of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals that gave rise to the Bloomsbury Group.
For Virginia Woolf, then aged 22, Gordon Square was also a place of personal transition because it marked a move from the ‘gloom’ of her early years to the ‘bloom’ of a new life. ‘Gloom’ is a word Virginia herself used to describe her adolescence which was spent in another part of London, No. 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, where she was born and grew up.
When Virginia moved to Gordon Square she was not yet Virginia Woolf (she married in 1912), but Virginia Stephen. She was the youngest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, one of the great men of Victorian letters, a historian, journalist and founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.
Leslie Stephen was in many ways a classic Victorian: energetic, industrious, and serious. But he was also an exceptional Victorian, known for his radical freethinking, as a prominent (and controversial) atheist and a father who encouraged his daughter to read any book in his library. As a result, Virginia’s relationship with Leslie proved complicated. At times, he embodied the oppressive Victorianism she sought to escape; on other occasions he was the enlightened thinker whose rationality and empiricism informed the later Bloomsbury movement.
Virginia’s wider family was similarly complicated, and large. Both her father and her mother, Julia, had been married before and both parents brought stepchildren to their marriage. Leslie and Julia in turn had four children of their own: Vanessa (now best known as the painter Vanessa Bell), two sons, Thoby and Adrian, and Virginia.
Virginia’s childhood home, at Hyde Park Gate, was therefore always crowded and cramped, even though the house itself was a magnificent five-storey townhouse. It was also dark and oppressive, decorated in a heavy Victorian style of blacks and deep reds.
From the late 1890s, it was also a place of great sadness. Virginia’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1895, aged 49. Plunged into despair, Leslie Stephen was became irascible and demanding of his daughters and stepdaughters. From the early 1900s, Virginia spent increasing amounts of time nursing her ailing and much older father until his death, aged 72, in early 1904.
Leslie’s death ended an era and the response of the Stephen children was to get away from sombre, stuffy Kensington. They’d first visited Bloomsbury in December 1903 in search of a new home but initially were not impressed. Virginia wrote on that occasion that ‘It seems so far away, and so cold and [that word again] gloomy.’
However, they persevered. It was Vanessa who chose No. 46 Gordon Square as their new home in early 1904, and she who set about decorating the house in a modern style. In these initial months Virginia was absent, undergoing a series of family visits in Yorkshire and Cambridge to recover from a serious episode of mental ill-health following her father’s death. Later that year she was judged well-enough to return to London, and move in with Vanessa and her brothers at No 46. Coming to Gordon Square was for Virginia therefore an escape not just from the gloom of her childhood, but also from an illness that would of, course, blight her whole life.
What Virginia found at No. 46 Gordon Square was a world away from her previous experience of domestic living. This was a house where only young people lived which, at the time was a rarity and radical departure from the multi-generation clutter of Hyde Park Gate. In an age of student housing and shared spaces, it’s easy to forget just how liberating – and, for some, shocking – this single generation household was in Edwardian England.
No. 46 Gordon Square was also architecturally distinctive. Unlike Hyde Park Gate, it was airy and spacious. It was clean and lit by electricity rather than gas lamps and candles. Virginia lived at the top of the house, where she had two rooms of her own, with a view across the Gordon Square gardens. In an essay entitled ‘Old Bloomsbury’, written in 1922, Woolf reflected on what it was like to live at No. 46, and her excitement at starting something new.
‘When one sees it today’, she writes, ‘Gordon Square is not one of the most romantic of the Bloomsbury Squares. But I can assure you that in October 1904 it was the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most romantic place in the world. To begin with it was astonishing to stand at the drawing room window and look into all those trees … The light and the air after the rich red gloom of Hyde Park Gate were a revelation.’
Though Bloomsbury is today a smart part of London, this wasn’t the case in 1904. Gordon Square had been developed in the 1820s, along with Tavistock Square, for the upper middle classes. However, as a district it didn’t really take off. As a result, its terraces were turned into lodging and boarding houses as homes for a transitory and shifting population. To the Stephen children this mix of people, and the area’s slightly dodgy reputation, were part of the charm of moving to Gordon Square. ‘After the silence of Hyde Park gate the roar of traffic was positively alarming. Old characters, sinister, strange, prowled and slunk past our windows.’
Woolf and her siblings sought to carry over this unconventionality to life inside No. 46. Decoratively the old ways of proper living were thrown over for more modern styles. The plush reds and blacks were replaced by lighter, plainer designs. Walls were whitewashed and there was green and white chintz, rather than the elaborate fabrics of William Morris.
The new residents of No. 46 were also keen to live differently. In part, this meant the bigger things in life: they would spend their time reading, writing, and debating. But difference and modernity were also displayed by daily routines. So they chose to drink coffee after dinner instead of tea because, free from Victorian proprieties, they could. And they decided to live without that epitome of Victorian civility, the table napkin, and use instead what Woolf describes as ‘large supplies of Bromo’, which is best likened to an Edwardian form of kitchen roll.
Such details are amusing, but to the Stephen children they became symbols of a change that was only possible at No. 46. As Woolf put it: ‘Here everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.’
Gordon Square is also famous because it was home, from March 1905, to the Thursday evening gatherings that became the Bloomsbury Circle, or at least its first instance – what Woolf later called ‘Old Bloomsbury’. Quite who and what and when Bloomsbury was remains much debated.
But what’s clear is that it began at No. 46, as the Cambridge University friends of Thoby Stephen visited the house each week to discuss literature, art and ideas. The regulars included the painter Clive Bell, the writer Lytton Strachey, the wonderfully named Saxon Sydney-Turner, and the future Indian civil servant and peace campaigner, Leonard Woolf. There were other occasional visitors, including the poet W.B. Yeats and the novelist E.M. Forster, whom Virginia revered and who she used to watch crossing Gordon Square while she hid behind the hedges in the gardens.
In later years, the Bloomsbury circle gained a reputation for sexual freedom and experimentation: famously it was said by Dorothy Parker that they ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’. But things were much more reserved in the first Gordon Square years (Woolf called them ‘monastic’), with the multiple attractions going largely unspoken. As Woolf wrote in her essay on Old Bloomsbury: ‘at Gordon Square love was never mentioned. Love had no existence.’
What took place instead was talk, and talk between men and women on equal terms about things that mattered. Woolf describes a typical Thursday evening in the following terms: ‘it was late at night; the room was full of smoke; there were buns, coffee and whiskey strewn about; we were not wearing white satin or seed pearls; we were not dressed at all.’
This life of coffee, buns and casual dress was to many deeply shocking. Elder members of the Stephen family expressed alarm at these wayward youngsters. But for the younger Stephens these debates and late nights were an essential part of everything being different.
This first phase of Bloomsbury ended in spring 1907. By then Virginia’s elder brother Thoby had died, Leonard Woolf had moved to India, and Clive Bell had married Vanessa. The Bells remained in the house while Virginia and her younger brother, Adrian, moved out to 29 Fitzroy Square where the Thursday evening gatherings continued. However, the focus and dynamic of the circle was starting to change as it became more diffuse, physical and creative. In time, the group also moved beyond Bloomsbury, with connections to Richmond, Charleston, Sissinghurst, and Rodmell in Sussex.
But as Woolf recalled in her 1922 essay, there was no escaping the fact that everything had started at No. 46. ‘These Thursday evenings’, she wrote, ‘were as far as I am concerned the germ from which sprang all that has since come to be called by the name of Bloomsbury. And the headquarters of Bloomsbury have always been in Gordon Square.’
Dr Philip Carter works at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study.
More information: Virginia Woolf is one of 150 ‘Leading Women’, with connections to the University of London, selected to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the university’s admission of women to sit examinations in 1868.