Lit Nerds Abroad: My Recent Trip to England

I do not think of myself as well-traveled. At this point, I have taken four short trips to Europe, never exceeding ten days, and have spent the majority of that time in London. I never studied abroad (something I now vaguely regret, but not always), I never sowed my wild oats on a backpacking trip across the continent, I’ve barely been anywhere that the primary language isn’t English. So I’ve taken cool trips, but I have many friends who have lived abroad for long periods and done much cooler stuff.

I just got back from a trip to England put on by my college alumni office. The trip was centered around sites associated with the life and novels of Virginia Woolf. It was led by a favorite professor of mine, a Woolf scholar. I took three classes with him in all, including one class centered around Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

First: some notes about Virginia Woolf and her works

The Bloomsbury Group was a creative and intellectual set that includes Virginia Woolf (writer), her sister Vanessa Bell (artist), Duncan Grant (artist), John Maynard Keynes (economist), Lytton Strachey (writer), E.M. Forster (writer), and others. The history of the group and lives of its members are both really fascinating (also: lots  and LOTS of sexual coupling within the group). The bottom line is that several members of the Bloomsbury Group are now known as some of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.

Virginia Stephen was born in 1882, the youngest daughter in a large family: eight children in all (one half-sister by her father’s first marriage, three half-siblings by her mother’s marriage, and three full siblings from her parents’ marriage). Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a prominent Victorian intellectual (and had previously been married to William Makepeace Thackeray’s daughter), and Virginia and her siblings grew up in London around many figures in the Victorian literary establishment.

Virginia’s childhood was not a very happy one at 22 Hyde Park Gate. Her mother died when she was thirteen, her half-sister Stella died suddenly thereafter, her older half-brothers sexually abused her, and her father was overbearing. She suffered mental breakdowns in her adolescence, which would be a continuing trend throughout her life. When her father died in 1904, she, Vanessa, and their brother Adrian moved to Bloomsbury (a very unfashionable neighborhood, to the shock of the Stephen family’s friends), where they began to interact with what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She married one member, Leonard Woolf, in 1912.

Virginia Woolf published her first novel—The Voyage Out—in 1915. In 1917, she and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, which published many of her works as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the English translation of the works of Sigmund Freud, and Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude. Most of Woolf’s major novels were published during the 1920s and 1930s, including Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Years (1937). Woolf was also a prolific essayist and critic as well as a leading feminist figure of the early twentieth century. Her most famous feminist work is the essay A Room of One’s Own (which I haven’t read yet, shame on me), but her novels display strong feminist tendencies as well as fascinating explorations of human sexuality.

As a prominent literary figure, Virginia Woolf continued to struggle with mental illness. After finishing her final novel, Between the Acts (1941, posthumous), she suffered a breakdown from which she would never recover. She and Leonard lived in Rodmell, Sussex, at Monk’s House after being displaced by the Blitz. On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, where she drowned.

Virginia Woolf is one of the foremost Modernist novelists of the twentieth century, a distinction that places her alongside writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner. The hallmark of Woolf’s style in her novels (for she was a prolific essayist as well) is what we would call “stream of consciousness.” In layman’s terms, her novels are pretty short on plot but strong in character and psychological portraiture. For example, Mrs Dalloway attempts to showcase its title character’s whole life in a single day. While Mrs. Dalloway makes her way through London to prepare for a party she is giving, the narrative delves deeply into her consciousness, running the gamut from her fleeting thoughts to her deeply ingrained memories. To the Lighthouse moves in and out of the consciousnesses of several characters who summer together on the Isle of Skye. One memorable scene centers around a dinner party that would appear mostly uneventful on the surface, but below roil the intense interior lives of the characters present. (I hate to be That Blogger, but it’s kind of hard to describe in such a short space of time—I’d love to dedicate a post to Woolf later on down the road.) 

My biggest regret about the trip was that I didn’t buckle down to re-read some of the materials from my Bloomsbury course. I discovered quickly crossing the Atlantic that To the Lighthouse is very much not for plane reading, even having read it before. I brought Orlando along with me as well—another re-read. Orlando is a fictional biography of a character who lives for centuries, from Elizabethan times onward, through not only great social change but also a change of sex (also, check out the 1993 film by Sally Potter, which stars Tilda Swinton). Orlando is very much a dialogue with English history, and thus much of our trip was tied in with itBut more about that in a little bit.

And now…a summary of what I saw

Note: I chose to include a mosaic gallery of photos at the end rather than intersperse them with the text. So keep on and you’ll be rewarded with my middling photographic skills.

Our trip was designed to chart the course of the life of Virginia Woolf. Our first day began with a trip to 22 Hyde Park Gate to see the townhouse where Virginia and Vanessa Stephen lived from birth to 1904. Woolf—like Dickens—is very much a novelist of London. We walked through Hyde Park along the same route Virginia and her father used to walk, we rambled through the Bloomsbury neighborhood where their circle of friends lived. We also stopped at the British Library and the British Museum to steep ourselves in British intellectual heritage (and, who are we kidding, scads of plundered artifacts). The rare books room in the British Library was a great favorite of mine—artifacts on artifacts on artifacts from a Gutenberg Bible (!) to the Magna Carta (!!) to Jane Austen’s writing desk (!!!).

On the second day, we continued exploring London. We began at the Imperial War Museum. Both World Wars had huge effects on Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, due to construction, much of the permanent collection was unavailable, but the exhibits that were were fascinating, particularly one that followed a family with ten children and their life during the Blitz. We also went to the London Transport Museum, which was overrun with children, but did have a great display of London Underground artwork in honor of the sesquicentennial anniversary of London’s subway system. We made our way to the National Portrait Gallery, where we saw portraits of the Bloomsbury Group, members of the Tudor family, a 3-D self-portrait made out of blood (you read that right), and our only known frame of reference for Jane Austen’s appearance. This day also happened to be my birthday, and I can think of no greater birthday gift than getting to see Jane Austen’s picture in person.

From there, our tour group moved down the Thames to Greenwich. Greenwich was a favorite home of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Stuarts, and the Hanoverians. A gorgeous example of ornate baroque architecture, Greenwich is the home of the Old Royal Naval College, which was a palace, a hospital, a naval college, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We looked at the Painted Hall and the Chapel before stopping at the National Maritime Museum. At this point, I broke off on my own and walked into town to the church of St Alfege, where Henry VIII was baptized and Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis (the Father of English Church Music) is buried. (You can listen to an example of some of Tallis’s music here.) I got to see what is believed to be the keyboard Mary I and Elizabeth I used to play. The church looks nothing like it would have during the Tudor age, but I still got that shivery, history-is-alive feeling from being there. Once we docked on the Thames I had designs to run to the Charles Dickens Museum, but I missed the last admittance. Next time, maybe.

Monday was a big day. We began with an exclusive tour of the Garrick Club, which is a legit gentleman’s club (I’m from the Western US, so I still can’t quite believe these exist outside of, like, Thackeray novels). Our tour was given by an alumn of the college, which just goes to show you that sometimes networking can bring forth marvelous opportunities. The Garrick Club was founded in the 1830s as the only gentlemen’s club that would take on actors. Currently, actors don’t even make up the majority of members, but the purveying attitude is one of being more relaxed and having a good time. They also boast an unparalleled collection of theatrical art: we got to see some awesome portraits of actors on the stage, which you don’t really realize you haven’t seen before until you do. This painting is (one of many) of an actor doing Hamlet (there were tons of Hamlets and Macbeths). Note that his wig has been undone, which is supposed to convey shock (at seeing the ghost I believe). Also the actors would often make grandiose hand gestures to signal to the audience that something big was about to happen—a pose our group continued to repeat all over London and called “Macbeth hands.”

From there, the group split apart to explore London on our own. My roommate and I went to the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. I’m going to take a long aside here because you have to understand: this was huge for me. Not just because I consider myself to be a Janeite, but because last year I took a trip to London with friends. I had been to London before and considered taking a day to explore the Jane Austen House. I didn’t really make plans, I didn’t have a smartphone or any map, and every time I consulted a map I seemed to go the opposite way I was supposed to. I also weirdly couldn’t get my loaner Verizon flip-phone to work in the UK (no problems in Ireland, weirdly). So I would have had to get to the train station alone, figure out how to buy a ticket, walk 30 minutes through a village in the countryside, and possibly not be able to reach my friends in London or anyone anywhere. Could I have done it? Probably. But I was a chicken. So I kicked myself for months about not going to see the Jane Austen House. I consulted directions, Trip Advisor, and taped a map into my travel journal. And finally, as I told our group leader at the bus stop in Bloomsbury, “I don’t care if I wind up with my hem six inches deep in mud, I WILL get to the Jane Austen House.”

In this case, my roommate was kind enough to spend her free day with me, and one of our group members who lives in the London suburbs did us a HUGE favor by not only buying our tickets at Waterloo, walking us to the station, and showing us how to get on the South West Train. On our way to Alton, the man punching the tickets said, “We are going all the way to Alton now. The track was out and was repaired about half-an-hour ago.” We took a taxi (it was raining really hard and a cheap ride) and then we were there.

One of the alumni we met briefly at the Garrick Club told us that the Jane Austen House Museum makes you feel like Jane Austen is there. That was mostly true—of course, Jane Austen didn’t have plaques about her own writing table in her own house (or the costumes from the Pride and Prejudice miniseries on display, but those do help with the period feel). But I still got a pilgrimage-like feeling there. What I saw was a family who lived modestly and the space where one of my heroes had to make her modest way. Her desk at the British library is so tiny, her writing table is so tiny, her watercolor portrait is so tiny. And yet she’s this enormous presence centuries later, and people come from all over the world to see these tiny things. Perhaps it’s interesting to me because so much of what I did as an English major was to read an author and filter out who they were as biographical figures to concentrate on them solely as authors. Museums reintegrate these parts. But this is another topic to explore in another post.

We got back to London and rested up for our transition into the countryside on Tuesday. We began at Knole House in Kent. Knole was the ancestral home of Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s lover. The Sackvilles are one of the oldest families in England, and have lived in the house since Elizabeth I gave it to them. Knole is believed to have been a calendar house, which means it has/had 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards (not all of these things are extant). Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (remember—the fictional biography of the character who lives for over 300 years?) was inspired by the Sackville family history and written as kind of a love letter to Vita. Even without the Woolf layer, Knole was one of the coolest things we saw because it is just an amazing space. About twenty rooms are open to the public, and it is crammed to the gills with history and ornate decoration (no photos were allowed, though). The King’s Room was made “just in case” James I ever came to visit—there was no proof he ever did—and included furniture that was either silver-plated or solid silver. Like….a silver dresser and a mirror. Also so many historical portraits of Martin Luther, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth I, Mary I, and so many others. Just all in a line in a gallery. The National Trust is also actively working hard to conserve and restore Knole, and we got a fascinating window into that process.

From there we went to another country house where Vita Sackville-West lived, called Sissinghurst Castle Gardens. Heartbroken she couldn’t inherit her beloved childhood home at Knole (women still couldn’t inherit into the twentieth century), she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, bought another castle and designed what are considered to some of the most (if not the most) spectacular gardens in all England. Even in October, we got our share of blooms. And we lucked out with a sunny day (about half our days were sunny and half were terrible). Our group sort of ambled around with this big doofy smiles on our faces. I’m the kind of person who usually doesn’t notice what’s going on in the garden, but being in such a beautiful surrounding just made me feel completely serene. There were flowers unlike any I’ve ever seen before. It was spectacular. We also got to see the actual Hogarth Press itself, which Virginia gave to Vita.

From there we spent the night in Brighton, which I personally didn’t see much of (we were fairly exhausted so more walking was less than appealing). Brighton was one of the first resort towns in England, and we stayed at one of the many hotels right on the seafront. We used it more as a point of departure to go around Sussex to our last two locations: Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House.

Charleston Farmhouse may have been my favorite site on the trip—and unfortunately another one where photos are not allowed. (I highly suggest a Google search to see the rooms at large and browsing their collection online.) Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant moved out to the country in 1916, and the Bloomsbury Group sort of came along: many of them became frequent visitors or stayed for periods there. It was a sort of artists’ collective; our tour guide referred to it as a “working house” where many creative types would work all day on their creative pursuits and come together at night (mostly I mean in the intellectual, salon-type way, but the rotation of sexual partners did continue). Almost no surface was left unpainted in Bell’s and Grant’s Modernist styles: walls, tables, fireplaces, textile prints. It’s just a gorgeous space. Also, some of the Bell children were active in turning it into a museum and it is carefully recreated to their memories of the place.

Our last stop was Monk’s House, where Virginia Woolf lived until she died and where her ashes are buried. (We did get to photograph of the Bell/Grant furniture at Monk’s House, too.) Leonard kept her bedroom more or less the same, and we got to see a lot of her personal artifacts, including a set of Shakespeare’s works Woolf recovered herself with colored paper. Monk’s House is a very peaceful place. We were treated to a reading of a short story that takes place in the garden, which was lovely. We got to see Woolf’s writing studio, which was very plain—really just a desk and a chair. Her glasses were left atop the desk, which made me feel the gravity of our trip very suddenly.

Like Jane Austen’s House, Monk’s House has a very modest feel to it, and you really get the sense of Woolf as not just this great writer you’ve studied but as someone who recovers her own books and who has to deal with a really cold bedroom and wear reading glasses. This is the part where I begin to have trouble putting words to my feelings. It’s life, but it’s bigger than life, too. And while I wish I’d been able to find time to re-read what I’d read and read more of Woolf before going, I have all these new impressions and feelings I get to bring with me to my next reading. It was just wonderful all around, the whole experience.

In short—and unlike this post—our trip was amazing. Not only did I get to see so much associated with Woolf, but had enough free time, courage, and company to see Jane Austen House Museum. My little English Major heart is completely full.

And now that you’ve been so patient, here are some select photos


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