Review: Virginia Woolf in Richmond, by Peter Fullagar

Stanislava Dikova, University of Essex

Peter Fullagar, Virginia Woolf in Richmond (London: Aurora Metro Books, 2018)

Most dedicated Woolf readers shiver with disdain at the mention of Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film The Hours, which features a gratuitous portrayal of the modernist writer, played by Nicole Kidman with a giant plastic nose in tow. Peter Fullagar takes a specific issue with a ‘fictitious quote’ attributed to Woolf in a scene from the movie about her relationship with Richmond: ‘if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death’ (30). According to Fullagar, this presents a false picture of Woolf’s relationship with the London suburb. His aim in Virginia Woolf in Richmond is to re-evaluate this perception and provide a detailed account of the writer’s life there during the decade Virginia and Leonard lived and worked in the neighbourhood.

Virginia Woolf in Richmond features an intriguing collection of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts and musings on daily life, work, and rest, revealed in evocative excerpts from Virginia’s diaries and letters, written between 1914 and 1924. These are complemented by Fullagar’s narrative commentary, which is crisp and informative, albeit prosaic at times. The book is separated into 15 sections, including a foreword by Paula Maggio, and an introduction by the author, as well as a chronology of Woolf’s life, and a section on recommended reading. The core study comprises 11 chapters aiming to address most aspects of the Woolfs’ life in Richmond, first in their rooms at The Green and, later, in the newly purchased Hogarth House: ‘Virginia’s Richmond’, ‘The Hogarth Press’, ‘Woolf on Writing’, ‘Family in the Richmond Era’, ‘Virginia and her Servants’, ‘Gatherings with Woolf’, ‘Health’, ‘Virginia at her Leisure’, ‘Woolf on War’, and ‘Leonard’s Viewpoint’.

The chapter on Woolf and her servants is particularly interesting as it reflects the class anxieties she struggled with throughout her life as well as the emotional charge of her daily interactions with the women who maintained her household in this period, Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope. After an argument with Lottie, for example, who complained of an unreasonable work load and was rewarded with a pay rise, Woolf writes on 13 December 1917, that Lottie ‘repented’ her outburst and ‘begged me not to tell anyone; she kissed me and went off’.[i] On another occasion, Woolf records in her diary that she was gifted a pair of knitted red socks by Nellie.[ii] Woolf’s participation in gender and class politics in this period, exemplified through her active role in the Richmond branch of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, gave her other opportunities to interact with working-class women beyond her household, although this is not Fullagar’s focus. For example, in 1915 she assisted Margaret Llewelyn Davies in publishing a collection of essays on the experiences of motherhood written by Guild members, No One But a Woman Knows: Stories of Motherhood before the War. In January 1917 Woolf delivered a lecture to the Guild on venereal disease, which proved controversial among the members, Nellie including. Woolf has a conversation with her, which results in an agreement that ‘women should have knowledge in such matters’, as she records in a letter.[iii] Fullagar also notes Woolf’s many quarrels with her servants often resulting from uncertainties with regards to income during World War I and changes of living arrangements, as well as her recurrent complaints of Nellie and Lottie’s incessant talking and various concerns she deems unreasonable or simple-minded, betraying her own class privilege.

‘Leonard’s Viewpoint’ is a fascinating addition to Virginia Woolf in Richmond as it provides Leonard’s contribution to the Woolfs’ life in his own voice. The chapter follows the chronology of the third volume of his autobiography, Beginning Again, 1911-1918, which details his meeting with Virginia Stephen, their subsequent wedding, the development of the Bloomsbury Group, the purchase and establishment of the Hogarth Press, and the war years. The first year of their lives in Hogarth House were clouded by Virginia’s illness, which required round-the-clock care. In the last two years of the war, she returns to writing, producing a number of reviews and short stories, including ‘The Mark on the Wall’, which together with Leonard’s ‘Three Jews’ materialised as the first publication of the Hogarth Press, and the draft of her second novel Night and Day. Fullagar successfully demonstrates the strict, almost clinical, precision with which Leonard attended to Virginia’s health, rationing her writing and taking great care to structure her daily life. Phrases such as ‘tranquilizing her mind’ recur in Leonard’s text, strongly signalling his efforts to exercise complete control over his wife’s living conditions; a task in which he found the calm Richmond setting and landscape helpful.[iv] Their time in Richmond, by Leonard’s own admission, saw them grow, develop their writing, and shape their politics. ‘The Leonard and Virginia who lived in Hogarth House, Richmond, from 1915 to 1924,’ he wrote, ‘were not the same people who lived in 52 Tavistock Square from 1924 to 1939.’[v] Fullagar succeeds in painting a detailed portrait of the Richmond Virginia and Leonard at the start of their journey as writers and publishers, providing the reader with the opportunity to immerse themselves in their lives.

Aurora Metro Arts & Media, the publishers of Virginia Woolf in Richmond, an education charity based in Richmond, have secured planning permission to erect a full-size statue of Virginia Woolf there and are now seeking to raise £50 000 to complete the project. Fullagar’s book is part of this initiative and is aimed at a non-specialist audience. It provides a comprehensive and, at times, quite poetic account of Woolf’s innermost thoughts and fears, her joys and moments of happiness, her pain and her losses. It would be as enticing to those who do not know much about Woolf as to those who have a more established relationship to her writing; it has managed to preserve the very unique and precious experience that is Virginia Woolf’s voice.

Sources

[i] Peter Fullagar, Virginia Woolf in Richmond (Twickenham: Aurora Metro Books, 2018), 123.

[ii] Peter Fullagar, 123.

[iii] Fullagar, 118.

[iv] Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939 (London: Hogarth Press, 1967), 15-6.

[v] Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939, 20.

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