Emma Woolf, whose great aunt Virginia (pictured top) moved to Camden in 1904
Published: 21 June, 2012
"WE were full of experiments and reforms. We were going to do without table napkins… we were going to paint; to write; to have coffee after dinner instead of tea.
"Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different.”
So recalled Virginia Woolf the excitement of moving to Camden in 1904.
It was following the death of her father, Leslie Stephen, that Virginia and her three siblings escaped the “respectable, mummified humbug” of Kensington for the first of their famous Bloomsbury homes, 46 Gordon Square.
Although Bloomsbury at the turn of the century was not the fashionable district it is today, they felt intensely liberated by this plunge into Bohemian London and “the extraordinary increase of space”.
The 22-year-old Virginia, recovering from a severe nervous breakdown, was given a sitting room on the top floor of Gordon Square, overlooking the tree-tops and gardens.
She would stand at her desk for hours (like her sister Vanessa standing at her easel), working on newspaper articles, book reviews, biography. This was the house where Virginia’s life as a writer began in earnest; in a letter to a friend she described with relish “a huge mass of manuscripts and letters and proof-sheets and pens and inks all over the floor”.
It wasn’t just “the light and the air” of Bloomsbury which Virginia found so intoxicating: the move gave the Stephen siblings a sense of intellectual and artistic freedom too. In March 1905 their Thursday evening tradition began, the germ of what was to become the Bloomsbury Group.
Now famous for the unconventional free-thinking of early modernism, the “Group” originally began as a loose collection of like-minded artists, writers and philosophers, including Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, EM Forster, Roger Fry, Rupert Brooke and Duncan Grant.
Mostly Cambridge friends of her brothers Thoby and Adrian, they would meet in various Bloomsbury ménages over the next few decades, including Gordon, Fitzroy, Tavistock, Brunswick and Mecklenburgh squares.
Although the “group” was to evolve over the years – with different members joining and drifting away at different times – their fundamental preoccupations remained that of philosophy, art and literature, freedom of speech, frank discussions of sex, “the nature of good”.
With the death from typhoid of her brother Thoby, and her sister Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell in 1907, Virginia’s life changed. She and Adrian moved out of Gordon Square and across Bloomsbury to 29 Fitzroy Square (previously the house of George Bernard Shaw).
To modern eyes Fitzroy Square, with its private central garden and blue heritage plaques, seems an unexpected oasis of calm just off the traffic-choked Euston Road. However, Virginia found it impossible to concentrate, and declared that Fitzroy Square “rubbed a nerve bare”.
As a writer she was beginning to make progress, contributing to the TLS and the Weekly Guardian, and starting her first novel, Melymbrosia (finally published in 1915 as The Voyage Out). But she remembered herself as “at war with the whole world” while living in Fitzroy Square.
She and Adrian lived here unhappily for four years: they were incompatible, too close in age perhaps, and both grieving their brother, and had arguments which sometimes ended in them throwing pats of butter at each other. Despite the impressions of those early Bloomsbury days as carefree and liberating, Virginia admitted it wasn’t an easy time: “We had violent rows – oh yes, I used to rush through London in such rages, and stormed Hampstead heights at night in white or purple fury.”
When the Fitzroy Square lease expired in 1911 they took a large house at 38 Brunswick Square. Here Virginia would live alongside four young men, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, her brother Adrian, and her future husband, Leonard Woolf, just returned from Colonial Service in Ceylon.
Leonard had first seen Virginia and Vanessa in white hats and dresses years before, on a visit to Cambridge to see their brother Thoby.
He remembered “their beauty literally took one’s breath away”.
Later, meeting Virginia while she was still recovering from her breakdown in 1904, she struck him as an “odd fish”.
For her part, Virginia had heard stories of Leonard, a trembling, “savage, violent” man who once bit through his own thumb in a rage.
Despite this, when he moved into the Brunswick Square “commune” the two outsiders became close, often taking their trays to each other’s rooms at meal times.
For all her emancipation and “sitting up to all hours with young men” it’s clear that the question of the future was much on Virginia’s mind around this time.
Only months before, in 1911, she had written: “To be 29 and unmarried – to be a failure – childless – insane too, no writer.”
• Next week: Becoming a Woolf – Virginia’s Camden marriage