Published: 28 June, 2012
We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we?” Virginia to Leonard Woolf, May 1912.
One hundred years ago, in 1912, Leonard Woolf had recently returned from Colonial Service in the jungles of Ceylon. Virginia Stephen was moving into the third of her Bloomsbury households at 38 Brunswick Square. Unsure of his future in the civil service, and needing a place to stay, Leonard rented the cheapest, top-floor, rooms.
For the Brunswick Square “inmates”, Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Virginia and Adrian Stephen, and with Vanessa Bell nearby in Gordon Square, this was a lively, sociable phase of Bloomsbury.
There were “parties at all hours of the day or night”. After sharing meal trays as lodgers, and long walks in the Sussex countryside together, Leonard Woolf proposed to Virginia in January 1912.
He was to propose several more times over the next six months, and it was not until May that she finally accepted. It wasn’t an easy decision. Fearful of the emotional and sexual involvement of marriage, and unsure of her own feelings, Virginia hesitated throughout the spring of 1912.
In a letter she bluntly confessed to him: “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments – when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real, and so strange.”
In May 1912 Virginia finally accepted him. Shortly after the engagement she wrote to a friend “I’m going to marry Leonard Woolf. He’s a penniless Jew. I’m more happy than anyone ever said was possible…”
The couple married on August 10, 1912, at St Pancras Town Hall – what is now Camden Town Hall – in the middle of a summer thunderstorm. They spent the first few days of their honeymoon in Somerset before travelling to France, Spain and Italy.
This is a marriage about which much has been written – some of it spiteful, some simply inaccurate. Was it actually consummated? Was Virginia sexually abused as a child?
Was she a lesbian, bisexual, or frigid?
And what about Leonard – was he nothing more than a stern disciplinarian, the stifling caretaker of Virginia’s fragile genius?
Leonard was her carer, certainly – in 1930 she admitted to a friend that without Leonard she would have shot herself long before.
Without him it’s unlikely she would have stayed alive to create To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway or The Waves, now recognised as seminal modernist texts. One cannot ignore Virginia’s sometimes bitter complaints, such as: “Leonard made me into a comatose invalid,” but one can understand them better in the context of the nervous breakdowns which recurred throughout her life.
These breakdowns were at times so severe that they required four nurses to physically hold her down.
Leonard knew that the bustle of central London, the stress of finishing each book, the endless socialising, was simply too intense for his wife.
One should also remember that both World Wars unfolded during her adult life, the bombs beating a constant backdrop to novels such as Jacob’s Room.
As Virginia herself admitted, Leonard sacrificed his own life and work to keep her going. He was, my father Cecil Woolf remembers, “a kind and enormously caring person”.
There is no doubt that Virginia was a complex character, judgmental, at times even malicious. She was jealous of other writers, she was snobbish and anti-Semitic.
In 1930, reflecting on her marriage, she told Ethyl Smyth: “How I hated marrying a Jew – how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles – what a snob I was.”
Whatever the truth of this unconventional, childless Bloomsbury marriage, there is no doubting its intellectual and literary fruitfulness.
Though Virginia claimed to feel no strong physical attraction to Leonard, she got “exquisite pleasure” merely from holding his hand.
Theirs was a marriage of great importance to 20th century literature, and profoundly intimate in its own way. In a 1937 diary entry, only four years before her suicide, Virginia describes an afternoon with Leonard: “We walked around the square love-making – after 25 years can’t bear to be separate. You see it is an enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.”
• If you’re curious about what Virginia and Leonard were really like, there’s an interview giving a fascinating insight at: http://therumpus.net/2009/06/the-rumpus-interview-with-cecil-woolf/
• For more on Virginia’s London: Virginia Woolf, Life and London, Bloomsbury and Beyond by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Tauris Parke).