Gill Lowe, who’s edited and published books on Virginia Woolf, Julia Stephen, and the juvenilia of Virginia, Vanessa and Thoby Stephen, treated us to a fascinating evening at The Hold, as part of the ‘Women Don’t Do Such Things’ series of lectures. When we think of Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury and Sussex come to mind, but Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were twice in Suffolk, ten years apart. Gill illustrated her talk with Vanessa’s art and Virginia’s words, as well as postcards and pictures of the places that they visited in Suffolk, or in the first case, just over the Little Ouse, which forms the border with Norfolk.
Virginia and Vanessa, two years after the death of their father, Leslie Stephen, visited Blo’ Norton Hall, near Diss in 1906. Virginia later said her father’s death freed her to become a writer. She’d already lost her mother at the age of 13. Blo’ Norton was a moated Elizabethan manor, and became a setting in Virginia’s ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’. Virginia wrote: ‘I tramp the country for miles with a map, leap ditches, scale walls and desecrate churches, making out beautiful brilliant stories every step of the way’ (L1: 234).
Gill suggested that perhaps the closeted and comforting greenery of Blo’ Norton, with its encircling, mothering moat, helped Virginia begin to come to terms with the loss of her parents. She described how close Virginia and Vanessa were at Blo’ Norton and how it created a ‘curtain between you and the world,’ and how it felt to Virginia like ‘Nessa and I enjoy a kind of honeymoon.’ (L1: 235).
Sadly though, not long after this Suffolk idyll, Virginia and Vanessa who’d travelled to see their beloved brother, Thoby Stephen, in Greece, were plunged into grief again on his sudden death. Two days after that, Vanessa finally accepted Clive Bell’s proposal, which for Virginia, Gill suggested, was another kind of death.
We were introduced to the family of Frederick Duleep Singh who lived at Blo’ Norton and whose father - the exiled Maharajah - lived at Elveden, a house now beloved of film makers for its splendour. In The Waves published in 1931, Virginia would draw on her experiences, writing of ‘Elvedon’. Later, after Virginia’s death, John Lehmann’s elegiac poem ‘The Lady of Elvedon’ would be about Virginia and her writing.
Gill ended by telling us about Wissett Lodge, a seven acre fruit farm, near Halesworth. Duncan Grant and his lover David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, as conscientious objectors, sought to prove themselves ‘farm workers’ to avoid conscription in 1916. They made hopeless farm workers, killing the bees, spending the money from selling daffodils on lunch and dyeing the hens red, white and blue to avoid theft. Vanessa and her family moved there later in the year and Virginia and Leonard Woolf visited in July. Vanessa painted the walls and furniture of the farmhouse and used Omega workshop fabrics in the way she would later build on at Charleston. Gill illustrated the tangled web of relationships between Virginia, Vanessa and others we now call the Bloomsbury group, with postcards they’d sent from Wissett, and Vanessa’s paintings, like ‘The Blue Room at Wissett Lodge’, and those of Duncan Grant, painted at that time. Virginia’s Night and Day (1919), with Vanessa thinly disguised as Katharine Hilbery, had its roots in this time. Chapter 15, in particular, has Suffolk references.
Gill’s lecture gave us an intriguing glimpse into the sisters’ formative years, and into the lives of the middle and upper classes of East Anglia at that time. At the end, an engaged audience drew on Gill’s extensive knowledge of Virginia Woolf in a wide-ranging Q and A.
Woolf, Virginia. (1975) The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1888–1912, eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. London: Chatto and Windus.