Virginia Woolf Goes to the Beach

Virginia Woolf Goes to the Beach

A photograph of a young Virginia Woolf with Clive Bell.

Virginia Woolf Goes to the Beach

The first page of Woolf's letter to Bell, dated Feb. 19, [1909]

The image shows the pair on a 1909 excursion to Studland in Dorset, where Virginia sports rented swimwear of which she wrote, “I hired a gentlemans or ladies – it was bisexual – bathing dress, and swam far out … a drifting sea anemone” [sic]. Her memories of the holiday also included her sister and young nephew: “Julian rushes straight into the sea, and falls flat on his face. Nessa tucks her skirts up, and wades about with him. Clive meanwhile dives from a boat, in a tight black suit.” Though the photographer is unknown, the camera was likely in the hands of one of their inner circle – perhaps Vanessa Stephen herself. 

With the photo is a four-page letter written by Virginia, signed with a pseudonym, “Eleanor Hadyng,” to Clive but addressed to “James.” The letter is docketed on the verso in pencil by, we believe, Duncan Grant – who would father Vanessa’s third child: “This was part of a game – a novel in letters – V, Vanessa, Lytton, Saxon, I, and I believe Walter Lamb were to participate. It didn’t go far.”  

In her letter, Woolf discusses letter writing, friendly gossip about mutual friends, education and contemporary society, the writing life, and more. A few highlights: 

Why is it that women of 18 and young men of 21 have less to say to each other than any other of God’s creatures? They terrify me; I know, as I have sometimes been terrified by the critical gaze of your son Peter [Julian], who can’t talk yet, and is so innocent. … I should like to turn Oxford into a Cathedral city and people it with Deans and widow ladies. The profession of learning should be carried on in a manufacturing town. Perhaps in your 18th century they managed things better, I detest the modern way of it. I detest pale scholars with their questioning about life, and the message of the classics, and the bearing of Greek thought upon modern problems… I dined with my publisher [Bruce Richmond], and felt like a cannibal because the dinner was so good, and I knew what went to make it – the blood of respectable young men and women like myself and my neighbour. I am afraid that one can’t believe nowadays in starving genius, frozen in a garret. We were a dreadful set of harpies; middle aged writers of mild distinction are singularly unpleasant to my taste. They remind me of those balf-necked vultures at the zoo, with their drooping blood-shot eyes, who are always on the look out for a lump of raw meat. You should have heard the chattering and squabbling that went on among them, and the soft complacent coo of those that had been fed. That great goose Lady G[regory?] was the loudest in her squawking; the rest of us sat round and twittered, half in envy and half in derision….

At Cambridge University, Clive Bell was best friend to the older of Virginia and Vanessa’s two brothers, Thoby Stephen. After Bell wed Vanessa in 1907, he had a flirtation with Virginia around the time this photo was taken, before she married Leonard in 1912. Soon after, Clive began a series of full-blown affairs. Late in 1910, Vanessa began a relationship with Roger Fry, whom she left after a few years to live with Duncan Grant with whom she had her daughter, Angelica, who was raised as Clive’s child. She later adopted a tolerant, affectionate, and slightly condescending attitude toward Clive and his lady friends. For his part, Clive became more of a visitor than a proprietor at the homes of his wife and family. 

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