Posts Tagged virginia woolf
For my first two posts on the links between ‘Bloomsbury’ and women’s suffrage see here and here. In ‘Bloomsbury Links’ (Part 3) I mentioned that in 1916 Ray Strachey took over the post of parliamentary secretary to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and moved to Westminster to be close to the NUWSS office. From 1916 until 1934 she was also chairman of the Women’s Service Bureau, which originated in the war work of the London Society for Women’s Service. In 1925, when the financial position of the latter society (now called the London Society for Women’s Service) was critical, funds were raised by the presentation at the Scala Theatre of two specially-staged charity performances of The Son of Heaven, a play written by Ray’s brother-in-law, Lytton Strachey.
The play – a’tragic melodrama’ -was set in China at the time of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. It’s director was Alec Penrose, whose (first) wife was the production’s wardrobe mistress, Ralph Partridge played ‘The Executioner’, Geoffrey Webb, later Slade professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, played ‘Wang Fu’ and Gerald Brennan was among the extras. Gertrude Kingston -now elderly and a one-time member of the Actresses’ Franchise League, was the only ‘professional’ member of the cast.
The accompanying music was composed and conducted by William Walton – his first commission for the stage. Of it Constant Lambert (who played the timpany in the production’s orchestra) commented – ‘So great was [Walton’s] obsession with ragtime that he was unable to prevent some unmistakeable touches of Gershwin from entering the score!). The critic from The Stage described the music as ‘ambitious and decidedly heavy’.
Duncan Grant designed the costumes and sets. These included an Omega Workshop screen and a carpet designed by Vanessa Bell, who was also responsible for the cover of the programme.
Robert Medley, a painter and member of the cast, remembered the colours used – ‘clear ochres and greys, offset by pinks, oranges and emerald greens’ (Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant). The costumes were painted in a decidedly Omega style by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and proved all too much for Gertrude Kingston. She refused to wear her costume and the designers were forced to dress her instead in a black brocade ‘Manchu’ robe belonging to Lady Strachey. All in all it seems to have been a rather entertaining venture, although I cannot tell you how much money it raised for the LSWS.
In 1930, when the London and National Society for Women’s Service (as it had confusingly been renamed in 1926) wished to publicise not only its existence but also that of their new purpose-built hall , ‘Although very doubtful of success, Miss [Philippa] Strachey undertook to approach Virginia Woolf, to ask if she would be willing to give a talk on ‘Literature’. In the event Virginia Woolf did agree to speak and on the appointed evening, 21 January 1931, shared the platform with her new friend, Dame Ethel Smyth, who spoke on ‘Music’.
The hall, with a library, restaurant and offices, was part of Women’s Service House, the LNSWS’s new Westminster premises. Millicent Fawcett laid the foundation stone on 29 April 1929, barely three months before her death; the hall was intended as her memorial – rather more useful than a statue but, alas, without a statue’s popular appeal (on this bee in my bonnet see more here). Known as the Millicent Fawcett Hall, it still stands at 31 Marsham Street, now put to good use by Westminster School as its drama centre.
Back in January 1931 the sub-committee of the London Society responsible for arranging the evening’s entertainment felt obliged to install a microphone for Mrs Woolf – at the cost of £8; there was no suggestion that Dame Ethel required amplification.
The speakers attracted one of the society’s largest audiences and Virginia Woolf received a review in The Woman’s Leader (now, incidentally, edited by a niece of Mrs Pankhurst): ‘She “was with us, but not of us”. Her eyes are on the stars, as though she listens to some far-off song – but a song of which even an audience of modern and practical minded young women can catch an echo when Mrs Woolf speaks.’
The ‘song’ proved to be the genesis for Three Guineas, and it was to the LNSWS’s library, adjacent to the hall, and to its librarian, Vera Douie, that Virginia Woolf turned when seeking verification of the facts, gathered into footnotes, that fuelled the book’s anger.
In March 1938, for instance, she wrote enquiring about peace organisations and the numbers of women involved in working for peace. Vera Douie sent her a full reply, enclosing Mrs Fawcett’s pamphlet on ‘What the Vote Has Done’. A couple of months later , in gratitude for the help she had received, Virginia Woolf offered to supply the library with any books, new or antiquarian that it required. The offer was gratefully accepted; in 1938, for example, Virginia Woolf gave to the library both volumes of the newly published Miss Weeton. Journal of a Governess, a text from which she had copied quotations into her Three Guineas Reading Notebook, and in July 1940 paid for two books by Mary Carpenter, Juvenile Delinquents (1853) and Our Convicts (1864), that had appeared in the catalogue of an antiquarian bookseller. Both the latter are still part of the Cavendish Bentinck collection in the Women’s Library@LSE – although the name of their donor is not noted in the catalogue entry.
On 26 March 1941 Vera Douie wrote to Mrs Woolf to say how much she had enjoyed reading her biography of Roger Fry and asking, in her usual delicate manner, for two more books. This time, however, her request was in vain. Virginia Woolf was dead by the time the letter was delivered to Monks’s House.
In Night and Day, set in 1910, Virginia Woolf writes explicitly of the suffrage campaign. She places the office of her suffrage society, the ‘S.G.S.’, in the heart of Bloomsbury, in Russell Square. Mary Datchet works there (‘From ten to six every day’) in an office on the top-floor of a large house ‘which had once been lived in by a great city merchant and his family’. When Mary Datchet is found ‘lost, apparently, in admiration of the large hotel across the square’, she could in fact have been looking at not one but two imposing hotels – the Russell and the Imperial.
A house with just such a view, number 23, on the north-western corner of the square, belonged to Sir Alexander Rendel, grandfather of Ellie Rendel, close friend of Ray Strachey. Although by 1910 the offices of the main women’s suffrage societies were in real life based either in Westminster, where Ray Strachey was busy working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, or around the Strand, Russell Square had indeed, in the later years of the 19th century, been a centre of the movement. The northern corner of the Hotel Russell (perhaps the very hotel on which Mary Datchet’s gaze rested) had replaced 8 Russell Square, where Dr Richard Pankhurst, his wife Emmeline, and their young family had lived from 1888 to 1893.
It was here, in the 1890s, that the Pankhursts’ art-furnished double drawing room had provided a useful gathering place for conferences of the Women’s Franchise League, a society aimed at winning the vote for women. The most lavish of these conferences, held over three days in December 1891, was illustrated in the Graphic and reproduced 40 years later in Our Mothers (ed. Alan Bott & Irene Clepahane), a book owned by Virginia Woolf and consulted by her when writing Three Guineas.
The chief founder of the Women’s Franchise League was Mrs Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, one of the 19th-century’s most active workers for the women’s Cause. Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was in touch with Mrs Elmy on at least one occasion, for it is she he thanks for the information he used when compiling the entry for the Dictionary of National Biography on her brother, Joseph Wolstenholme.
The latter was, until his death in 1891, an intimate of the Stephen household; the two men had met at Cambridge where, before an unfortunate marriage, Wolstenholme had been a fellow of Christ’s College. Noel Annan describes a dinner in Wolstnholme’s rooms at Christs’ at which Leslie Stephen took issue with the opinions held by his dining companions. He accused them of ‘drivelling radicalism’ and joked: ‘to give women votes – why, it might save the Church of England for a quarter of a century’.
There were many reasons for objecting to the vote for women but Joseph Wolstenholme was not to be swayed. In 1870 he and two other fro Cambridge subscribed to the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the most radical of the women’s suffrage societies, founded by his sister in 1865.
Whatever differences they might have had on such subjects, Leslie Stephen remained an affectionate friend, inviting Joseph Wolstenholme to share the Stephen holiday each summer in Cornwall and reminiscing about these visits in the Mausoleum Book in which he alludes to Wolstenholme’s ‘Bohemian tastes and heterodox opinions’. Quentin Bell has suggested that the character of Augustus Carmichael in To the Lighthouse was based on that of Joseph Wolstenholme. Carmichael and Wolstenholme certainly shared a taste for opium. Carmichael does not, however, reveal his opinion on women’s suffrage.
Virginia Woolf included memories of ‘The Woolly One’ (as Wolstenholme was fondly known to the young Stephens) in A Sketch of the Past and mentions in 22 Hyde Park Gate, that George Duckworth thought ‘old Mr Wolstenholme not one of the “nice people”‘.
So we can recognise that, as Mary Datchet’s eyes gazed across Russell Square from the S.G.S. office, threads of association spooled forth linking her and her creator to two of the most influential activists for women’s suffrage. It would be a mistake, however, to identify the ‘S.G.S.’, the acronym never elucidated, with a women’s suffrage society.
In 1910 Virginia Stephen offered her services to the People’s Suffrage Federation (P.S.F.), a society formed in October 1909 to promote adult (not merely female) suffrage and to remove the property basis as the qualification for citizenship.
To her friend and teacher, Janet Case, Virginia wrote in a letter dated 1 January 1910: ‘I don’t know anything about the question. Perhaps you could send me a pamphlet, or give me the address of the office …You impressed me so much the other night with the wrongness of the present state of affairs that I feel that action is necessary.’
So it was that Virginia Stephen spent a short time working in an office in Mecklenburgh Square, addressing envelopes for the P.S.F., while absorbing details that were to be transported across Bloomsbury to the office of the S.G.S. As the adult suffrage for which the P.S.F. was committed was also known as ‘universal suffrage’, perhaps we could unravel the initials of Mary Datchet’s society and reconstruct them as ‘The Society for General Suffrage’.
All things pass away and, as Mrs Pankhurst’s double drawing room made way for the terracotta splendour of the Hotel Russell, so the ‘Virginia Woolf Burger and Pasta Bar’ that at the beginning of the 21st century nestled in the hotel’s northern corner where once the members of the Women’s Franchise League held earnest debate, is, alas, no more. How suitable, then, that the hotel’s new dining room is named ‘Tempus’, with Night following Day in the diurnal rhythm that sweeps us onward while Mary Datchet still stands, ‘lost in admiration’, gazing out across Russell Square.