CULTURE: LUKE MARLOWE
In our new literary travel series, Q&C’s Luke Marlowe explores the locations and journeys which influenced our greatest LGBT authors. We start with retracing the footsteps of Virginia Woolf through Cornwall, London and Sussex.
A good book can transport the reader to many different places. Curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine, a book can transcend the paper it's printed on and become a passport to different countries, different worlds and different times. It's the mark of a good author to be able to take the reader on a journey, and with that in mind we here at Queen and Country wanted to explore the journeys and locations that influenced and inspired some of history’s most extraordinary LGBT authors, starting with the remarkable Virginia Woolf.
Woolf was born in 1882, daughter of an acclaimed author and a pre-Raphaelite model. She had a hugely privileged upbringing, yet was still bound by the conventions of the time. Denied a formal education she was nevertheless encouraged by her parents to become a writer, having deemed it an acceptable occupation for a lady. Her skill for writing led her to write books that were light years ahead of their time - works of art that still feel new and fresh almost a century later.
Her life was one of striking contradictions. Societal highs were enjoyed in contrast with the crushing lows that came with Woolf's mental illness, and a close and loving relationship with her husband Leonard was carried out alongside her passionate affair with writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.
Thanks to her prolific letter writing, her influences are easily found, allowing us to tread in the footsteps of a literary great across a country she expressed a deep fondness for.
To The Lighthouse - St Ives
Exploring the people who visit and the relationships that take place in a lighthouse on the Isle of Skye, To The Lighthouse is one of Woolf's most famous works - and the shifting perspectives of the narrative ensure that it's a read that feels as exciting and modern as it was when it was first published back in 1927.
Whilst the events of the book take place in a lighthouse off the coast of Scotland, the lighthouse in Woolf's mind was actually just outside of St Ives, 700 miles south of the lighthouse in the book. Woolf's memories of the lighthouse are bittersweet with her childhood visits remembered as some of the happiest times in her life, but tainted by the death of her mother - leaving 13-year-old Woolf cast adrift and forever longing for a return to the careless innocence of a youth spent exploring the Cornish coast.
Godrevy Lighthouse still stands today, and can be easily viewed from the beautiful Godrevy beach. The National Trust suggest a circular walk from Godrevy through to Hell's Mouth, that takes in lighthouse views, stunning heathland, and the potential of spotting seals, dolphins and sharks off the coast.
London was Virginia's home for many years, and the pulsating heartbeat of the ever-changing city influenced both her life and her work in a huge variety of ways. Visiting Virginia's london is relatively easy; heading to Kensington's 22 Hyde Park Gate you can view the exterior of her childhood home, and see the blue plaques that remember Virgina, her father, and her sister. From there, one can head to 29 Fitzroy Square, where a blue plaque commemorates the house in which Virginia lived for a number of years, courting and eventually marrying Leonard Woolf.
Following a period of depression, the Woolfs moved out to Richmond, and set up Hogarth Press, a publishing house that released works by Virginia herself, as well as authors such as Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. The press was based in their house, and by heading to Hogarth House on Parish Road you can still view the plaque that commemorates the incredible work that went on in this building.
Ten years later, Virginia and Leonard returned to Central London, living in Bloomsbury’s Tavistock Square then Mecklenburgh Square. Sadly the destruction of the Blitz means that Virginia's Tavistock Square apartment is no longer to be found, with the Tavistock Hotel now standing in its place.
However, a rather haunting bust of Virgina can be found in Tavistock Square - overlooking a park that Virginia was often found wandering around.
Mrs Dalloway's London
My favourite Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway explores a day in post WWI London. It's perhaps the Woolf novel with the strongest sense of time and place, instantly transporting the reader to a London that's hugely different to the one we know today yet still instantly familiar. The West End will bring you close to the locations of Mrs Dalloway, even if almost 100 years have passed since the character embarked on her quest for flowers.
Wander down Bond Street and view the bustling, high end shops and flags flying high, then head through James Park and Green Park to view the open spaces that Woolf took solace in, and the trees that may well have been standing when Virginia looked for inspiration.
Then return to the bustle of Picadilly, where omnibuses still roar much as they did in the 1920s. A short walk down the road will take you to Hatchards, a bookshop that seems almost unchanged from the one that Clarissa Dalloway stared at, a treasure trove of books combined with an atmosphere of still, shared contemplation.
Shortly after the publication of Mrs Dalloway, Virginia began a relationship with author and poet Vita Sackville West. The two had met in 1922, and enjoyed a healthy and satisfying relationship with Sackville West's support allowing Virginia to explore and move on from inner traumas, and enabling her first sexually satisfying relationship. The two often disagreed though with Woolf enraged at Sackville West not questioning the patriarchal aristocracy she'd been brought up in, and, in the years preceding World War II, Sackville West was angered by Woolf's support for pacifism.
Their relationship gifted English literature a true joy though, in the form of Orlando, a beautiful love letter that's still a remarkably modern feeling book today, featuring a gender shifting lead character who bears a strong resemblance to the androgynous Sackville West.
Apart from writing, Sackville West had a great passion for garden design, formed in 1930 when the family moved into Kent's Sissinghurst Castle. Here Vita created a mass of inventive, original gardens that, upon their opening to the public in 1938, sent those viewing them on a journey of colour, scent, and creativity.
Sissinghurst Castle was placed into the care of the National Trust in 1947, and can still be visited today, located near Cranbrook in Kent and is a remarkably beautiful destination for a day out.
Virginia and Leonard bought a house in Rodmell near Lewes, East Sussex, in 1919. Initially rather basic, they worked on growing and expanding Monk's House over the next two years, resulting in a property that was a frequent home away from home for the Bloomsbury Group.
The Woolfs travelled between the house and their London apartment on a frequent basis until 1940, when their London flat was badly damaged in an air raid. Many of Virginia's books took shape in the writing lodge at the bottom of the garden, and both the house and the lodge can still be visited today. It was from this house that Virginia took her final walk in 1941, a final bout of mental illness causing her to take her life in the nearby River Ouse.
However, Monk's House is a fitting testament to a vibrant, unique and trailblazing life. As the place where Virginia's life came to an end, it's a fitting place to end our journey - a reminder of a vibrant life filled with joy, intelligence and talent, and a lasting legacy to a forward-thinking, brave and queer woman whose works transformed the literary landscape.