Where writers write: Virginia Woolf’s writing room

Where writers write: Virginia Woolf’s writing room

Where writers write. Virginia Woolf's writing room

First up in my series of posts on where writers write is Virginia Woolf’s writing room.


‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,’ Woolf famously says in A Room of One’s Own.  The money, of course, is key. A room of your own, after all, is not much good to a writer who can’t buy the time to use it. 

In 1929, Woolf reckoned you needed £500 a year to write full-time — around £25,000 in today’s money. Virginia Woolf was never poor. But the writing of A Room of One’s Own coincided with a moment when, for the first time, she felt independently wealthy. 

Money of her own to write

The daughter of the editor and critic, Leslie Stephen, she was born into an affluent, middle-class family in Kensington, in 1882. Her mother, Julia, died in 1895. And after her father’s death, nine years later, she moved to Bloomsbury with her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell.

In 1904, Woolf began writing articles for money. She married Leonard Woolf in 1911, published her first novel, The Voyage Out in 1915. And in 1917 she and Leonard set up the Hogarth Press.

But for the first half of their marriage, Leonard’s income far outstripped hers. It wasn’t until 1926 that her own passed the magical £500 a year mark. And even then she was still earning more from her journalism than her books. 

That changed at the end of 1928 when Orlando turned out to be a bestseller. For the first time since she married, Woolf felt she could spend money freely. And for the rest of her life, she would earn more each year than her husband.

She opened her own bank account and started planning a new room at Monk’s House, the sixteenth century Sussex cottage she and Leonard bought in 1919. 

A writing room of her own

‘An unpretending house, long & low, a house of many doors;’ Woolf described Monk’s House when she first saw it. Its rooms were pokey and there was no electricity. The large, wild garden and the orchard were its main attraction. Although it also had some promising-looking outbuildings. 

Until 1939, the Woolfs divided their time between their London and Sussex homes. And as Virginia’s book sales began to increase in the 1920s they gradually made improvements to Monk’s House. £300 of her money, for example, paid for the installation of a hot-water range and a bathroom in 1926.

From then on, every morning after breakfast, she lay in the narrow, claw-footed bathtub working out scenes she was writing. The walls were thin. In Recollections, their servant, Louie Everest remembers hearing her.

On and on she went, talk, talk, talk; asking questions and giving herself the answers. I thought there must be two or three people up there with her.

The new room Woolf was planning in 1928 was on the ground floor of a two-storey brick extension. With its window giving sweeping views over the field and tiled fireplace flanked with bookshelves, it was originally intended to be her workroom.

Instead, it became her bedroom. Accessed from a door outside — they never got round to knocking through the wall — every night she’d leave the house to sleep there alone. She wrote there only in winter, when it was too cold to work in her garden writing lodge.

Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge

To begin with, when at Monk’s House, Woolf wrote in a wooden hut half-way down the garden. Made out of an old tool-shed, it had large windows and a view of the Downs. But it was not an ideal workspace.

Leonard stored apples in the loft above it and the noise he made sorting through them irritated her. So did the dog, who would sit scratching on the chair behind her, leaving paw prints on her notebooks. And it was too cold to work out there in winter.

The addition of an oil stove in 1924, then later a WC, turned Woolf’s workroom from hut to ‘writing lodge’. And in 1934 they moved it to the bottom of the garden, under a chestnut tree.

Where writers write. Virginia Woolf's writing lodge.
Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge. Image: Historic England

It was here, in her writing lodge, Woolf wrote parts of all her major novels from Mrs Dalloway to Between the Acts, as well as essays, reviews and letters. It was here, too, she left her farewell letter to Leonard. Before heading to the River Ouse to drown herself one chilly March morning in 1941. 

The National Trust took on Monk’s House after Leonard’s death in 1969. The house and garden have been preserved and opened to the public. Woolf’s writing lodge is still there, too.

With its french windows open on to the little brick patio next to the flint, churchyard wall it’s not hard to imagine the Woolfs sitting there with guests on summer evenings. Watching the famously competitive games of bowls played on the smoothly rolled lawn. Or simply soaking up the view, across the water meadows, to Mount Caburn.

But there is nothing, now, inside the lodge to give you a sense of the atmosphere of Woolf’s writing life. It was enlarged for use by the artist, Trekkie Ritchie, with whom Leonard fell in love after Virginia’s suicide. The space feels antiseptic, usurped.

Virginia Woolf’s writing desk

Where writers write. Virginia Woolf's writing desk.
Woolf’s writing desk. Preserved by the National Trust, her writing lodge looks a lot tidier now.
Image: Pinterest.

Inside, the writing lodge also looks a lot neater now.

Virginia Woolf was an untidy writer. ‘The litter in this room is so appalling’ she admits in her diary, on 16th December 1939, ‘that it takes me 5 minutes to find my pen.’  The large, plain wooden table in her workroom was always covered with papers, letters, manuscripts, bottles of ink.

And ‘filth packets’, as Lytton Strachey called them.  ‘Old nibs, bits of string, used matches, rusty paper clips, crumpled envelopes and broken cigarette holders’. Woolf’s filth packets sound like the sort of things some people collect in their pockets. They’ll pull them out and hunt through them for something. Then leave the contents lying about. 

Unsurprisingly, Woolf rarely sat at her worktable. And never when she was working on a novel in the morning, according to Leonard, who says in his autobiography:

To write her novel of a morning she sat in a very low armchair, which always appear to be suffering from prolapsus uteri; on her knees was a large board made of plywood which had an inkstand glued to it, and on the board was a large quarto notebook of plain paper which she had bound up for her and covered herself in (usually) some gaily-coloured paper. The first draft of all of her novels was written in one of these notebooks with pen and ink in the mornings . . .

Virginia Woolf’s standing desk

Woolf hadn’t always sat down to write. In her late teens and early twenties she stood at a desk three foot six inches tall with a sloping top. Asked why, she gave all kinds of reasons. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, however, puts it down to sibling rivalry.

Vanessa stood to work so she could view her canvas up-close and from a distance, he says in his biography of Woolf. To make her own work seem just as important (and arduous) as her sister’s, Virginia did too. ‘And so for many years, she stood at this strange desk and, in a quite unnecessary way, tired herself’.

Where writers write. Virginia Woolf's standing desk.
Virginia Woolf’s standing desk.

Painting her prose

In her own way, though, Woolf painted her pages. Instead of settling for black ink she used purple, green and blue. Of the three, purple was her favourite.

She used purple ink for letter-writing, diary entries, manuscript drafts and page proofs. Most of Mrs Dalloway was written in purple. So were her letters to Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia Woolf’s writing routine

Woolf’s episodes of ‘madness’, as she described the mental breakdowns that punctuated her life, made writing impossible. But when she was well, she commuted to her work every morning with the ‘regularity of a stockbroker’. Her writing routine was disciplined.  Her timetable, carefully structured and compartmentalised.

After breakfast with Leonard, followed by her morning bath, from 9.30 am to 12pm she spent writing fiction, or reviews. Before, or after lunch was for revising. Afternoons were for walking and after tea she wrote her diary, or letters.

Her evenings she reserved for reading, or seeing friends. She found it impossible to work at night. ‘How great writers write at night, I don’t know,’ she writes in her diary in March 1923. ‘It’s an age since I tried, & I find my head full of pillow stuffing.’

Keeping track and timetables

Woolf tracked her writing output in her diaries, monitoring her progress and setting herself targets. In her diary entry for 26th April, for example, she works out a timetable to finish her biography of Roger Fry:

I’ve done a quarter — 100 pages of Roger — well I shall have by tomorrow. As there are 400 pages, & one hundred takes 3 weeks (oh but I was interrupted) — it will take 9 weeks to finish. Yes, I ought to have finished it by the end of July — only we may go away. Say August. And have it all typed in September… Well — then it will be out this time next year. And I shall be free in August — What a grind it is;

As it turned out, ‘Roger’ was still ‘a grind’ in August. She was having to force herself to ‘plod through’, she says. And by January the following year she’s still ‘heating her head’ over Roger. The book was eventually published in July 1940.

Interruptions and irritations

Woolf needed the discipline of the timetable she imposed on herself. Anything that disrupted the rhythm of her writing routine frustrated and disturbed her. In her diaries, she complains when she can only manage it for a few days. A break in it, is ‘a jangle’.

Just as jangling, were the church bells from the grey, stone steeple of St Peter’s over the garden wall. (Although what they represented irritated her as much.) The schoolchildren chanting their times tables over the road. And the ‘phone.

‘Such a good morning’s writing I’d planned,’ she writes in her diary on 20 April 1920, ‘& wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone’. Then, of course, if she’d been unable to settle to her work in progress and ended up writing her diary all morning instead, she’d feel guilty. 

But even Woolf’s journaling was a way of practising her writing.

Virginia Woolf on writing

Woolf was as opinionated on the subject of writing as she was about reading. ‘It is impossible to read too much’ she says in A Letter to a Young Poet. As for how to read a book, she devotes an entire essay to the topic. Although she starts with a disclaimer:

The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. 

She peppers her novels, essays, and diaries with writing advice.

You could start with Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown, where she gives tips on writing character. Read A Writer’s Diary, extracts Leonard selected from the diaries Woolf kept from 1918-41, which show her in the act of writing. Then listen to her talk about playing with language in a broadcast she made for the BBC, 29 April 1937 on Craftsmanship. (It also happens to be the only surviving recording of her voice.)

In Modern Fiction (you’ll find it in The Common Reader) she urges writers not to be afraid to challenge convention. ‘Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express’.

After all, Woolf wasn’t. Her novels are a series of brilliant and extraordinary experiments. Each one, a breakthrough in form. 

Of course, she was by no means restricting writers to fiction. ‘Write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast,’ she says towards the end of A Room of One’s Own:

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters.

A writing lodge of your own

Fancy a writing lodge of your own? How about The Bloomsbury? Inspired by Woolf’s, it was created for the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show.

Where writers write. The Bloomsbury. Inspired by Virginia Woolf's writing lodge.

On the other hand, you could just convert your garden shed.

Summary
Where writers write: Virginia Woolf's writing room
Article Name
Where writers write: Virginia Woolf's writing room
Description
Charlotte Peacock takes a peek at where Virginia Woolf wrote, her writing habits, the desk she stood at and the one she rarely used for writing.
Author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: