The Rumpus Interview with Cecil Woolf

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Cecil Woolf, 82, nephew of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, is the publisher of the Bloomsbury Heritage, a series of monographs that cover a wide variety of subjects concerning the members of the Bloomsbury Group. The Boomsbury Group was a collection of friends and relatives who lived, worked and studied near Bloomsbury, London, a the beginning of the twentieth century and whose work continues to influence literature and the sciences. Virginia Woolf was among its best known members. Others included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey.

Mr. Woolf, who was a publisher for thirty years before he published anything relating to the Bloomsbury group, was in New York for the 2009 Woolf and the City Conference. He was gracious enough to talk to The Rumpus about the monograph series, life with Leonard and Virginia at Monks House, and making Virginia, quirks, breakdowns and all, “more real” for you.

The Rumpus: I heard you consider yourself “a countryman.” How do you feel about coming to a very urban Woolf and the City conference in New York City?

Cecil Woolf: [laughs] New York can be quite difficult to handle. I’ve been here before—only for a week at a time. I enjoy it when I’m here but it’s something of a head banging exercise. It seems more wonderful when it’s over and we get on with it, when we’re home.

Rumpus: You enjoy the city from a distance.

Woolf: Yes. I don’t come to every Woolf conference. I’ve opened and closed conferences, and for the last 15 years I’ve been publishing the monograph series. People come up to me and say, “I’ve been here presenting a paper on Leslie Stephens [Virginia’s father] as a mountaineer”—a fairly obscure subject. I’ll say, “I’m interested in that; it’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

Rumpus: It is striking, your resemblance to Leonard.

Woolf: Of course. It’s the family face.

Rumpus: What was the impetus for the monograph series and how does it contribute to Bloomsbury group studies?

Woolf: My wife [Jean Moorcroft Wilson] wrote a book called Virginia Woolf, Life and London: A Biography of Place, which is a hybrid book: it’s biography, criticisms, topography. That was the first Bloomsbury book I published.

Also, people would present me with a work on a Bloomsbury topic that wasn’t book length. Some of these I saw were very good and that’s how we started with the monographs. They range from 15 to 80 pages and cover a wide range of topics. The first title we did in the monograph series was juvenilia, written by Virginia at the age of 10 or 12, hitherto unpublished, called A Cockney’s Farming Experiences. Others are unpublished texts by Bloomsbury people, like Clive Bell, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey—I’m trying to present entirely original pieces.

Rumpus: Does the series explore the Bloomsbury group in an academic language and context, or are they aimed at the common reader?

Woolf: They are aimed at what we call the intelligent, general reader. In other words, Virginia’s and Samuel Johnson’s “common reader.”

Rumpus: Virginia is often read and studied through very narrow lenses of analysis that combine her art and her life, such as Virginia the feminist, Virginia the lesbian, Virginia the manic-depressive, Virginia the mystic, etc. Are those lenses helpful or dangerous? How would she want to be read?

Woolf: How would Virginia want to be read? I’ll rephrase that as, How would she feel if she came back and saw this today? I think she would be astonished. Amazed. I was a schoolboy of about 12 when she died. What you have to remember is, Virginia was becoming well known in Britain then but I wouldn’t say she was famous, certainly not a household name as she is today, even in Britain. Certainly not in America. Now Virginia is more famous here than in Britain. I mean, coming through customs, I’ve been asked 600 times or more, “Are you any relation?” I say, “Yes.” They ask, “What was she like?” And they have me sign my name. But they always ask, “What was she like?” You’re going to ask that too.

Rumpus: What was she like?

Woolf: Virginia says herself in one of her last essays—it’s on [Samuel] Johnson—that the more we know a person, the less easy it is to sum them up. So what was she like? Physically, we are familiar with the portraits of her; we all know those. She wasn’t a beautiful woman. I remember her as middle-aged, not unattractive, [with] a very animated face.

She was two Virginias really, one at Monks House [in the village of Rodmell], another inwoolf031 London; that was where she felt at home. She was a townsperson, and so was Leonard. I had the slight feeling that she was out of place in the country. She was integrated into the community. She was involved with the local Women’s Institute and held a position, secretary or treasurer. It’s still going today, quite a large organization in Britain. At the same time, I would say that she was aloof. Not so much because of herself, but perhaps because of this town and country identification. You have the same thing here, I suppose. For 40 years I’ve had a house in the country in England in Lincolnshire, and when I’m there there’s always this suspicion—“Hey, he’s a townsman,” that kind of thing. I want to say, “No, I’m really a countryman.” It sets you a part from people in a way.

Rumpus: So it wasn’t so much that Virginia felt uncomfortable being outside of the city; it was more her uneasiness with the people there, thinking they didn’t accept her?

Woolf: I think so. But she needed both. In the country, she was quite untidy. In a talk I gave I tried to set the scene of visiting Leonard and Virginia at Monks House. Ours is quite a large family. Leonard was one of ten. He was among the older children and my father was the youngest. Leonard and Virginia were always ‘Leonard’ and ‘Virginia,’ never ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt.’ That made them really sort of ordinary. It was rather progressive.

We’d arrive and Leonard would be in old corduroys working in the garden—he had a wonderful garden, which really died with him in 1969.

Rumpus: Was that how you remember Virginia and Leonard’s home? Messy?

Woolf: It was so busy. They were great workers. We think of Victorians as very industrious. They’d go away on holiday, but most of the time they tended to work. What was nice about staying with them as a child was being left on your own to amuse yourself—you weren’t entertained. They got on with their lives and didn’t expect you to interrupt them.

Rumpus: So when you visited you were observing rather than joining?

Woolf: No, that sounds too self-conscious, ‘observing’ them, because as I said, Virginia wasn’t someone to be watched, she wasn’t what she is today. If we could go back through time, of course one would record every word she said, every look, because she’s passed into literary and social history. It’s hard to understand that, but her posthumous fame didn’t really begin until the 1960s, twenty years after her death. I’ve seen this extraordinary revival and it continues. There’s more and more and more interest in her, even in Britain. Actually in Britain, there’re still people who say, “Virginia Woolf? That was played by Elizabeth Taylor, wasn’t it?”

Rumpus: I wonder how it is to have known Virginia and witnessed her complexities, and then read all the material written by others trying to explain her. She left such a wealth of writing—memoirs, essays, and fiction—it’s easy as readers to feel we do know her. Each generation has literally reformulated her story, created a new Virginia. What is that experience like for you?

Woolf: The strangest thing comes from living in this celebrity culture. It didn’t used to be that way; people were happy to read an author’s work, they didn’t need to see the man or woman. Now, with a publication you have launches, book readings, promotions, author appearances and signings, and more and more concentration on the personal. What that means I think to quite a large extent is that the author spends time appearing and being interviewed, instead of writing her book. Virginia would give talks on occasion, but today she’d be on television 24/7. It’s a very different kind of exposure.

Rumpus: Who is the Virginia you remember?

Woolf: How can I make Virginia more real for you? Virginia was volatile, mercurial, moody you could say. She could be quite sharp—she looked sharp, her face was sharp. When you arrived she might ask about your journey and she wanted every detail. “Okay, you came by train. Tell me about the people in the carriage.” She’d probe. I suppose I was quite the observant child and I came from a bookish family, so I wasn’t too thrown by that. It was the novelist’s search for copy, ideas. Something that could be slightly disturbing and certainly unusual was what Leonard referred to as, “Virginia taking off.” You’d tell her something, a little story or an account, and maybe that day or the next day or the next week she would have remembered it and built it into a big deal, exaggerating everything. By the time she’d finished the fictionalization of an incident, it could be amusing but it could also be extremely embarrassing for the person at the center of things. She would do this with anyone who visited the house.

Rumpus: Did she enjoy having visitors? You’d mentioned how they left you to amuse yourself. How interested was she in engaging?

Woolf: She was quite gregarious, they both were. E.M. Forster visited Monks House and said he felt neglected because usually when you stay with friends in the country they feel an obligation to entertain you and show you around. Leonard and Virginia weren’t like that; they had their own lives and to some extent they were separate. Leonard would be up in his study typing away and Virginia would be in her little hut in the garden writing. But they had their circle of friends, and in the evening they would be listening to music or playing bowls on the lawn.

Rumpus: Leonard is often perceived simply as “the husband,” doting caretaker or stern and stifling. We know him largely in the context of Virginia. What kind of person was he really?

Woolf: It was all so different then. The Virginia he was married to was not this colossus, this literary giant of 2009. That’s something you have to remember. He was married to someone who was very mentally unstable. When Virginia finished each book, virtually all her books, she would have terrible mental breakdowns—that was a problem for him. One of the books I’m doing now is “How does one read a marriage?” What the author is doing is looking more closely at their relationship, just this question that you’ve asked. Was Leonard the stern disciplinarian that he is sometimes portrayed as? What he was trying to do was keep Virginia going. He was a very kind and enormously caring person.

I gave a talk at the Woolf conference in Bloomsbury in 2002 about Leonard and Virginia. I came out of the talk and was handed a book by Louise de Salvo [Conceived with Malice: Literature as Revenge]. Its hard to imagine anything more poisonous and unfounded—her perception of Leonard as a total male chauvinist pig—when the reality is that without Leonard, I don’t think you and I would be sitting here talking about Virginia. I’m not just talking about his role as publisher; I’m talking about keeping her going. I lived in Leonard’s London house for 30 years and we didn’t talk very much about Virginia. I think he still had this feeling that is entirely understandable, always thinking “What could I have done?” “What might I have done differently in 1941?” My dad was in the same position. My mother committed suicide. She had been put on a medication, one of the drugs used in those days for arthritis, Bromide, which is a depressant. She had been taking more and more Bromide and getting more and more depressed.

Rumpus: Leonard and your father felt personally guilty?

Woolf: When such catastrophes occur—we all ask what one might have done differently. We feel we should have kept a 24-hour watch. But these things are just moments. [Leonard] had managed in the past always to navigate her one way or another, and some of her breakdowns were horrendous. One of them I think she needed four nurses to hold her down, when they were living in the London suburb of Richmond, early in their marriage. When you think of other people in that position, T.S. Eliot and Roger Fry, they tended rather to lock their wives up. For Leonard that was an absolutely last resort. He knew that the tide ebbed and flowed but in 1941 with the war, it became an uncontrollable situation. I’m not saying this preoccupied him forever; emotionally he was quite tough.

Rumpus: What was Leonard like in his later years of life, with more distance from Virginia? Did he remain the diligent and productive Leonard he had been with her?

Woolf: When he was 88 years old, I remember I saw him running down Victoria Street to catch a bus with his rucksack on his back. But then that last year, he had a stroke. He hung on for 6 months or so. He got back to being able to talk coherently, but I don’t think he ever wrote and couldn’t read very much. The things that made up his life no longer existed.

woolf013He was a funny chap. He recorded everything. Just as an example, I was staying with him at Monks House in the 50s and he would visit bookshops with Hogarth Press publications. He had a sales representative but in those days publishers did; they didn’t just sit in their offices, or restaurants and bars. They were on the road, meeting booksellers. We went around all morning that day and he said, Would you like something to eat? I was very hungry. He went to the nearest bakery and bought two penny bread rolls and butter and sat on a park bench. He took out a black covered notebook and wrote down, “Two bread rolls. 2 pence.” Everything was recorded. He recorded the score at bowls; he recorded the yield of every fruit tree in the garden. Everything was written down.

Rumpus: Was that habit a writerly impulse, like Virginia trying to gain information about the world? Or was it a personality trait?

Woolf: It was part of his character. I always used to think of Leonard as one of nature’s administrators. It was ingrained in him. I remember T.S. Eliot saying, “Leonard invited me to lunch at Victoria Square, and all he gave me was a bag of chips and a bottle of ginger beer.” It wasn’t that he was mean; he was just so careful with money. It was a standing joke in Bloomsbury, how careful Leonard was. His father, Sidney, died when Leonard was around twelve; my father was three. His father was Queens Counsel, very well paid, had his own carriage, footman, servants, housing in Kensington not far from the Stephens’s [Virginia’s family]. He had made it on his own and worked his way up, as his own father had been a poor tailor. When Sidney died, the family had no money, they had to move. I think that might account for [Leonard’s] carefulness. My father was the same.

Rumpus: Is that carefulness what helped sustain Virginia or did it upset her, cause a rift in their marriage?

Woolf: Unquestionably it sustained her. She needed somebody who had two feet on the ground. It may sound a bit depressing when one articulates it, but with all that Leonard was also very good company.

Rumpus: How has being so closely tied to this explosion of Woolf studies and readership affected you, shaped your life?

Woolf: I don’t think it’s really affected me very much. I’m asked questions. People are sufficiently interested. The questions change. There used to be the silly questions about their sex life, and I know only as much as anyone knows. That’s something that one used to be asked but there has been enough written about it now.

Virginia has inspired generations of women, all part of a larger cultural change. My father was one of nature’s feminists, before the word had been invented. I believe I would be the same person without all the questions. Of course I feel privileged to have known Virginia a little, and Leonard very well all those years; I feel it’s a tremendous privilege.

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Read Sasha’s take on the Virginia Woolf conference in New York City.

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Illustrations by André da Loba


Sasha Graybosch is a writer in New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Elimae and Dogzplot. She is a writing consultant at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and works for the indie press Akashic Books. More from this author →