Other Worlds, Dame Nellie Melba and Oscar Wilde, Savoy Hotel
Two of the greatest performers of their time had an unlikely friendship, and crossed paths in London and Paris at key points in their lives.
'Kew Gardens', an early short story by Virginia Woolf, represented a breakthrough into Modernism. It anticipated all her great novels to come, was influenced by another great writer, friend and rival, Katherine Mansfield, and its success helped turn the Woolf's printing hobby into a successful business.
From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour.
Virginia Woolf was thirty-four when she met Katherine Mansfield. She was older than Katherine by seven years, and firmly part of the literary establishment, yet she felt less secure about her ability as a writer and was fearful of being surpassed.
Despite a fierce desire to write since childhood, Virginia’s path to that goal was less steady than she had hoped. The only significant work she had published to that point was The Voyage Out (1915). It was a novel that followed traditional conventions that, owing to two breakdowns, had taken her seven years to complete. Although respectfully reviewed, she privately denounced the work as ‘long and dull’.
In Bloomsbury circles she tended to be overshadowed by her older, charismatic sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. She had chosen to marry a man from within this circle. Leonard Woolf was a protective partner, dedicated to striking the balance that was essential to Virginia’s mental health.
The threat to her sanity hung about her like a cloud. Another breakdown after the publication of The Voyage Out in March 1915 had involved violence, hallucinations and fits of screaming, necessitating the care of four nurses. It was the best part of a year before Virginia could return to a more normal life, resuming her work as a reviewer, and dividing her time between their homes at Hogarth House in Richmond, and Asheham House on the Sussex downs.
She began to keep a diary again, and although its purpose was to placate a ‘restless state’, it also served to get her writing back into shape. Her nature notes are exact and ravishing.
These days melted into each other like snowballs roasting in the sun.
Virginia went to work on her second novel, Night and Day, but found it heavy going, feeling constrained by its traditional structure. It was a long-drawn out process as she was limited to writing for only an hour each day to protect her health.
In 1917 the Woolfs bought a small printing press. Leonard hoped this ‘manual occupation’ would give Virginia a reprieve from the mentally taxing work of writing. They installed the press on their dining room table in Hogarth House and spent months learning how to set the type and organise it into forms ready for printing. Apart from the fact that it involved ‘the work of ages’, and she kept mixing up the h’s and the n’s, Virginia wrote to Vanessa, ‘You can’t think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.’
This was the beginning of the Hogarth Press, the vehicle for publishing their own work as well as pieces by other distinguished writers, many from their circle, including TS Eliot, EM Forster, Roger Fry and Vita Sackville-West. It gave them a sense of ‘possibilities’ opening up as it allowed them to print their own work free from editorial censorship.
They each wrote a short story for their first production, Two Stories, which they published in a limited edition. Virginia’s contribution, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ came ‘all in a flash, as if flying’. It was her first attempt at modernist form and experimental language and came as a treat after the ‘stone breaking’ involved in writing her conventional novel. In Night and Day she was recreating the atmosphere of her childhood, and this became part of the difficulty of it, as with hindsight she could see the extent to which this childhood had suffocated and entrapped her (there is a story about Virginia’s childhood here).
The printing press needed to be fed with short pieces, and Virginia and Leonard were on the lookout for talented and innovative new writers. Katherine Mansfield’s name arose as a potential candidate.
Katherine Mansfield was an adventurous, fearless and unorthodox woman of twenty-eight, one of the shrewdest observers of the new ‘Modern Movement’, and a promising writer. Her collection of short stories called View from a German Pension (1911) was praised by critics as ‘lively’, ‘caustic’, ‘impish’ and ‘original’ and its first print run sold out quickly. She produced regular book reviews for the Athenaeum which were highly regarded. And although Virginia had yet to fully tackle the modernism which was to make her famous, Katherine was beginning to reach a mature state in her writing, becoming a force in her own right. Influenced by the French Symolists (particularly Verlaine and Baudelaire) her aim was to ‘intensify the so-called small things, […] so that truly everything is significant.’ This type of short story had yet to be seen in England.
They had known about each other before they met. Katherine was part of a new coterie of younger women, Virginia called the ‘cropheads’ (including Dora Carrington, Alix Sargant-Florence, Dorothy Brett, Barbara Hiles) who danced around the edges of Bloomsbury. They cut their hair, wore trousers, travelled overseas alone and had bisexual affairs and threesomes. Some of them were falling in love with Virginia’s oldest friends. Virginia admired them but also found them irritating; they were doing all the things she had never done and they made her feel old.
In the summer of 1916 Katherine was invited to the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington, a Jacobean manor just outside Oxford. Ottoline was a stupendous beauty partial to wearing ostrich feathers and dilapidated brocades, and a friend of the Bloomsbury group. She had transformed Garsington into a wartime refuge for artists, poets, writers and conscientious objectors and it was here that Katherine met the writer and member of Bloomsbury Lytton Strachey. She spoke glowingly of The Voyage Out, expressing her desire to meet Virginia. Lytton said he thought it could be arranged and piqued Virginia’s interest by writing to her that Katherine was
decidedly an interesting creature…very amusing and sufficiently mysterious…an ugly impassive mask of a face – cut in wood, with brown hair and brown eyes very far apart, and a sharp and slightly vulgarly-fanciful intellect sitting behind it.
Virginia replied: ‘Katherine Mansfield has dogged my steps for three years. I’m always on the verge of meeting her, or of reading her stories, and I have never managed to do either…Do arrange a meeting’.
Seven months later, in February 1917, Virginia and Katherine met and began a complicated relationship, a mix of mutual admiration, envy, intimacy and wariness. They had much in common, sharing a determination to escape from the worlds they had been born into. Each had rejected the constraining moral, social and cultural values drummed into them as children. They were ambitious for their writing and worked hard and professionally at their craft.
Although self-expression was their chief priority, friendship and pleasure also played their parts. Both women were amusing, charming and could be malicious. Katherine might be warm and unguarded: ‘You do not know, Virginia, how I treasure the thought of you’. Next there would be an edge: ‘Your brilliant letter was so captivating that Murry [Katherine’s lover] suggests we frame it in a revolving frame.’ Her slipperiness did not inspire trusting confidence and Virginia was justifiably guarded.
At first Virginia took a dislike to Katherine, finding her hard, cheap and unscrupulous, an opinion possibly tinted by Lytton’s comment about her vulgarity. She had been given the impression that Katherine had lived by her wits and wandered all over the moors of Scotland with a travelling circus (someone was not quite telling the truth). Katherine’s numerous sexual encounters both fascinated and repelled her. It was a sensuality at odds with her own cerebral nature. She wrote to her sister Vanessa: ‘She seems to have gone every sort of hog since she was 17’, whereas Virginia had remained respectable, possibly regretfully so.
Virginia also recognised Katherine’s talent; she was producing the type of original writing that the Woolfs wanted for their new publishing business. She sought her out again for a short story and commissioned what was to become Prelude, the story Katherine revised in Bandol (you can read more about the writing of that story here). It became the second Hogarth Press publication.
When Katherine met Virginia at Hogarth House, she felt envious, writing to John Middleton Murry (the lover who later became her second husband):
no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm freedom of expression as though she were at peace – her roof over her – her own possessions round her – and her man somewhere within call.
Katherine had chosen exile from her prosperous family in New Zealand, and was leading an itinerant life in a succession of European attics and freezing English flats and cottages. She craved Virginia’s comforts (caring deeply for a beautiful house) yet despised them too. Ironically it was this outsider status, so powerfully conveyed in her stories, that lends them such a unique flavour (for further discussion about this, see the ‘Connection’ piece here).
Katherine also recognised the social discrepancy. Virginia’s family tree included Thackeray, her father was the esteemed critic Sir Leslie Stephen, Henry James and Thomas Hardy were counted as family friends. On class and social levels, Miss Beauchamp from Thorndon New Zealand, could not compete.
After a second dinner at Hogarth House Katherine confessed that she was somewhat ‘haunted’ by Virginia, and provided her with a flattering description of the evening that feels as if it comes from one of her own short stories:
The memory of that last evening is so curious: your voice & Vanessa’s voice in the dark, as it were – white rings of plates floating in the air – a smell of strawberries and coffee… My God I love to think of you, Virginia, as my friend. Dont cry me an ardent creature or say, with your head a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret: ‘Well, Katherine, we shall see…’ But pray consider how rare it is to find some one with the same passion for writing that you have, who desires to be scrupulously truthful with you – and to give you the freedom of the city without any reserves at all.
By July 1917, Katherine had come to a deeper understanding of Virginia’s precarious mental state. After sharing a meal with her she wrote to Ottoline Morrell that Virginia was ‘still VERY delicate’ and not often able to leave her immediate surroundings.
I do like her tremendously – but I felt then for the first time the strange, trembling, glinting quality of her mind – and quite for the first time she seemed to me to be one of those Dostoievsky women whose ‘innocence’ has been hurt – Immediately I decided that I understood her completely – I wonder if you agree at all.
Katherine’s courting of Virginia was successful. What kept Virginia’s interest was the sharpness and refreshing irreverence of a woman from the colonies, who called TS Eliot ‘unspeakably dreary’ and complained about ‘these dark young men – so proud of their plumes and their black and silver cloaks and ever so expensive pompes funebre – I’ve no patience’. Virginia agreed, yearning for a break from the debates, positions and contests of orthodox male communication. She found she could ‘talk straight’ to Katherine, a quality lacking in other relationships, especially those with men:
…I think what an abrupt precipice cleaves asunder, the male intelligence, & how they pride themselves upon a point of view…I find it much easier to talk to Katherine; she gives & resists as I expect her to; we cover more ground in much less time.
Both wanted to use their experience as women to forge a new type of modernist writing, without falling prey to the self-consciousness and egotism that they saw in the work of James Joyce. How to explore consciousness objectively and with fluidity? How to break up solid narrative form without the loss of deep feeling? They shared the struggles and pleasures of such challenges.
This growing intimacy was hindered by their social circles that thrived on gossip. Virginia repeated to Katherine some spiteful talk of Clive Bell’s (Vanessa’s husband). He had said that Katherine reminded him of something cheap on a barrow that is rejected again and again, and found to be not quite up to scratch. No doubt hurt, Katherine responded in a letter, ‘Don’t let THEM ever persuade you that I spend any of my precious time swapping hats or committing adultery – I’m far too arrogant and proud.’ Yet neither refrained from sending out barbs about the other. ‘She stinks like a – well civet cat that had taken to street walking’, wrote Virginia to her sister. Katherine was well aware she was being derided and, while flattering to Virginia’s face, she would be snide behind her back, especially about her work.
Misunderstandings continually interrupted their rich discussion but what kept them finding their way back to each other was their love of writing. As Virginia wrote to Vanessa, ‘at least she cares about writing, which as I’m coming to think, is about the rarest and most desirable of gifts.’ They formed ‘a republic of two’. At its best, their relationship fostered a deepening understanding of their own work.
Thematically, their work is similar: quiet, measured stories about interior lives that are driven by character rather than plot. They often concern small moments which build to an epiphany: the articulation of a flash of insight, or a glimpse of something on the periphery of a character’s awareness. As Claire Tomalin observes, ‘both…made the fragility of feeling, of happiness and the life itself, into their subject’, and they mined their childhoods for material.
Tomalin describes Virginia’s phrases as shining ‘like thin ice over dark water’. But while her writing could be playful, it lacked the swift fluidity of Katherine’s. And although she had in mind the effects she wished to achieve, she was only just learning to master them. Indeed, she felt she had missed her aim completely in The Voyage Out, as she discussed here in a letter to Lytton Strachey in 1916:
What I wanted to do was to give the feeling of a vast tumult of life, as various and disorderly as possible, which should be cut short for a moment by the death, and go on again – and the whole was to have a sort of pattern, and be somehow controlled. The difficulty was to keep any sort of coherence, – also to give enough detail to make the characters interesting…Do you think it is impossible to get this sort of effect in a novel; – is the result bound to be too scattered to be intelligible? I expect one may learn to get more control in time. One gets too much involved in details…
The ‘thing’ they were both after was prose that was intense and deeply lyrical, like poetry. Katherine wote in her journal,
People have never explored the lovely medium of prose, it is a hidden country still – I feel that so profoundly; and again, I want to write a kind of long elegy… perhaps not in poetry. Nor perhaps in prose. Almost certainly in a kind of special prose.
This required a move towards suggestiveness and fragmentation. They needed to cut out the padding, what Virginia described as the appalling ‘narrative business of the realist: getting from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional’. Both were interested in the Russian writing that was becoming available in recent translations, which had a fresh, random quality. Reviewing short stories by Chekhov in 1919, Virginia wrote,
We are by this time alive to the fact that inconclusive stories are legitimate; that is to say, though they leave us feeling melancholy and perhaps uncertain, yet somehow they provide a resting-point for the mind – a solid object casting its shade of reflection and speculation.
Katherine was first to produce the innovations. She had already mastered the plotless narrative and a fluid and impressionistic style that ran freely and was full of feeling. And she was keenly interested in evoking consciousness through poetic and symbolic imagery. In 1915, two days before her brother’s death, Katherine’s short story ‘The Wind Blows’, which Virginia much admired, had been published in the Athenaeum. It is about the childhood memories of a brother and sister, and the life they leave behind as their ship sets out to sea and into the night. They each see themselves back on shore as they used to be. The story begins with a child’s sense of dread on awakening.
The wind, the wind. It’s frightening to be here in her room by herself. The bed, the mirror, the white jug and basin gleam like the sky outside. It’s the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep…Does Mother imagine for one moment that she is going to darn all those stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes? She’s not. No, Mother. I do not see why I should…The wind – the wind.
Katherine fragments family history into moments of intense and sensuous experience. She provides an intimate view of the child, constructing a world of colourful detail, shifting back and forth between the life of the everyday, and the internal fantasies of the character. This story was influential to Virginia, who used a similar approach to recreate memories of her dead brother in Jacob’s Room (1922).
In the summer of 1917 Katherine revisited Garsington. Ottoline’s extraordinary garden was in full bloom and she and Katherine cut lavender, sweet geranium, verbena, rose leaves and rosemary to make pot-pourri. The hot, sunny days and warm nights brought out the scent of the flowers which blew in through the open windows. Katherine was inspired to develop a story idea which she later described to Ottoline in a letter dated 15 August 1917:
Your glimpse of the garden – all flying green and gold made me wonder again who is going to write about that flower garden. It might be so wonderful, do you see how I mean? There would be people walking in the garden – several pairs of people – their conversation their slow pacing – their glances as they pass one another – the pauses as the flowers “come in” as it were – as a bright dazzle, an exquisite haunting scent, a shape so formal and fine, so much a “flower of the mind” that he who looks at it really is tempted for one bewildering moment to stoop & touch and make sure. The “pairs” of people must be very different and there must be a touch of enchantment – some of them seeming so extraordinarily “odd” and separate from the flowers, but others quite related and at ease. A kind of, musically speaking, conversation set to flowers. Do you like the idea?….Its full of possibilities. I must have a fling at it as soon as I have time.
On that same day Katherine also wrote to Virginia. The letter has not survived but is known to have existed because Virginia then wrote to Ottoline:
Katherine Mansfield describes your garden, the rose leaves dying in the sun, the pool and long conversation between people wandering up and down in the moonlight. It calls out to her romantic side.
Soon afterwards, Katherine spent a weekend with Virginia and Leonard at their country house, Asheham. She had been asked to bring as much of the typewritten manuscript of Prelude as was ready. It appears that Virginia also showed Katherine a draft of her own new short story, ‘Kew Gardens’, for after her visit Katherine wrote:
We have got the same job, Virginia, and it is really very curious and thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing.
And later in the letter:
Yes, your Flower Bed is very good. There’s a still, quivering changing light over it all and a sense of those couples dissolving in the bright air which fascinates me.
Virginia did not describe Ottoline’s garden at Garsington because she had yet to visit it. She wrote instead about The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. These gardens, including the famous Pagoda, were visible from the back windows of Hogarth House, and she and Leonard loved to walk there.
The story ‘Kew Gardens’ bears a striking similarity to the word pictures in Katherine’s letters. On a hot July afternoon, the colours of the flower beds in the garden ‘dazzle’ and flash into the air and into the eyes of ‘very different’ sets of men and women. They ‘pause’ before the flower beds, creating a ‘conversation to flowers’. Then Virginia makes the story all her own with some brilliantly realised concepts.
All the visitors to the garden appear to be in a form of stasis. Some seem oblivious to what the other is saying, one is senile, others are lost in significant events of their past. A young courting couple are unable to take the next step in their relationship. The young man in particular seems full of desire for the woman, yet paralysed by anxiety:
The couple stood still on the edge of the flower bed, and together pressed the end of her parasol deep down into the soft earth. The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them…
Meanwhile, everything in nature is moving. A snail makes gradual but constant progress through the mountainous vegetation in a flower bed, providing a ‘ground-level perspective’, the flowers are a blur of motion, the white butterflies dance, a dragonfly darts about and never lands. Yet they move within the man-made world of a garden, contained within another man-made world of a city. Virginia makes this explicit by describing the constructed ‘natural’ world as if it is a painting. Petals are ‘marked with spots of colour’, colours of the flowers are ‘staining’ the earth.
At the end of the story she likens all these scenes, from the nature in the man-made landscape, to the mess of inner lives full of losses, longings and memories, to ‘a vast nest of Chinese boxes’. We exist in relation to everything else and are as tenuous and fleeting as a scene captured in an Impressionist painting:
Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon . . . dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere.
The story features experimental perspectives that crucially break away from traditional narrative structures. Like some of Katherine’s stories, it is indirect and darts about. Instead of a developed plot, there is an impressionistic running on, for which Virginia was to become famous. There is no fixed end point. Instead, the reader is led out of these fragmentary impressions of a garden and onto a busy street in London with a flash of flower colours ‘into the air’. It is an irrevocably modern piece. In his autobiography, Leonard describes ‘Kew Gardens’ as ‘a microcosm of all [Woolf’s] then unwritten novels, from Jacob’s Room to Between the Acts.
For the first edition Vanessa made two woodcut prints to illustrate the text (she had also contributed prints for the earlier Two Stories). These books were the start of a fruitful collaboration between the sisters. Thereafter, she would design most of the front covers for Virginia’s novels and essays. Vanessa was particularly interested in the short story form, writing to her sister in July 1917,
…why don’t you write more short things…there is a kind of completeness about a thing like this that is very satisfactory and that you can hardly get in a novel.
But after publication there were only a miserable forty-nine orders for the book and it appeared likely to sink like a stone. Then this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement:
Here is ‘Kew Gardens’ a work of art, made, ‘created’ as we say, finished, four-square; a thing of original and therefore strange beauty, with its own ‘atmosphere’, its own vital force. Quotation cannot present its beauty, or as we should like to say, its being. Perhaps the beginning might be suppler; but the more one gloats over ‘Kew Gardens’ the more beauty shines out of it; and the fitter to it seems this cover that is like no other cover, and carries associations; and the more one likes Mrs. Bell’s ‘Kew Gardens’ woodcuts.
Following a visit to Vanessa’s country home, Charleston, Virginia and Leonard arrived home to Hogarth House, to find the hall table
stacked, littered, with orders for Kew Gardens. They strewed the sofa, and we opened them intermittently through dinner, and quarrelled, I’m sorry to say, because we were both excited, and opposite tides of excitement coursed in us… All these orders – 150 about, from shops and private people – come from a review in the Times Literary Supplement in which as much praise was allowed me as I like to claim. And ten days ago I was stoically facing complete failure!
The sudden demand forced them to turn to a commercial printer to produce a second edition of five hundred copies. Leonard had initially envisaged the printing press as a steadying occupation to maintain Virginia’s equilibrium, an interesting hobby, but from this point, Hogarth Press became a going concern and a good source of income (it continues to this day). The hand press also became an agent of liberation for Virginia’s writing. The shorter pieces it initially demanded freed her to become radically experimental. And she could now see how these could be connected to shape the novels she would write in the future.
Virginia had brought Katherine’s vision to fruition. Katherine thought the story wonderful, writing to Ottoline:
I understand exactly what you say about Virginia – beautiful brilliant creature that she is and suddenly at the last moment, turning into a bird and flying up to a topmost bough and continuing the conversation from there…She delights in beauty as I imagine a bird does…
She was generous in recognising, along with Leonard, that ‘Kew Gardens’ represented a significant turning point in Virginia’s literary career, and gave it a glowing review in the Athenaeum:
It is strange how conscious one is, from the first paragraph, of this sense of leisure: her story is bathed in it as if it were a light, still and lovely, heightening the importance of everything, and filling all that is within her vision with that vivid, disturbing beauty that haunts the air the last moment before sunset or the first moment after dawn. Poise—yes, poise. Anything may happen; her world is on tiptoe.
Katherine was becoming increasingly debilitated by illness. For years she had been wracked by arthritic pain, possibly caused by gonorrhoea. It attacked different bones and joints, sometimes even making walking difficult. In the autumn of 1917 she also developed symptoms of tuberculosis and was forced to spend the first of many winters on the continent.
That winter in wartime, while still writing Night and Day, Virginia set the type for Katherine’s story ‘Prelude’. As usual, she and Katherine were out of kilter with one another. Katherine, wretched in Bandol again, had begun to rail against the Bloomsbury group, calling them a tangi, the Maori word for wailers at a funeral. In the misery of her sickness she was also angry and bitter about the Woolfs. Yet in Richmond Virginia was feeling warmly towards Katherine, feeling she was one of the few people she could confide in about her work.
‘Prelude’ is a long story, almost a novella, and its type-setting by hand was a laborious process. While engaged in the task, Virginia was soaking up one of Katherine’s finest works. It is a series of brief but deep plunges into the lives of a family moving to a new home in the country. Each passage explores the interior life of a different female character, struggling with her sexuality and her role in a world controlled by men. Intricate patterns of imagery link and fuse these threads into one continuous life, spanning from youth to old age. Economy, clarity and originality combine with moments of intensely felt experience.
The prelude of the title remains powerfully silent in the story. It is the prelude to the conflict and violence of war that will soon disrupt these lives and is alluded to by a number of sinister notes: something frightening and hidden lurking directly behind Kezia and then under the stairs; the ominous tangle of dark trees in the garden, a beheaded bird. The story ends with an ellipsis signifying continuation, suggesting a life cycle.
Virginia and Leonard took the risk of a larger print run but ‘Prelude’ was not received as warmly as they had hoped, nor as it deserved. Virginia vigorously defended it from criticism. She had put her whole body into it and recognised its subtle power.
Virginia completed the final chapter of Night and Day (1919) within earshot of the guns that were going off in London to mark the end of the war. It was a novel that divided opinion. Some were full of praise, while others criticised its Victorian conventionality, thinking it odd to produce a traditional romance in the middle of the Great War.
Katherine’s review in the Athenaeum was careful (she had been deeply anxious about having to write it) but this passage cut:
We had thought that this world had vanished for ever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what had been happening. Yet here is Night and Day […] a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill. We had never thought to look upon its like again!
To Murry, Katherine was even more scathing:
Talk about intellectual snobbery – her book reeks of it. (But I can’t say so). You would dislike it. You’d never read it. It’s so long and tahsome.
Virginia dismissed the review as spite, ‘her wish for my failure’. She felt it as a rebuke.
A period of estrangement ensued, later followed by a chilly and formal reunion. Then, as Virginia later wrote:
…we talked about solitude, & I found her expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed. Whereupon we fell into step, & as usual, talked as easily as though 8 months were minutes…
They reached an uneasy understanding about the review. Katherine argued that her main issue had been Virginia’s failure to acknowledge the war, to alter the novel’s form to accommodate the devastating changes it wrought. As she had explained in a letter to Murry:
I feel in the profoundest sense that nothing can ever be the same – that, as artists, we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take it into account and find new expressions, new moulds for our new thoughts and feelings.
It was feedback that Virginia did accept. In later novels such as Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, the Great War is omnipresent. And in her next novel, Jacob’s Room, she managed at last to break free, incorporating the experimental narrative and prose techniques she had explored in her short stories. As ever, their exchange had produced deeply useful insights that Virginia used to become a better writer.
In her last letter to Virginia before her death, Katherine wrote:
I think of you often – very often. I long to talk to you…If Virginia were to come through the gate & were to say, ‘Well Katherine’ – Oh there are a thousand things I’d like to discuss. I wonder if you know what your visits were to me – or how much I miss them. You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another. But leagues divide us…
Katherine died in France, on 9 January, 1923. She was thirty-four. On hearing the news, Virginia said that suddenly there seemed ‘no point in writing any more, Katherine won’t read it’. She later wrote in her diary ‘I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of before’.
Hermione Lee observes that as often happens with those we love, but with whom our conversation is incomplete, Virginia felt haunted by Katherine for a long while. An image came to her mind of ‘Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away: made dignified, chosen.’ She appeared in her dreams and Virginia would awake with the sense of Katherine, half forgetful of the dream’s events,
except that she was lying on a sofa in a room high up, & a great many sad faced women were round her. Yet somehow I got the feel of her, & of her as if alive again, more than by day.
Nocturne pour Violon et Piano, Composed by Lili Boulanger, Savitri Grier (violin), Richard Uttley (piano)
At the turn of last century the grand symphonic romanticism of Wagner and Brahms, so popular in the late 1800s, gave way to music that broke away from traditional harmonic structures. Modernist composers were experimenting with music, just as the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf were doing with poetry and literature.
Lili Boulanger, the daughter of a Russian Princess, was a child prodigy who began attending music lessons at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of four. At twenty she became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome for her cantata Faust et Hélène. (This was a prize Ravel tried unsuccessfully to win five times). Only three years later Lili Boulanger succumbed to Crohn’s disease in March 1918. Some believe her death was hastened by her ceaseless charity work during the First World War.
Nocturne contains hints of the ambiguity and suggestiveness of Debussy, the impressionistic composer who was known as a ‘painter in sound’, so it seems a suitable match for Virginia’s painterly ‘Kew Gardens’. Its initial sparceness builds to a delicate texture of violin and piano that feels as dreamy as a day in a garden. I am unsure whether Woolf or Mansfield knew this piece but it is highly likely they did, as both were extremely knowledgable about music.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in south west London has the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. I arrived in early May, the day after the death of a close friend from a long illness. She had never visited Kew but her grandfather had been a gardener here. I had promised her that I would see the gardens for us both.
There is also my own family connection to Kew. My mother had spoken fondly of her many visits with her father as a child. On one occasion she developed a violent headache which she associated with the brilliance of the scarlet geraniums. It was possibly the first of the many migraines that would plague her throughout her life. She also greatly admired the work of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and I felt intensely sad that she was no longer here to talk to about books, life, memories. Had she read ‘Kew Gardens’? I couldn’t remember, but felt she must have.
The weather was indecisive, showers one minute, sun the next. Inside the Palm House, the conservatory for tropical plants, the humidity tended to fog up people’s glasses, creating amusing miniature accidents. I scrambled up the elaborate spiral staircase and took pictures of the view blurred by the condensation on the glass panes.
I had brought my copy of ‘Kew Gardens’ and read it under an enormous chestnut tree, admiring Virginia’s beautiful descriptions which perfectly captured what was before me: ‘the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun’. And I tried to imagine Virginia and Leonard, after a morning of solid work at the printer, taking a stroll arm in arm, pausing to admire the bluebells in the woodlands, or some new arrangment in one of the beds near Palm House.
Virginia was fond of these gardens and even after she moved nearer London, she often travelled back to visit them. In her diary she writes about how she and Leonard had brought the Minister for Education to see the magnolia tree in blossom. She described him as ‘a strange mixutre of ascetic and worldling…a worn and half obliterated scholar made spruce by tailors and doing his best to adopt the quiet distinguished manner of those who govern.’ At Kew they talked of Oxford and how GK Chesterton ‘is a genius’. He stood on the bank of the Thames for a while and,
taking in the impression, not as a person who is accustomed to looking at things looks, but rather as a man who collects objects for the good of his soul. So it was too with the buds of the magnolia at Kew.
Hogarth House on Paradise Road in Richmond is only about a mile down the road from the gardens. Virginia described this brick Georgian building as ‘a perfect house, if ever there was one’ but she had mixed feelings about Richmond. It was too far from the action of London and in 1924 they moved back to Virginia’s old haunt of Bloomsbury.
On my way back to the station I noticed Kew Bookshop was celebrating thirty years of bookselling. One of the celebration events was a signing session with one of England’s finest biographers, Claire Tomalin. In her most recent book, A Life of My Own (which I can highly recommend), she had turned the focus on herself. I have long admired her work and so came back for this later that week. While Claire Tomalin was signing my copy of her memoir I asked her about Thomas Hardy and her face lit up: ‘Wonderful man!’ The first thing she wanted to know was whether I had visited his childhood home in Bockhampton and the other he designed nearby, Max’s Gate (I had). Later I read how crucial it is for her to have a sense of those places that were important to her subjects. In fact she nearly decided against writing the biography of Katherine Mansfield because family commitments made it impossible for her to travel to New Zealand.
Afterwards I ducked back to the gardens for one last look and risked being locked in overnight to catch a shot of the conservatory against the rosy, evening sky.
Read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’ online here.
And Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’ here.
A new edition of ‘Kew Gardens‘ featuring illustrations by Livi Mill has been published by Kew.
In this year’s celebration of Dalloway Day, Kirsty Gunn, Emily Midorikawa, Irenosen Okojie and Emma Claire Sweeney discuss the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.
A documentary about Virginia Woolf’s life.
This article focuses on the marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.
Hogarth House recently came up for sale.
Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin, 1982
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Harcourt, 2005
Dalloway Day. Kirsty Gunn, Emily Midorikawa, Irenosen Okojie and Emma Claire Sweeney discuss the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, British Library video in Association with The Royal Society of Literature in celebration of July 14, 2021
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf, Random House, 1999
Mansfield, Katherine. Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913 -1922, Edited by John Middleton Murry, Constable & Co. 1958
Mansfield, Katherine. The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin, 1981
Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell, Macmillan, 1984
Svendsen, Jessica. Hogarth Press, The Modernism Lab
Tomalin, Claire. Katherine Mansfield, Viking, 1987
Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918, Harcourt, 1964
Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House and Other Stories, Penguin, 1973
Woolf, Virginia. Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, Edited by Joanne Trauttmann Banks, Hogarth Press, 1993
Woolf, Virginia. Selected Letters, Edited by Joanna Trauttmann Banks, Vintage Press, 2008