The Revolutionists, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen

London England

In this autobiographical fragment that Virginia Woolf wrote in 1939, she names one of the main conflicts that she and Vanessa experienced in the home of their childhood:

Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate: The Victorian age; and the Edwardian age…The cruel thing was that while we could see into the future, we were completely in the power of the past. That bred a violent struggle. By nature, Vanessa and I were revolutionists, reformers. But our surroundings were at least fifty years behind the times. Father himself was a typical Victorian.

The house at 22 Hyde Park Gate Kensington, was the childhood home of the remarkable Stephen sisters, the painter Vanessa (later Bell) and the writer Virginia (later Woolf) who became important figures in England’s Bloomsbury Group, an influential circle of writers, artists and intellectuals at the start of the 20th century.

The sisters’ early years were largely happy but later were touched by tragedy and grew troubled. In adolescence, as part of a busy, increasingly male-dominated family, they formed a nucleus, ‘a small world inside the big world’, fostering their creative inspiration and the mutual love that would sustain them for the rest of their lives.

Three families lived here, united by the marriage in 1878 of Leslie Stephen, an eminent man of letters, and Julia Duckworth, a Pre-Raphaelite model and philanthropist. They had each been widowed and brought four children to their union: George, Stella and Gerald Duckworth, and Laura Stephen, who was intellectually disabled. Together they had a further four children: Vanessa in 1879, Thoby in 1880, Virginia in 1882 and Adrian in 1883.

The House

The tall terrace house, in a respectable upper middle class cul-de-sac, was full of ‘innumerable small oddly shaped rooms’ that could accommodate up to eighteen people, including servants. At the back of the house, the two sisters had a small room to themselves, where they spent some of their happiest afternoons. Vanessa wrote that it was,

a cheerful little room, almost entirely made of glass – with a skylight, windows all along one side looking on to the back garden, another window cut in the wall between it and the drawing room.

Here Vanessa drew and painted while Virginia would read novels out loud. Years later, whenever Vanessa read a novel by George Eliot or Thackeray, she would hear Virginia’s distinctive voice.

The light and the outlook of their room contrasted with the rest of the house which was dark, crammed with heavy mahogany furniture, crimson velvet drapes, ticking clocks, black paintwork and marble busts. Virginia later described the creeper thathung down in a thick curtain over the drawing room window’, shutting out the light. The musty odour of wine and cigars lingered in rooms where windows were rarely opened.

Seven maids lived in the basement behind a green baize door, a ‘dark insanitary place’ according to Virginia, who recalled a servant once bursting into a room where she sat with her mother and shouting, ‘It’s like hell’. The social centre of the house was the drawing room with its tea table and stream of polite conversation; above that was the main bedroom where the four youngest children were born. On the fourth floor was Leslie Stephen’s study in which he locked himself most days, editing the enormous Dictionary of National Biography. And in the day nursery and the night nursery the children had most of their meals, slept, played and took their lessons.

The house was a few hundred yards from Kensington Gardens , which made up for their own garden that was dank and dark. According to Vanessa the Gardens were,

comparatively wild in those days and in the long grass between the Flower Walk and the Round Pond we once had the thrill of finding the deserted corpse of a dog – a little black dog.

Speculation about the dog’s demise absorbed them for hours. They would normally ease the daily tedium of crunching up and down the gravel paths by storytelling. They had repetitive stories for particular places and  in Kensington Gardens they told the ‘Jim and Harry Hoe’ story about three brothers and their herds of animals.

But the park was no substitute for nature. Apart from two joyful months spent each year in Cornwall’s St Ives, the children were mainly crammed into two small rooms, up high and far from street life. Vanessa recalled feeling it almost unbearable to visit a wood so seldom in fine weather.

A Sisterly Bond

From the start, Vanessa and Virginia were deeply fond of each other, united in their tomboyish ways and disdain for fancy clothes. Vanessa respected her little sister’s precocious brilliance and was astonished by her beauty. Virginia was an exquisite child, with green eyes and rosy cheeks; her eyelids and mouth were sculpted like a Buddhist carving. Vanessa said, ‘She reminded me always of a sweet pea of a special flame colour.’

As she grew older, Virginia appreciated her sister’s practical good sense and honesty, ‘She might not see all, but she would not see what was not there.’ She admired the way Vanessa quietly assumed responsibility for her younger siblings, recalling that she was ‘outwardly sober and austere, the most trustworthy, and always the eldest.’ Yet for Virginia, the crucial aspect of their relationship was the shared bond, their private languages and jokes. As Virginia’s biographer and nephew Quentin Bell observed:

…for the elder, appearances were always the most fascinating things in the world, or at least, when she loved, love presented itself to her in a visible form. For the younger, the charm of sisterly love lay simply in the intimate communication with another being, the enjoyment of character.

There was a needy quality in Virginia’s love for her sister; she could be demanding and possessive. She pined when they were parted, and felt ‘parched’ and ‘dried up’ for the life giving fountain that her sister represented. Vanessa would always be of central importance to Virginia: ‘There is no doubt that I love you better than anyone else in the world.’ Vanessa’s feelings for her sister were less explicit. Certainly there was a strong maternal aspect, and elements of admiration as well as exasperation. Yet her natural reserve hid the fact that her need for her sister’s love could  be equally strong.

Separate Worlds

From early on Vanessa and Virginia followed different creative paths. For Vanessa it was painting. Virginia recalled:

Once I saw her scrawl on a black door a great maze of lines, with white chalk. “When I am a famous painter-” she began, and then turned shy and rubbed it out in her capable way… She was awkward as a long-legged colt.’

This commitment to art would be unwavering. As Frances Spalding observes, it:

runs like a rod of steel through her life, an unbending central core of conviction. Combined with her talent, it led her to play an important part within the history of English painting during the first thirty years of this century, and a less central but still distinguished role as a colourist from the 1930s until her death.  

Vanessa would go on to lead a fascinating and complex life as a painter, lover and mother, reflecting that ‘Art is the only thing; the lasting thing, though the others [marriage and motherhood] are splendid.’

Virginia was slow to speak in full sentences but once she did so, she acquired a remarkable fluency and mastery of language. Soon she was entertaining her siblings with stories in the night nursery. Vanessa remembered one particular series that went on and on. It would begin with her calling out ‘Clementé, dear child,’ and Virginia, in character as Clementé, would respond, weaving stories around the Dilke family, their neighbours, whom they envied for their wealth but mocked because they could not pronounce their Rs. In one episode, gold treasure was discovered under the floorboards, enough to buy enormous quantities of fried eggs, with ‘plenty of frizzling’. Eventually ‘Clementé, dear child’ would fall asleep and her audience would have to wait until the following night.

Virginia had a powerful impulse to turn her experience into words. She once told Nigel Nicolson (son of her former lover Vita Sackville-West), ‘Nothing has really happened until it has been described’. And as much as possible, she described her world in countless letters and diaries. She was a prolific writer of essays, wrote biographies, and became one of the most innovative novelists of the twentieth century.

From the moment she was old enough to hold a pen, Virginia wrote virtually every day of her life, even on the day of her death. ‘I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.’


Naturally there were rivalries between the young children who were so close in age. In Vanessa’s memoir piece ‘Notes on Virginia’s Childhood’ she hinted at a deep-seated competitiveness that existed between herself and her sister. She said the situation was helped by the way they adopted separate interests early on: ‘It was a lucky arrangement, for it meant that we went our own ways and one source of jealousy at any rate was absent.’

Competition was also fuelled by favouritism on the part of their parents. Vanessa pointed out that ‘No one ever says how nice Mary is or how lovely Jane, but always Mary is nicer than Jane and Jane prettier than Mary’. While their mother clearly favoured her sons, Leslie’s outright favourite was Virginia:

Little Ginia is already an accomplished flirt. I said today that I must go down to my work. She nestled herself down on the sofa by me, squeezed her little self tightly up against me, and then gazed up with her bright eyes through her shock of hair and said, `Don’t go, papa.’ She looked full of mischief all the time. I never saw such a little rogue.

Leslie recognised something of himself in Virginia’s quick mind and as she grew older, he gave her the run of his library. He would quiz her about the merits of a work and she learned to read critically as well as voraciously.

Vanessa claimed not to have been jealous but she observed how effortlessly Virginia enchanted the grownups with her beauty and wit: ‘They laughed at her jokes but so did we all, and probably I was as much aware as anyone of her brilliance and loveliness’.

Sometimes, though, Virginia used words as weapons. She called Vanessa ‘the Saint’, ridiculing her stubborn insistence on truth and a certain literalness of mind. It exposed her ‘to the misery of sarcasm from the grown-ups as well as the nursery world’. Vanessa also recalls her sister could create

an atmosphere of tense, thundery gloom…Suddenly the sky was overcast and I in the gloom. It would last for endless ages, so it seemed to a child…

Vanessa and Thoby would retaliate by finding ways to make Virginia turn ‘purple with rage’.

In many other families Vanessa would have been recognised for the star she was, but it was academic and literary achievement that impressed here. The many hours she spent drawing pictures merely irritated her father, who thought it a waste of time. And a sense of inadequacy about being inarticulate was to shadow Vanessa all her life.

Later Virginia explored the way in which Vanessa felt herself to be apart from the family, through her portrayal of the character Katharine Hilbery in her novel Night and Day (1919). Like Vanessa, Katharine is silent and secretive about her passionate love for painting. She is also secretly in love with mathematics which, like painting, was

directly opposed to literature. She would not have cared to confess how infinitely she preferred the exactitude, the star-like impersonality, of figures to the confusion, agitation, and vagueness of the finest prose. There was something a little unseemly in thus opposing the tradition of her family; something that made her feel wrong-headed, and thus more than ever disposed to shut her desires away from view and cherish them with extraordinary fondness.


Vanessa was eight and Virginia six when the four youngest children contracted whooping cough. Weakened and thin, they were sent to convalesce in Bath and although three of them quickly recovered, Virginia never regained her rosy plumpness. Vanessa noticed a new maturity in her sister and from that point their conversations became more thoughtful and serious. One evening at bath time Virginia asked her which parent she liked best. Although shocked by the question, Vanessa answered that it was her mother. After some deliberation, Virginia gave a thorough explanation as to why she preferred her father. Vanessa realised then that while her own response had been instinctive, Virginia’s was considered and critical; these differences would mark them throughout their lives.

Their secure and ordered world was occasionally jolted by reminders of suffering and madness that seemed to preface Virginia’s own mental illness. In Kensington Gardens one day a whimpering, disabled and desperate boy leapt out at Virginia with outstretched hand. Appalled, she gave him her bag of toffees but the inadequacy of her response and the intensity of the experience always stayed with her. At home their intellectually disabled half sister Laura was prone to unpredictable and disturbing bouts of behaviour. The sisters rarely mentioned her in their memoirs but Laura’s suffering pervaded the house until she was removed to an asylum, when Vanessa was eight and Virginia five. Later, their brilliant cousin J.K. Stephen sustained brain damage following an accident, which led to bouts of apparent mania. Once he ran upstairs to the children’s nursery, drew a blade from a sword stick and plunged it into a loaf of bread. He developed an obsessive desire for Stella, a situation that disturbed all members of the family, as he began to stalk her. Vanessa and Virginia were instructed to tell him, when he came to the house, that Stella was away.

Social Lives

In his capacity as editor of the The Cornhill Magazine (1860-1975) and The Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie was a central figure of English literary life. He was friends with many great poets and writers, and the children were familiar with Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry James, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Henry James had a habit of leaning back on his chair as he talked. Once, he tipped over backwards but continued to finish what he was saying while lying on his back,  much to the children’s delight.

By a form of osmosis Vanessa and Virginia learned from Julia polite and mannered tea table conversation, an essential accomplishment in Victorian middle-class society. Their mother was a masterful at this, and could bring ease to any social situation. The sisters soon realised they were expected to keep themselves and their talk small; laugh at old men’s jokes, smooth, placate, congratulate and commiserate. Towards the end of her life Virginia observed it was ‘that “manner” which we both still use.’ And although it was a skill that helped them to engage disparate groups of people with ease, she felt it had also been an impediment. ‘When I reread my old Common Reader articles I detect it there. I lay the blame for their suavity, their politeness, their sidelong approach, to my tea-table training.’


Leslie and Julia educated their children themselves. The boys would later be sent to elementary school, then on to university, but the girls stayed at home (a situation that rankled terribly for Virginia). Julia taught them Latin, French and history and Leslie tried to cover mathematics, but he was impatient and would fly into a temper. Other times he could be gentle, telling them stories about his alpine adventures, explaining theories about the natural world and taking them to parks and museums.

A variety of teachers covered the accomplishments to equip the girls for marriage, including drawing, dancing, music and deportment. The sisters thought them mostly a bore although their singing class was valuable because they attended it with other children. In her ‘Notes on Virginia’s Childhood’, Vanessa spoke of Miss Mills, known for her tonic sol-fa system, who they discovered was intensely religious. She once asked earnestly whether they knew the meaning of Good Friday and Virginia giggled. ‘…of course we hadn’t the slightest idea, being little heathens’. (Leslie and Julia were atheists and the children received no religious instruction). But when the star pupil, with the extraordinary name of Pensa Filly, piped up that it had something to do with the Lord’s crucifixion, ‘Virginia had to be hurriedly banished, shrieking with laughter.’

While they could be scathing about the other girls, they did appreciate a standard to pit themselves against, and a brief escape from the insularity of their lives. Vanessa suffered most from a lack of confidence, but Virginia was also uncertain:

Was I clever, stupid, good looking ugly, passionate, cold – ? Owing partly to the fact I was never at a school, never competed in any way with children my own age, I have never been able to compare my gifts and defects with other people’s.

The Hyde Park Gate News

When Virginia was nine she started a newspaper with Thoby and Vanessa. As far as anyone knows, The Hyde Park Gate News appeared weekly until April 1895. Here Virginia’s voice was honed and heard for the first time. And thanks to this funny and lively collection of juvenilia, we have an intimate picture of their childhood.

Written mostly by Virginia, with brief contributions from Thoby, and edited by Vanessa, it mimicked with flair the style of the leading newspapers of their time. It featured letters, advice columns and short fiction and reported with mock seriousness on the joys and calamities of family life. Family fun in the 1890s included visits to the zoo, ice-skating on the frozen lake, pantomimes, butterfly collecting, fireworks, and Cornish teas. Virginia took possession of a parcel of oranges ‘of a luscious aspect big and fairly rotund’, some of which ‘took up their quarters in a certain humble portion of the Stephens’ bodies.’ There is talk of tables creaking under the weight of cake; reports of cats and dogs, especially the banished brown mongrel Pepper, who comes for a visit: ‘a glimpse of his beloved features will be enough to give intense pleasure to all.’

Family values shine through – snobbery and social pretension are mercilessly lampooned, in keeping with their mother’s wish that her children should be ‘rolling in happiness rather than rolling in wealth’.

The anxious infants awaited her burst of laughter. At last it came. “Ha ha ha he he he” laughed she with all the good-natured vehemence of her nature.

Julia was renowned for her matchmaking ability and the tone of her eavesdropped conversations made its way into The Hyde Park Gate News. A regular feature was the column ‘These Love Letters’, designed to ‘show young people the right way to express what is in their hearts’. In one letter, Roger Protheroe tries to tempt a woman by telling her his father has ‘promised to give me £5000 to start me with and I have numerous aunts to die at any moment for my benefit.’ But Annie Foolhard turns him down, replying that she is ‘engaged to another young fellow with twice your attracting and half your money.’

Virginia’s unflinching, sometimes merciless eye was first exercised here. A dress worn by Lady Pollock receives compliments, ‘though we cannot say the same for her looks’; Miss Parenti, the nursemaid, is ‘a lump of shapeless fat’ and Miss March Phillips ‘is a tall stout lively person with a fatal habit of talking to herself.’

As parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen were difficult to please, rigorous and demanding. Virginia, ever sensitive to praise and criticism, hungered for their approval. In ‘Notes on Virginia’s Childhood’ Vanessa describes an evening when she and her little sister planted the latest issue of the Hyde Park Gate News on the table beside their mother’s sofa. They spied through the little window in their room, which overlooked the drawing room, to gauge her reaction, Virginia trembling with nervous anticipation.

We could see my mother’s lamplit figure quietly sitting near the fire, my father on the other side with his lamp, both reading. Then she noticed the paper, picked it up, and began to read. “Rather clever, I think,” said my mother, putting the paper down without apparent excitement.

Despite Julia’s cool detachment, Virginia had been thrilled: ‘she had had approval and been called clever, and our eavesdropping was rewarded.’

Fear of criticism was to plague Virginia all her life and her agonies of uncertainty about her writing, particularly following publication, often triggered depression.

Themes emerge in the paper that Virginia was to grapple with later as an adult. The lack of privacy in the nursery amongst the competitive siblings, and the meticulous recording of the school prizes and exam results of their brothers, fuelled Virginia’s nascent feminist outlook.


The happiness of the Stephen children was derived in large part from the security of their parents’ happy marriage. But Julia was stretched thin by the demands of running a household of eight children, and ministering to the needs of many others throughout a lifetime of altruistic work. On 4 March 1895 the Hyde Park Gate News reported, ‘For the last fortnight Mrs Leslie Stephen has been in bed with the influenza’. On the 18th she was said to be improving. The newspaper then stopped forever, three weeks before Julia’s death.

Virginia wrote that ‘the crowded merry world which spun so gaily in the centre of my childhood’ disappeared forever. She recorded only the sketchiest details about her mother’s death: watching from the window of the nursery as Dr Seaton walked away, hands clasped behind his back, a flock of pigeons swooping about in the early blue spring morning – with a deep feeling that ‘everything had come to an end’. Vanessa remained silent; there were no words for this.

In those first dark weeks their lives became public property. There was a queue of wailing female relatives on their doorstep, especially those on their mother’s side; mawkish, pious and demanding, ready to wallow in the tragedy. Worse, the inconsolable Leslie soaked up their sympathy like a sponge. Virginia said they felt coerced to reciprocate, ‘to act parts that we did not feel; to fumble for words that we did not know.’

Julia was only forty-nine when she died and although the cause was said to be rheumatic fever, Leslie and the children suspected she had actually died from exhaustion. Leslie was guilt-ridden, recognising his failure to help her shoulder the responsibilities of this busy household. ‘No doubt her unsparing labours for us and for others had produced that weakness of the heart,’ he later confessed. Leslie had behaved much like Julia’s ninth child – and the most demanding of them all. Virginia said, ‘His health was her fetish; she died of overwork easily at forty nine: he found it very difficult to die of cancer at seventy-two.’

The children were shut into rooms of ‘Oriental gloom’ heavy with the scent of flowers, with a raving, histrionic father who spared them nothing. Little space was left for their own grief. Vanessa was then fifteen, Thoby fourteen, Virginia thirteen and Adrian eleven. Lacking any form of support, Virginia compared her vulnerability and implicitly that of her sister to the state of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis: with ‘its sticky tremulous legs and antennae…[it] waits beside the broken shell for a moment; damp, its wings still creased, its eyes dazzled; incapable of flight’. They were stalled precariously between childhood and adulthood, stripped of their mother’s guidance and protection.

In death Julia was turned into a paragon of virtue by her husband and many relatives. Her vivid, upright quickness, her organised and compassionate energy and occasional flashes of cruelty (especially against Stella) were swept under the carpet. Instead of memories of a real woman, the children were left with a cardboard cutout of a saint. It deprived them of their ability to feel her loss. It also set an unattainable standard for her daughters. More than thirty years later, Virginia wrote in The Waves:

Let us commit any blasphemy of laughter and criticism rather than exude this lily-sweet glue.

Stella Steps In

Shortly after her mother’s death, Virginia experienced her first serious bout of mental illness. In ‘A Sketch of the Past’ she wrote:

There was the moment of the puddle in the path; when for no reason I could discover, everything suddenly became unreal; I was suspended; I could not step across the puddle; I tried to touch something. The whole world became unreal.

In a paragraph she later crossed out in her diary, she listed her symptoms: racing pulse and intense feelings of terror, excitement and anger. This led to two years of acute ‘physical distress’. It was her half-sister Stella, gentle and stoic, who came to her rescue. While Leslie kept to his study, the boys returned to school and Vanessa went to art school, Stella looked after Virginia, making sure she kept her doctors’ appointments and took exercise. Of this calm young woman, Virginia later wrote:

She assumed control of the household; and it was no light job. My mother…was leaving a great enterprise unfinished; to fall upon Stella. The Vn. family was a great business. Four children…and Laura…and father – not poverty but a strain. Not enough money for luxury. Always on the watch – cutting down. The emotional strain…My father was one of the most dependent of men…Emotionally he fell then upon Stella. It was the way of the time. He couldn’t do anything for himself. She had to buy underclothes; bills; every practical question. The weight – we were to feel it – was heavy.

Stella was willing to sacrifice a great deal for her stepfather and she ran the household for nearly two years. But she had loved John (‘Jack’) Hills for a long time and after much persuasion from him and the Stephen children, and despite a great many scenes thrown by Leslie, she finally consented to marry him. The couple spent their honeymoon in Florence but Stella was ill when they returned. Her condition was mismanaged for three months and after a final desperate bout of surgery, she died at the age of twenty-eight, of suspected peritonitis.

Second Death

Both Vanessa and Virginia agreed that Stella’s untimely death dealt them a greater blow even than the loss of their mother. On Stella they had pinned their hopes for renewal and reinvention. In an unpublished fragment Virginia wrote:

Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mothers death meant, I had been for 2 years unconsciously absorbing it…the negative results – the hiding of society [?] of family, the glooms & morbid silences, the shut bedroom, the giving up of St Ives, the black clothes – all this had tuned my mind & made it apprehensive: made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness & the promise it held for us and for her – when even more unbelievably, catastrophically – I remember saying to myself this impossible thing has happened; – as if it were unnatural, against the law, horrible, as a treachery, a betrayal,- the fact of death. The blow, the second blow of death, struck on me: tremulous, creased, sitting with my wings still stuck together in the broken crysalis.

Stella had provided shelter for Virginia, in which she felt safe enough to resume the inner world of books and ideas which would become her lifelong solace and refuge. Her death blew a hole in that sense of security: it was ‘cracked and gashed’. Looking back on her fifteen-year-old self, Virginia wrote that the house had turned into a ‘cage’ and she was ‘a nervous, gibbering little monkey’, all too aware of her father: a ‘pacing, dangerous, morose lion’ who was ‘sulky and angry and injured’.

After these deaths Virginia said, ‘We never spoke of them. I can remember how awkwardly Thoby avoided saying “Stella” when a ship called Stella was wrecked.’ She believed their father’s excessive anguish and the stifling of their own grief caused them ‘unpardonable mischief’.

Vanessa’s response was to shut the door firmly against public displays of grief, jealousy, even passion (although her emotions were intensely felt beneath the surface). In her dealings with intimate friends and family she was often unable to express affection freely or respond adequately to emotional demands, exhibiting what her sister described as an ‘inviolable reticence’. This made her appear aloof at times, and chilly. Answering Virginia’s complaint about her distant behaviour in adulthood, Vanessa wrote,

You say I’m not ordinarily polite to you and that I’m self-absorbed but it is only a kind of involuntary self-defence because I know I can’t give you what you want that makes it impossible to give what I want to give…very often I am acutely conscious of your misery and simply can’t help you.

New Routines

On the surface, the sister’s lives resumed their familiar shapes although they now spent their days apart. Virginia had taken the old night nursery as her bedroom. It was freshly painted white with bright blue curtains, and here she stood at a high desk to read, write and learn Greek. Someone had once remarked that standing up to do her painting must have been tiring for Vanessa. Not to be outdone, Virginia had begun to stand while writing, and did so for a significant part of her life.

Her reading was ambitious. She developed a taste for Carlyle and chose a mixture of prose, essays and history from her father’s library: Macaulay, Lamb, Gibbon, Pepys, Montaigne. She made her way through the canon: Dante, Shakespeare, Euripides, Austen, most of the novels of the nineteenth century, often reading four books at once. And she fell in love with Elizabethan writer Richard Hakluyt’s tales of travel and adventure.

It was the Elizabethan prose writers I loved first & most wildly, stirred by Hakluyt, which father lugged home for me – I think of it with some sentiment – father tramping over the Library with his little girl sitting at HPG in mind.

At this time too, Virginia developed friendships with a variety of older women, with whom she practiced being playful, flirtatious and demonstrative. The most significant of these was Violet Dickinson, a well-connected gentlewoman who had been a former friend of Stella’s. Violet encouraged Virginia to write, satisfied her need to be mothered, and acted as a sounding board for her ideas (there is an account her later close friendship and rivalry with Katherine Mansfield here).

Leslie’s disinterest in Vanessa’s art had not blinded him to her needs. Initially he employed a leading reformer in art education, Ebenezer Cooke to give her lessons. Cooke’s approach was helpful, innovative and practical. He introduced Vanessa to Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing which grounded her in a method based on intense observation.

When she turned seventeen, she began attending Arthur Cope’s School of Art, in preparation for the Academy Schools (which she entered in 1900). Three mornings a week Vanessa would bicycle down Queen’s Gate, dodging bakers’ and butchers’ carts, occasionally losing her hat as she made her way to the school in South Kensington. Once in the shabby studio, she would settle next to Victor Marshall, an old friend of her father’s, and would want for no other company as she began to tackle problems of colour, line and shape. It was a world she was increasingly learning to master. She worked at her art doggedly, concentrating with ‘passive ferocity’ as Virginia described it. The studio was a refuge and in its quiet, ordered, non-emotional atmosphere she could recover her strength.

Vanessa and Virginia drew together ever more tightly in a ‘private nucleus’ within a highly emotional household. Virginia described it as ‘a little sensitive centre of acute life; of instantaneous sympathy, in the great echoing shell of Hyde Park Gate.’ They took long walks and spoke of their ‘autumn plans’ involving new lives full of painting, writing, and friends. They imagined a life where everything would be new and different, although the way was not yet clear. The main obstacle was their father. He remained brooding and sullen, insistent on their company and their sympathy.

The House Becomes a Cage

Female duties were thrust upon them. Afternoons were spent in the drawing room where they poured tea, passed the cakes, and fulfilled social obligations with Leslie, who was newly knighted, and now required an ear-trumpet. Company was a strain; as Vanessa explained, Leslie’s ‘sighs and groans needed accounting for, or so one felt, and even when accounted for did not lead to cheerfulness.’ When there was no company they would eat their meals in silence, often over a book.

Virginia watched with trepidation as her beloved sister took up from where Stella had left off,

like some young Queen, all weighted down with the pomp of her ceremonial robes, perplexed and mournful, uncertain of her way.

She now bore the brunt of her father’s demands and on Wednesdays she was required to present the housekeeping accounts. The cook, Sophie, had forceful ideas about the quality of food expected for people of their standing, while Leslie had a quite irrational but deeply entrenched fear of the poorhouse. The housekeeping usually exceeded Leslie’s limit which ‘almost always led to groans, sighs and then explosions of rage.’ According to Virginia, her sister withstood the full force of her father’s storm, unrelenting, ‘like a stone.’ Vanessa later said she had been terrified and unable to think of anything to say. Such scenes were to characterise Vanessa’s main form of communication with her father until shortly before his death.

Generously, she later described it as inevitable that they should have had so little in common, for ‘life apart from human beings was almost completely visual for me, while he never entered a gallery, had never in his life been tempted to go down from the Alps into Italy’, to make a descent from heady, academic heights to more sensuous realms.

Virginia felt torn. She understood her father, loved and respected him. The return of a book to his library would spark a long discussion with him about literature from which she would emerge ‘feeling soothed, stimulated, full of love for this unworldly, very distinguished, lonely man.’ Yet she witnessed his scenes with Vanessa in silent fury. Right up to the end of her life she was still trying to understand these ‘violent displays of rages’. ‘There was something blind, animal, savage in them’, she wrote. They stayed with her all her life: ‘I would find my lips moving, I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him.’ In these instances, her father stood for everything she hated about ‘the terrible threat to one’s liberty’ in family relationships.

Another ‘terrible threat’ to the girls’ liberty took the form of their Duckworth half brothers, who held a position of authority over their much younger siblings. Virginia called them the ‘demi-gods and tyrants’. She recalled a seventeen-year old Gerald fondling her private parts when she was about six. It created such powerful feelings that just before her death, she confessed in a letter to a friend that the memory still made her ‘shiver with shame’. With Leslie engulfed in his private world of suffering, the pompous, emotional and overbearing second Duckworth brother, George, now became the girls’ unofficial guardian. He had always stood a little too close to his half sisters. Stella had been their last protection against his interference. After her death, he increasingly imposed himself on them, fondling, bullying and goading them in ways that made them feel a mix of disgust, shame and pity.

In a male-dominated household Virginia and Vanessa increasingly saw themselves as revolutionaries, guarding their work from all eyes but their own, and fiercely claiming any moments of privacy or freedom they could find. For the remaining seven years at Hyde Park Gate, they ‘did battle for that which was always being snatched from us, or distorted.’

Release finally came with Leslie’s death from cancer. He had lived well beyond his prognosis and Virginia believed his tenacious hold on life occurred because finally his children were old enough to be his intellectual equals and he had become genuinely interested in them.

His death brought relief to Vanessa from a position that had become almost unbearable. For seven years she had tailored her life to his needs, increasingly stalling her own career, enabling Leslie to work productively right up until his death.

You see, it was impossible not to be glad. He had been ill for so long, we had for so long been expecting it, and of course it was in many ways convenient.

Virginia experienced painful, contradictory feelings about Leslie’s death, but later she was able to write how this ‘most oppressive stone on our vitality’ was lifted. And twenty years later she was clear that, had her father lingered into very old age, ‘His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books – inconceivable.’

Virginia described 22 Hyde Park Gate, standing towards the end of a narrow cul de sac, as a house that ‘led nowhere’. Inside it had been tangled and matted with emotion. Vanessa added it was ‘full of Victorian sentiment’. Both women would later reject all that it stood for: the Victorian values of patriarchy and imperialism; the tea table manners, heavy clutter and ‘dressing’ for dinner. Vanessa, the painter, was repulsed by its outdated Victorian décor. Virginia, the writer, was sensitive to the effect of space on her emotional wellbeing; in this house she had felt trapped. Although Vanessa appeared able to leave it behind, the vivid memories of her childhood home stayed close to Virginia, and became a rich source of material for her novels.

Virginia, Thoby and Adrian, spurred by Vanessa’s steely determination, finally left Hyde Park Gate in 1904.


In Virginia’s fiction, 22 Hyde Park Gate featured numerous times as a forbidding Victorian home that smothers the independence and creative aspirations of its female inhabitants. In Night and Day (1919) Katharine Hilbery’s London home is burdened by the many possessions of her esteemed father, and she ‘very nearly lost consciousness that she was a separate being, with a future of her own.’ The Pargiter girls in The Years (1937) cannot leave the house without a chaperone, and ‘thick sculptured folds of claret-coloured plush’ block out the light from the windows so that ‘the world outside seemed thickly and entirely cut off’.

In the very first short story that Virginia wrote, ‘Phyllis and Rosamond’ (1906), two sisters from a wealthy home in South Kensington

seem indigenous to the drawing-room, as though, born in silk evening robes, they had never trod a rougher earth than the Turkey carpet…’ 

All that their education has prepared them for is marriage. But after visiting friends in ‘distant and unfashionable Bloomsbury’, it dawns on Phyllis that she might be capable of reinvention in another place, another house:

The stucco fronts, the irreproachable rows of Belgravia and South Kensington seemed to Phyllis the type of her lot; of a life trained to grow in an ugly pattern to match the staid ugliness of its fellows. But if one lived here in Bloomsbury, she began to theorise, waving with her hand as her cab passed through the great tranquil squares, beneath the pale green of umbrageous trees, one might grow up as one liked. There was room, and freedom, and in the roar and splendour of the Strand she read the live realities of the world from which her stucco and her pillars protected her so completely.

Autobiographical Writing

The sisters each wrote two papers about their early memories which they presented to the Bloomsbury-related Memoir Club at various points from the 1920s. Then shortly before her death, Virginia began to draft ‘Sketch of the Past’, nearly 100 pages of her recollections of childhood written as journal entries in 1939/40. The autobiographical writings by Vanessa Bell are featured in the volume Sketches in Pen and Ink, and Virginia’s autobiographical writings appear in the collection Moments of Being.


Philip Glass – Music from The Hours, Arranged for piano solo by Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly.

Philip Glass composed eleven piano pieces for the soundtrack of the film The Hours, which was loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, and aspects of her own life. Glass describes himself as a composer of music with ‘repetitive structures’. These ‘structures’ become mesmeric, immersing the listener in a wave of melodic patterns. As they build and repeat, they seem to establish a sense of claustrophobia that felt right for this story.


The pioneering portrait photographer Julia Cameron was Vanessa’s and Virginia’s great aunt on their mother’s side. Born in Calcutta in 1815, she was the third of seven famous Pattle sisters, known for their beauty, charm and wit (although Julia was the plain one). They had many conquests in India and made quite an impression. The governor general once said that he divided human kind into three: ‘men, women, and Pattles.’ The sisters all married well, and one by one returned to England.

When Julia Cameron was forty-eight she was given a camera in 1863, sparking an extraordinary burst of creativity over the next eleven years. She arrived at a soft-focus style of portraiture that became her signature.

My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.

Although the critics of her time panned this as a lack of technique, Julia determined it was high art. Certainly her portraits are vivid and capture a sense of timelessness. And as her great, great nephew Quentin Bell points out, she had an understanding of chiaroscuro that was ‘strong and miraculous’.

Julia insisted that all the beautiful women and distinguished men in her circle sit for the lengthy photographic poses that were necessary. She pressed Robert Browning, Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell (the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) and the polymath John Herschel to sit. All were draped and garlanded variously as gods, angels, saints, medieval damsels or Arthurian heroes.

One family story has it that she posed Tennyson (her next door neighbour) and Mr Gladstone under a tree and told them not to move until she found a piece of equipment she needed. She then became distracted by something else, leaving the two great men standing motionless and forgotten in the rain.

Some of these photographs, especially her series illustrating Tennyson’s Arthurian narrative poem series, Idylls of the King, have about them a flavour of the Victorian dressing up box. The Modernists of Vanessa and Virginia’s time thought them faintly absurd and the art critic Roger Fry said of Julia’s ‘Rosebud Garden of Girls

There is something touching and heroic about the naive confidence of these people. They are so unconscious of the abyss of ridicule which they skirt, so determined, so conscientious, so bravely provincial.

These comments appeared in a book which Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf published with Hogarth Press about her great aunt’s work: Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women.

Virginia wrote a second introduction, retaining Roger Fry’s slightly mocking tone, describing how, after holding a place of societal power and prestige in India, Julia Cameron brought her imperious and snobbish ways back with her to England:

She had little respect, at any rate, for the conventions of Putney. She called her butler peremptorily “Man”. Dressed in robes of flowing red velvet, she walked with her friends, stirring a cup of tea as she walked, half-way to the railway station in hot summer weather. There was no eccentricity that she would not have dared on their behalf, no sacrifice that she would not have made to procure a few more minutes of their society. Sir Henry and Lady Taylor suffered the extreme fury of her affection. Indian shawls, turquoise bracelets, inlaid portfolios, ivory elephants, ‘etc’, showered on their heads.

Early in Julia Cameron’s career her sister, Maria Jackson, brought along her three beautiful daughters to be photographed. One of them, Julia Jackson (named after her aunt) was later to become Vanessa and Virginia’s mother. Young Julia’s beauty had already made a favourable impression on the Pre-Raphaelites; it was said that she could have married either Woolner or Holman Hunt, and Burne-Jones used her as a model.

Between 1864 to 1875 Julia Cameron took a series of portraits of this elusive, sweet natured woman, revealing the same hooded eyes and well defined cheekbones as her daughter Virginia (see the Cameron portrait of her above).

Nine years after their mother’s death, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian Stephen finally left 22 Hyde Park Gate for their new home at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. Here, the sisters made their longings concrete. But it was mostly Vanessa with her unerring artistic eye, who marked their independence by creating a thoroughly modern interior design. Out went so much of the old Victorian baggage. Yet they kept their parent’s old-fashioned portraits of Darwin, Browning and Tennyson. These were complemented by five of the best photographic portraits of their mother by their great aunt Julia Cameron, which they hung in the hall. Historian Christopher Reed suggests it was a message to visitors that they were entering ‘a place where a masculine tradition of intellectual debate and scholarship might be balanced by a maternal legacy of female artistic accomplishment and social daring.’


Kensington Gardens were originally the grounds of Kensington Palace, and opened to the public in 1841. Just a few hundred yards from 22 Hyde Park Gate, they served as an extended garden for the Stephen children (their own garden was damp, dark and overlooked). Much of it would be familiar to Vanessa and Virginia today. I stayed nearby a number of times as the train to Cornwall leaves from Paddington and I often slipped in through the Lancaster Gate entrance, heading for the Italian Gardens, a gift from Prince Albert to his Queen Victoria. The Tazza Fountain you see in the picture overlooks the Long Water, a stretch of lake on which the Stephen children ice-skated in winter. Further north, in the lead up to Kensington Palace, is the Round Pond, where the Stephen children used to sail their ‘miniature crafts’. Thoby’s favourite boat capsized here but was recovered by gardeners who were removing weed from the bottom of the pond. In the Hyde Park Gate News, Virginia wrote a bulletin, casting herself as the jubilant owner of the rescued boat: Oh astounding event!!! “The Fairy” has been restored to terra firma to the joy of her youthful owneress. On the Kensington side of the gardens is the Albert Memorial built by a grief-stricken queen to her great love Prince Albert, and just behind it, the Royal Albert Hall, also dedicated to Albert’s memory. Vanessa and Virginia would have known of their significance and I wonder whether these memorials served as grim reminders of the way their father had enshrined Julia Stephen in his Mausoleum Book; the very thought of her mother, trapped there, would make Vanessa shudder. The Stephen children would have entered the gardens by the Queen’s Gate entrance and marched either straight up the Broad Walk or turned right for the Flower Walk, inventing their stories for this place about Harry Hoe as they went. On summer afternoons, Vanessa and Virginia used to lie on the grass under the trees, gorging on three-pennyworth of Fry’s chocolate while reading their favourite weekly Tit Bits. Hyde Park Gate is confusing, being two parallel streets that run perpendicular to the southern border of the gardens. I wandered along the first one I came to, which is prettier and leafier, leading to a small garden enclosed by a roundabout. The second street, where the Stephen family lived, is more nondescript but affluent. It now houses a number of embassies and consulates.  Other notable people have lived in this street. At number nine lived Robert Baden Powell, ‘Chief Scout of the World’ according to his blue plaque. The sculptor and painter Jacob Epstein lived at number eighteen; Winston Churchill lived and also died at number twenty-eight, and number twenty-four was the family home of Nigella Lawson. Then there is number twenty-two. Tall, freshly painted white, it is quite ordinary looking except for the three blue plaques that bear the names of Leslie, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen; the home that for a while became a cage.


Read the novels and short stories of Virginia Woolf on Project Gutenberg Australia Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain The International Virginia Woolf Society A documentary about Virginia Woolf’s early life Vanessa Bell’s work at Tate Britain Vanessa Bell’s work at the Courtauld An article about the Stephen sisters by Rhian Sasseen for Art UK and paintings of both women by Vanessa Bell and others Blogging Woolf Virginia Woolf Blog The Julia Cameron Trust Some of Julia Cameron’s portraits of Julia Stephen, can be seen here Details about Kensington Gardens on the Royal Parks website    


Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf, Hogarth Press, 1972 Bell, Quentin. Elders and Betters, John Murray, 1995 Bell, Vanessa. Sketches in Pen and Ink, Pimlico, 1998 Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Harcourt, 2005 Cameron, Julia Margaret. Victorian Photographs Of Famous Men & Fair Women, Hogarth Press, 1926 Dunn, Jane. A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Jonathan Cape, 1990 Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf, Vintage, 1987 Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf, Viking, 2000 Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1983 Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writings, Pimlico, 2002 Woolf, Virginia, Bell, Vanessa, with Stephen, Thoby. Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper, Ed. Gill Lowe, Hesperus Press Limited, 2006

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  1. Barbara Cail AO on

    Absolutely loved this! The wonderful story, supported by the equally wonderful photos in support, totally delivers a very enriching experience
    enabling me to be there too. Thank you so much for this excellent learning and education service for me. I’m sure many like me will go on valuing it.

  2. Jo Wing on

    So glad you enjoyed this Barbara. It’s as much a learning experience for me too. I had no idea the sisters had emerged from such a troubled and difficult youth.