The Bloomsbury group has long divided opinion. To some they are a privileged elite, unoriginal and self-absorbed. To others they are at the vanguard of modernism, decades ahead of the social, moral and artistic codes of the day. Leonard Woolf wrote that the Bloomsbury group were “A largely imaginary group of persons… with largely imaginary characteristics”. This series of talks strips back the layers of mythology surrounding the Bloomsbury group and goes back to source – to their books, essays, articles, letters and diaries. This is the Bloomsbury group in their own words.
How it works
You will be sent a link and login details on your ticket. Simply log in, settle down with your tea or coffee, and immerse yourself in literature, thoughts and ideas with our reader-in-residence Holly Dawson.
Sessions will also be available until 14th March so you can watch whenever is most convenient for you.
”What cuts the deepest channels in our lives are the different houses in which we live.” Leonard Woolf
The Bloomsbury group challenged conventional notions of what a home should be, who lived in it and how. Rejecting the high Victorian domesticity that shaped them so profoundly, they reimagined home as a space where the boundaries between art and life dissolved and traditional roles became fluid. Join us as we peer through the keyholes of various Bloomsbury Group homes – from the Stephens’ family home at Hyde Park Gate, to various homes in London squares and Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington retreat. We will explore Charleston through the eyes of Angelica Garnett, returning home in later life in her powerful memoir, and watch some rare footage of life at Tidmarsh, Carrington and Lytton’s home. What kind of places did the Bloomsbury group call home? What did ‘home’ mean and how did their ambitions for a new way of living influence that? What did everyday domestic life look like?
Angelica Garnett (far left) with Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and Lydia Lopokova having a tea party in the Charleston garden in the 1930s. Photo © The Charleston Trust.
What is the ‘Bloomsbury Look’? Charleston’s former curator Wendy Hitchmough reveals how the Bloomsbury group generated its avant-garde, self-fashioned aesthetic through art, photography and dress in her captivating new book. (more…)
It’s National Nude Day! A great opportunity to draw your attention to one of my all-time favourite paintings in Charleston’s collection — Standing Male Nude (c.1935) by Duncan Grant — and have a brief look at the trajectory that nude painting took in Grant’s oeuvre.
Premieres on 22 May at 7pm, on Charleston’s YouTube channel.
Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist Leïla Slimani is one of today’s most exciting international voices.
Her global bestselling novels include ‘Lullaby’, winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt, and ‘Adèle’, which won the 2015 La Mamounia Prize. As well as writing about human rights in her novels, Slimani is an activist and winner of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom.
Slimani is known to keep a copy of Virginia Woolf’s diaries on her bedside table. Now, she comes to Charleston for the first time to speak to Rosie Goldsmith about her novels, beliefs, and latest non-fiction book, ‘Sex and Lies’, a collection of essays giving voice to young Moroccan women translated by Sophie Lewis.
As a charity that receives no public funding, the cancellation of Charleston Festival and our current closure is financially devastating for Charleston. As you enjoy this event, please consider making a donation to Charleston’s Emergency Appeal.
Photo: Leïla Slimani © Catherine Heile
Asham, or Asheham House as it was originally called and named in Virginia Woolf’s diaries was near the village of Beddingham in Sussex. Between 1912 and 1919 while her sister Vanessa Bell was nearby at Charleston with Duncan Grant, Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf stayed at Asheham for holidays and weekends before they moved to Monks House.
Legend has it that Asheham was both haunted and haunting. According to Leonard Woolf, it seemed as if each night two people walked from room to room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering. In his autobiography he remarks:
It was Asheham and its spooky footsteps and whisperings that inspired Virginia Woolf’s short story, ‘A Haunted House’, which first appeared in her collection ‘Monday or Tuesday’ in 1921; and later in Woolf’s 1944 collection of 18 short stories which was produced by Leonard Woolf after her death, although in the foreword he states that they had discussed its production together.
The story tells the tale of a ghostly couple who glide through the rooms of their well-loved home at night. Read on (if you dare)…
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . . ” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
Chanya Button explains why Orlando is important to her and an inspiration behind the bold retelling of her new film, Vita & Virginia. To coincide with the film’s release, Charleston and the Depot in Lewes are holding a Q&A session with Chanya and Charleston’s Reader in Residence, Holly Dawson, following the film’s 17:30 screening on Friday 5 July. Tickets available here.
Before I loved Virginia Woolf, I was transported by Greek mythology. Aged 7, I precociously interrupted a tour guide during a school trip to the National Gallery, to share with my bewildered classmates, my (strong) views on the narrative behind Titian’s portrait of Bacchus and Ariadne. Unsurprisingly, the incident did not do much to improve my chances of survival on the unforgiving social battlefield of the under 10s. However, the embryonic feminist fury I felt, aged 7, at Ariadne’s powerlessness – deserted by her lover on a remote island, with her only hope of rescue offered by the grace of a nubile male god – did crystallise something for me about the explosive potential of history, and myth. In turn, this shored up my conviction that Virginia Woolf is the nimblest of assassins. Orlando both honours history, and disrupts it; as it too honours and disrupts its subject, Vita Sackville-West. Re-appropriating the terms of ancient social contracts as tools of satire, Woolf empowers artists who march behind her to use the bonds that confine them as weapons to fight back. It is Woolf herself, in that sense, who offered me the tools with which we made Vita & Virginia. Tools with which we both honoured her history, and challenged perceptions of her. In the pages of Orlando the details of history become arrows, shot from Woolf’s bow at the contemporary reader, to provoke, and to challenge injustice. Woolf simultaneously surgically re-orders a conventional approach to biography, and crystallises Vita Sackville-West’s deepest truths, without ever writing a word about her. We too, attempted to re-order an approach to the bio-pic, empowered by Woolf’s own expressionistic approach. On one of my first trips to Knole, Vita Sackville-West’s family home, I noted a photo of Vita as a child with a warm conspiratorial glow. Pictured in the gardens of a house she will never inherit, this mournful but vivid child somehow summons a glower that embodies centuries of exhausted disapproval. This is the look I remember wearing as I stared, with impotent solidarity, towards a naked, stranded Ariadne. Perhaps Virginia Woolf saw this photo too, and perhaps it planted a seed of empathy for the young Vita, whose sex alone constituted the reason she could not inherit her ancestral home. A novel in which Woolf captures the essence of a woman who beguiled and intoxicated her, whilst taking an exacting blade to the boundaries between gender and power, using humour to denounce them as arbitrary. By way of Ariadne, Vita Sackville-West and my 7 year old self – standing in the National Gallery bewildered by centuries of female disempowerment – we arrive at Orlando. In Orlando Woolf offers us a potent fuel; a fuel we burned brightly in the making of Vita & Virginia.
Orlando makes a case for Woolf as one of literature’s inaugural punks. With its time-travelling gender-fluid protagonist, Woolf’s novel boldly projects into a future where science fiction would take shape. Woolf’s Orlando and David Bowie’s androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust share more with each other than Virginia’s hero, who turns into a heroine, does with other protagonists thrust into the literary landscape of 1928. Despite its telescopic focus on the future, I believe it is no mistake that the 16th Century is where Woolf’s novel explodes into life. It is an era rabid with fascination around the rebellious poetry of myth; a language with which Woolf’s readers would have been familiar. Orlando begins with a languid, androgynous Elizabethan courtier whose simultaneous exhaustion with, and thirst for, a life outside the bounds of his own experience catapult him through time — setting him on a collision course with the contemporary reader – one in which our protagonist lands as a bold, Edwardian woman. One wonders what grammatical gymnastics Woolf could have performed if she had been here for the pro-noun revolution; would Orlando have been he, she or they? Perhaps Orlando would have revelled in performing and exploring all three? One wonders the same about Vita Sackville-West, whose relationship with Woolf signals the deep roots of her androgyny. Were Vita able to shake off the shackles of the aristocracy, would she have been empowered to take up arms against the confines of male and female, in moving between pronouns herself?
Orlando is rooted in the past, hurtling with adrenalised forward motion into the future. A future which holds the potential to free the woman who inspired it, from the confines her gender and class constructed around her. Like Orpheus who, as he led his lover Eurydice out of the underworld, kept his eyes locked forward lest he look back and lose his love forever, Woolf moves unflinchingly forward, leading Vita out of the darkness towards an imaginative plane where she can live and love in whichever way she pleases. What a contemporary audience has most to gain from Orlando is in plugging in to this powerful forward motion, and celebration of boundary defying androgyny. That’s why I am utterly convinced of its value as a work that remains vividly resonant, and relevant today. It is progressive in form, in theme, and in process. It honours the conventions it simultaneously disrupts. Virginia could have written a biography of Vita, but she didn’t. She was surrounded by biographers; her Father Leslie Stephen was the first Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf admired her close friend Lytton Strachey’s developed theory of biography across his works, including Eminent Victorians. Rather than engage with the genre on pre-established terms, she chose to eschew its focus on the facts and fragments that make up the things that happen to a person, and instead chose to try and distill Vita’s deepest truths. It is therefore Virginia the literary rebel, who shares traits with all great rebels – an eye trained on the future; the future of form as well as content. What Virginia saw in Vita was “the strength of a man, and a woman’s grace”. She saw a woman with the softness and empathy we associate with femininity, with the sexual appetites we more traditionally associate with masculinity. To use contemporary terms, Woolf’s understanding of gender fluidity and creative eye staring unblinkingly ahead, mean that as an artist I would argue she has more in common with David Bowie, than she does with Charles Dickens. Dickens wore history like a cape around his shoulders, using its detail to embroider and enrich his narratives – embedding them even further into the moment in which he lived and wrote. Woolf uses history and convention as rocket fuel to blast her up and out of the time into which she was born. She is always looking forward; in theme, in form, in process. Bowie and Woolf also seem to share an understanding of their intuitive approach to writing. Perhaps Bowie shared Woolf’s view that “once the mind gets hot it can’t stop”; saying in an interview in 2002 – of his songwriting – “it’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you ”. Woolf answers; “how extraordinarily unwilled by me but potent in its own right, by the way, Orlando was! As if it shoved everything aside to come into existence”. Indeed, Woolf also commended that To The Lighthouse was written in “a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One things burst into another”.
In writing Orlando, Woolf purged herself of an experience that threatened to overwhelm her. Vita’s relentless pursuit of Virginia, one which resolved in Virginia giving herself to Vita emotionally and sexually, came to its conclusion when Vita’s attentions fell on another – Mary Campbell. Whilst everyone around Virginia was braced for Woolf to disintegrate in response to Vita’s betrayal, Woolf performed a rescue on herself. Her profound genius arrived to rescue her, as she used her pen to exorcise the intoxicating intensities of her relationship with Vita. In the end, this allowed Virginia to understand with the greatest empathy Vita’s deepest truths, and allowed their relationship to last for the rest of Woolf’s life. Vita wrote in 1927;
“I have come to the conclusion that solitude is the last refuge of civilized people. It is much more civilized than social intercourse, really, although at first sight the reverse might appear to be the case. Social relations are just the descendants of the primitive tribal need to get together for purposes of defence; a gathering of bushmen or pygmies is the real ancestor of a Teheran Dinner Party; when the wheel comes full cycle, and your truly civilized person wants to get away back to loneliness. If all my life went smash, and I lost everybody, I should come an live in Persia, miles away from everywhere, and see nobody except the natives”.
Understanding Vita as the child who grew up alone at Knole, betrayed by the confines of her sex, allowed Virginia to empathise with Vita’s need to forever isolate herself. Perhaps it also offered an explanation for why Vita pulled away from Virginia. This was not the first time Woolf used her craft as a form of psychological digestif. In A Sketch of the Past, Woolf speaks about the process of writing To The Lighthouse, as an intuitive means of grieving for and purging herself of the spirit of her Mother; “I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest”. I would argue that the way in which Woolf engaged her craft is also representative of a revolutionary attitude towards managing mental health, one that she and her husband Leonard shared. Together they constructed a routine within which Woolf could live and work, in defiance of her emotional and psychological challenges. I think it is no co-incidence that the Hogarth Press were the first to publish Freud’s work in the English language; their understanding of mental health was detailed, and incredibly progressive in some ways. The very existence of Orlando is proof that Virginia is a survivor of profound emotional and psychological challenges. She used her genius to survive, for as long as she possibly could. She is not someone who succumbed without a fight. She was not someone who was conventionally fragile.
Woolf did all of this whilst retaining an essential unknowability herself. Two of the portraits Vanessa Bell painted of her sister were faceless, speaking to Woolf’s a deep ineffability. Stephen Finer’s 1994 portrait of David Bowie shares that quality too: a faceless figure, alive in technicolour oils, more texture than likeness. Both Woolf and Bowie seem to be pointing their successor towards capturing a deeper kind of truth, one she searches for in Orlando:
“The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast: — ‘THE TRUTH! at which Orlando woke. He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete
nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess — he was a woman”.
The facts of Virginia Woolf’s life have been forensically documented. In making Vita & Virginia, an expressionistic exploration of the story behind Orlando, I have come to feel that a shred of a diary entry, a flying fragment of a letter alone – cannot allow us access to Virginia Woolf’s essential truth. That is a deeper pursuit, and in Orlando, Virginia perhaps gives us a code for how to perceive that truth. It is in looking under the surface, and keeping our eyes trained on the future.