She looked up at the big station clock. Five to twelve…oh dear. Only five minutes to get her ticket to Lewes. What a bore, there was bound to be a queue. And, of course, a part of her didn’t really want to go. If only she had the nerve to have said “No”. But she never seemed brave enough to say what she really wanted, besides Leonard loved these weekends away. She decided not to rush, ducking into the Corner House she ordered a cup of tea; she would take a later train.
She just needed a little time on her own, time to think, time to be herself. Because she was never herself these days, never simply Virginia. Virginia Stephens? Where had that little girl gone – and of course since her marriage never would she be Stephens again. She longed sometimes simply to be a single woman, to be on her own again. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband; of course she did, but had she really have had a choice she might have dared to remain single. But how could one simply be a single woman of thirty or so, here in the Nineteen-Twenties? Simply impossible, and even more confusing and complicated, she suspected, than this strange state of being married.
And these weekends loomed over her like some swaying sword of Damocles. Oh, the nonsense of it all; the kow-towing to everyone else, the pretence that they were doing something remarkable, something different – when more and more she felt they were simply treading water. Never really achieving anything; simply living on past glories. And the group, this almost famous group, which she had always thought of as a writer’s group was being taken over by dabblers, by dilettantes, by adventurers and even, she feared, womanisers. Oh, if only it had stayed simple – just a few friends and fellow writers meeting at home to discuss books and the love of writing itself.
And her secret hope, trying to find a new form of writing, an open-hearted honest post-war way of putting into words what truly mattered, what one really felt. But now they had painters and an economist and even a sculptor joining them. No longer simply a writing group, more some sort of semi-debauched, slightly notorious, society; because they were already being talked about; put down by the straight-laced; and revered by those who considered themselves as somehow ‘modern’. The newspapers were even calling them a ‘set’ – whatever that is supposed to mean. Something not very nice at all, she suspects.
And all she wanted to do, all she had ever wanted to do, was to write; to express herself, to describe things. And not just pretty flowers or landscapes, but people, and especially women. She longed to tell her story, all her stories, the ones that had crowded her mind since she could ever remember. She wanted to let people know that you could talk about feelings, love and passion and ecstasy and sadness and desolation, the whole range of emotions; fears, loves and hates, without being ridiculed, without being censored by male publishers.
“Now Virginia, this is all very well, and of course it goes without saying -brilliantly written – but really, you must think of the consequences. Is this quite what the public wants to read? And as I say to all my writers ‘Will it sell, my dear, will it sell?’”.
The sad-eyed and weary looking nippy brought the tea, a hideous yellowy brown with just enough hint of scum to put you off, in an awful thick white cup, with the tiniest lump of sugar precariously perched on the saucer like the meagre comfort it represented. Really, did no-one know how to make a decent cup of tea these days. And service? You might as well forget that, ever since the war the whole concept of service had disappeared. Surliness, sheer rudery everywhere. It wasn’t that one wanted servitude – just a smile would do.
Oh well. I suspect her life is pretty hideous too. At least mine is comfortable I suppose, but little real comfort that gives me. I am as trapped in my petticoats as she in her pinny; I wonder if she reflects on her pointless life as I do. Oh, why am I never really happy? Always far too self-conscious to let myself go and simply enjoy the moment. Happiness? That most elusive of states; it is almost as if the realisation of happiness is also its destroyer. As soon as one feels that one might be actually ‘happy’ – the spell is broken and one’s mind is swamped by those bad thoughts again. Oh, my bad-dog thoughts, these horrendous harbingers constantly circling my poor tired mind – if only I could dispel them for a few moments. Just to sit in the sun somewhere with no thoughts at all – how wonderful that might be.
But I never seem to have enough time on my own. There is always so much to see to; the house, the wretched servants, the bills to be paid. I was never cut out to be a wife. All I ever wanted was to be left alone, to have somewhere I could retreat to, a room really – that’s all I have ever wanted. Somewhere, maybe with a window – a view, a garden to drift into when the words won’t come, a desk, a chair; a vase with a few hand-picked daisies, a handful of books. And paper. Of course, heaps, reams of fresh white virgin paper, and my trusty Parker pen. Just leave me, bolt the door and lock me here for days if you must – but just let me write.
I need to get it all down before it is lost, every passing thought, each delicate whimsical recollection, it is all valuable. It is all me, all this ‘nonsense whirling around in my head’ – as Leonard smilingly dismisses it – I must find a new way of writing, of capturing what it is to be alive, to be a woman, to be thirty, to have never had and never wanted a child. But to be an equal to men, a reflection, a counter-balance, not better or worse or superior or subservient – but equal.
Vanessa says that’s all poppycock; but then Vanessa is a painter. Can anyone tell the sex of the artist from the finished work, are the brush strokes more delicate, the colours more vivid? But writing – oh those publishers simply label you as a woman’s writer; only fit for other women to read. But I want everyone to read. Women to know that someone understands us, and has managed to encapsulate how we are – and men to marvel, to wonder at the world we inhabit.
But truly, the group is too large, too many distractions, too much drinking, too much flirting, too little real attempt to create something new. Maybe I shall simply not go this time, stay home in Bloomsbury; telegram to say I was feeling poorly. But not too poorly, I don’t want Leonard rushing back and making sure I see a Doctor. It isn’t a Doctor I need; it is aloneness, it is solitude I crave.
Goodness is that the time. Must rush, or I will be late. And the gorgeous Vita will be there this weekend. I haven’t seen the Sackville-Wests for ages. My, Vita really is such a beauty. So vivacious, so outre, so scrumptious. Why – if I were a man – I could barely resist her. The way she half-smiles at you, you could just eat her. Mustn’t think like that though, far too dangerous. The group is outrageous enough without that sort of thing.
You can never see the nippy when you want her. I’ll just leave tuppence here next to my cup and dash off. I wonder what we will talk about this time? Will Lytton be there, with his florid curlicue style, or Forster – just back from India. I do hope so. Despite what I sometimes think I do love them all really. My scatty sister Vanessa and her husband Clive – always predictable Clive. Dear mad Lytton of course, Keynes the sly old dog and Roger, of course lovely Roger, and my dear long-suffering Leonard. And the weather is so warm maybe we can spend a few hours on the beach this time.
My, what a difficult and complicated old World. All these wonderful friends, the special writing group – and yet still I crave a little space, a room even to just sit and write in.
Quick, I must run for the train. and I really cannot face another horrid tea or the sad face of that tired little nippy again. I must remember her – pop her into a story somewhere. That downcast little face. Ah here she is.
“Don’t I know you?” the nippy asks, clearing away the crockery “Ain’t I seen your face in the papers?”
“You might have. I am Virginia, Virginia Woolf. I am a writer. Maybe you have read one of my novels.”
“Naah. Sorry. Never ‘eard of yer. Must have muddled you up with someone famous”