In Search of Virginia Woolf

Inspired by “Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith” at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in February, and embarrassed by not getting to the end of any of Woolf’s books or even the wonderful biography by Hermione Lee, I persuaded a friend to come with me to Rodmell for a day out.


Rodmell was the get-away-cottage that Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased in 1919 and to which they moved on a permanent basis during the war. It is where Virginia wrote, and reworked, many of her famous novels. It is also, of course, where she died.

Having seen Patti Smith’s photographs I was keen to see the bed Virginia slept in and her walking stick. Delightfully, I got to see both. In those days, of course, people sleeping alone would have slept in a single bed but it was still a surprise looking at the room with 21st century eyes. The bookcases are all original though  most of the original books owned by Virginia were sold long before the house became a museum/shrine. All that remains are the collected works of Shakespeare which Virginia had covered herself shortly before her death. 

Virginias bed

I think that it is still possible to get a sense of the woman and writer even after so many decades and changes to the house. The handpainted fireplace, for instance, gives a wonderful sense of the artistic life which surrounded VW. Her sister, Vanessa, was an important artist of the early 20th century.

The bedroom has terrific views from two large windows of the garden, the church and the countryside. It must have been inspiring to work there. It was a tranquil place and the Woolf’s spent a great deal of time in arranging it. It was here in the garden that they entertained their many visitors.


Within view of the house is the writing hut where VW repaired to do her daily stint of writing. VW had a view of the garden but not so much of it as to provide a great distraction from her work. 


The house itself is a collection of cottages knocked together to form one large building. The house, when bought by the Woolf’s, consisted of an entrance, a sitting room, a dining room and a tiny kitchen downstairs. By all accounts it was a mean kitchen and the Woolf’s had a newer extension built to accommodate some modern accessories. The upstairs had one large and two small bedrooms. The toilet was outside. I assume that after VM’s death, Leonard made some improvements. 


The house and remaining possessions provide a connection with the two writers but do not necessarily give much of an insight into how they lived and wrote. My friend thought she could feel something of VW’s spirit in the writing hut, though. I understand more of how VW wrote thanks a video I saw a few nights ago with Elaine Showalter, who talked about VW’s style of writing and how she put her novels together. The villagers I met who had known VW mentioned how she used to walk around mouthing lines from her books as she tried them out. I can imagine it was easier to get away with that in the countryside that in central London. 

I am not sure that I understand Virginia Woolf’s writing any better than I did (despite having written and read endless commentaries on her novels during my MA) but I have been inspired to pick up Hermione Lee’s biography again and find VW’s works on my Kindle. What can a writer learn from visiting this remote location? Possibly that what a woman writer needs is not just a room of her own but also sustaining relationships to help her realise her potentials. 

I’ll Know My Song Well Before I Start Singing

For the last few months I have lived with Patti Smith. I have carried her non-fiction book “M Train” around with me wherever I have gone – to work, on a day trip, on a bus journey, on a trip to the pub with friends and to bed. When I have found a “reading space,” I have opened the book to look at the pictures and to read a few lines. So far I am on page 128 and will keep reading.

This morning I read the postscript to the paperback version of the book and lived with her those few moments in her favourite cafe. I feel her loss at a place which was so central to her life and work in New York. She describes sitting on her bed waiting for a TV programme called “Luther,” and realises she is a day too soon. Instead she watches a episode of “Murder She Wrote.” Like Patti I look forward to detective programmes. “Murder She Wrote” was a staple of my teenage years along with “Cagney and Lacey.” I recently saw a back episode of Sharon Gless on a BBC book programme discussing her taste in literature and the books which has formed her. I remembered Cagney and Lacey with affection and felt a loss for those earlier days of crime fiction. Sharon Gless and Tyne Daley were the precursors of the modern female crime detective and are still a role model.

With Cafe Ino closed and “The Killing” cancelled mid-series Patti writes to the show’s producer, Veena Sud. This letter leads to an exchange and an offer for Patti to take part in an episode of the show. For Patti, a great fan of detective thrillers, this is a stellar event and a fitting tribute to her status as an icon, writer, artist and television fan. She also starred in the final season of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” which I think is a wonderful tribute.

I am reminded of another great idol of mine who loves television: Fran Lebowitz. Fran also starred in “Law and Order.” I remember her performances well and glad she shared it with us.

In the New Yorker of October 6th 2016, Anwen Crawford notes that Smith’s new book M Train is a ramble through her mind, her life, her experiences, her present and her past. Smith has left the bright “young woman of “Just Kids” was at one with the city’s pulse, but in this book Smith seems out of time: she longs for subway tokens instead of a MetroCard; she observes New Year’s Eve from her stoop, not venturing farther. She wants to leave New York, and does so frequently, only to return again, from force of habit, if nothing else. There is an indelible sadness to “M Train,” borne of bereavement, ageing, and isolation.” I feel the same spirit when listening to current talks by Fran Lebowitz.

Their currently melancholy is, I feel, fitting to the age in which we live.

Rediscovering Patti Smith

I was a teenager in the 1970s. It was the era of Bruce Springsteen singing Because the Night, Patti Smith’s Horses and Easter, Joan Baez in Hanoi, Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, The Ecologist and CND. We studied Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes during the A level course. I read Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, her poetry collection Ariel  and  Patti Smith’s poetry book Babel. I was a thinker, writer, philosopher and would-be photographer. Then, I went to university where it was all about history and religion.

The music, the poetry, the novel, the photography all stayed with me and followed me across Europe. They are part of who I am. Part of how I see the world. Part of the way I think.

Last year, I read an article about Patti Smith and a review of her book M Train. I pre-ordered it on Amazon and was excited when it came. I have so far only read the first chapter waiting, I think, for the moment when she will speak to me. As I am going through a retro phase, I purchased a personal CD player an d updated my CD collection. I now have CD versions of the albums I listed to as a teenager. And more. Patti Smith still speaks to me near 40 years down the line.

For me, though, Patti Smith is as much about her Polaroid photos as about music,writing and poetry. Patti Smith is an observer, a collector of memories and an archivist. She has photographed Sylvia Plath’s grave, architecture, an empty beach or an abandoned street, an empty café, shoes, flowers, chairs and cutlery. Whenever, I see her photos I am inspired. Whenever I hear her music, I am inspired. Patti Smith is food for the soul.

This is an archived page of some of her photographs in The Guardian. This is a link to her Guardian interview. This is Patti Smith on Land Photographs. Patti Smith on Open Culture.