Virginia Woolf at Home by Hilary Macaskill

Looking back over the Ramblings I realise that my recent posts have featured a *lot* of Russian books… Which is no bad thing, as I do love my Russian literature. However, I figured it was time for variety and bearing in mind the number of review books I have lurking (ahem) I decided it was time to spend a little time with another of my great literary loves – Virginia Woolf.

I’ve written about Woolf on the Ramblings before, and she’s one of the authors who’s been a constant in my reading life since my early 20s. At the time I immersed myself in Bloomsburiana, reading everything I could find by and about the various arty people attached to the label; and this generated a huge love of their writings, their artworks, their lives and fates. I’ve returned to Woolf in particular many times over the years, and so you might think that there wouldn’t be a lot left for me to discover about her. However, a beautiful new book which was sent to me by the lovely Pimpernel Press takes a look at Virginia from a perhaps surprising perspective – that of the houses she lived in during her life – and it certainly made me view Woolf in a new and interesting light.

It should first be stated that “Virginia Woolf at Home” is a very pretty book indeed! It’s a hardback edition, what I would call perhaps small coffee table size, and it’s stuffed to the gills with the most beautiful illustrations; of Woolf and her family and associates, her houses then and now, book jackets, paintings – well, it’s just lovely. There are seven chapters devoted to the main houses or areas in which Woolf lived, and each explores Woolf’s life whilst living there – from her thoughts on the places, their use in her work, even their eventual fate. By seeing Woolf placed firmly in situ like this, I found she really came to life for me; there are extracts from her fiction and non-fiction writings, memories from those who knew her and context – the latter so important, particularly when considering things like the potential scandal caused by a single woman moving into a flat in a block only populated by male tenants. Yes, times have changed, but it’s fascinating to see Woolf moving through those changes.

Macaskill really has done her research, and reading her wonderfully constructed narrative of Woolf’s life alongside the gorgeous illustrations was such a treat. Obviously, that narrative is not always completely linear, as there were often overlaps in time; the Woolfs would own a particular London house as well as a country house and the changeover between houses was not always at the same time. Macaskill provides a helpful timeline in the back with the country and London homes set next to each other which makes everything clear. It was intriguing to see quite how much Woolf’s houses and flats had seeped into her writing, and this was a particularly interesting aspect.

In fact, so many of the elements Macaskill teased out were fascinating; for example, I either never knew (or had completely forgotten!) that Woolf loved house hunting so much. I was also unaware that the Stephen house in Hyde Park Gate is the only house in London with *three* blue plaques: for Virgina, Vanessa and their father Leslie. All of the major events of Woolf’s life feature, and the picture of the Ouse at the end of the book was of course heartbreaking. There is a lovely final chapter  called “The Legacy” which covers just that; and I was particularly interested (and in some cases saddened) to find out what had happened to the various houses. I’m glad that the Woolfs’ last home, “Monk’s House”, still survives (I follow them on Instagram!) and one day I must visit. “…at Home” comes with a foreword by Cecil Woolf, Leonard’s nephew, and it’s sobering to think, as he states, that he’s “the last person alive who actually knew Virginia.” She steps so vividly from the pages of this book that it’s hard to believe that it’s approaching 80 years since she took her final walk.

I can’t really recommend “Virginia Woolf at Home” highly enough for its excellent combination of the visual and the written. There were a couple of places where I felt the text was very slightly repeating itself, but that’s a minor quibble. I would, too, have liked more notes on sources; I recognised many of the quotes and references, but someone less immersed in Woolf and her world might want a little more information. However, that’s by the by; if you want a look into the life of Virginia Woolf, both the women and the writer, this is a great place to start. It’s informative, evocative, readable and very lovely to look at. When I tweeted about its arrival, Simon at Stuck in a Book mentioned a book about Woolf and her gardens; if it’s anything like as good as this, I may have to search it out!

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!