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Cecil Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, London

When we posted the news that Cecil Woolf, nephew of Leonard and Virginia, was celebrating his 90th birthday on Feb. 20, it traveled far and wide.

Cecil, the oldest living relative of the Woolfs, received birthday greetings from around the world. And because he doesn’t have his own website or use social media, he asked Blogging Woolf to share this message of gratitude.

Cecil Woolf sends warmest thanks to all the very kind Woolfean well-wishers who sent him birthday greetings last month. They quite truly made my day. Thank you all very much indeed.

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Happy birthday to Cecil Woolf, nephew of Leonard and Virginia Woolf and the dearest of friends, who is 90 today — and still runs Cecil Woolf Publishers, a small London publishing house in the tradition of the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.

Cecil Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, London, where Virginia lived from 1905-1907

Cecil Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, London, where Virginia lived from 1905-1907.

As the oldest living relative of Virginia and Leonard, Cecil attends annual Woolf conferences as often as he can, where he displays his most recent volumes in the Bloomsbury Heritage series. He is often featured as a speaker at those events. And the reminiscences about his famous aunt and uncle and the time he spent with them are treasured by conference-goers.

At the last Woolf conference, Cecil gave me a personal tour of Bloomsbury. At the Woolf conference in New York City in 2009, he was interviewed by The Rumpus.

Cecil is also often called upon to assist at ceremonies honoring his Uncle Leonard. In 2014, he planted a Gingko biloba tree in Tavistock Square garden to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of his uncle Leonard in Colombo, Ceylon. In 2014, he spoke at the unveiling of a Blue Plaque commemorating his uncle’s 1912 marriage proposal to Virginia at Frome Station.

I only wish I could be in London to celebrate this milestone birthday with Cecil and his wife, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, and the rest of their family. Cecil tells me the official family celebration will take place  Saturday, Feb. 25.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Cecil Woolf on stage at the 2016 Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf at Leeds Trinity University.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Cecil Woolf on stage at the 2016 Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf at Leeds Trinity University.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Cecil Woolf with their display of Bloomsbury Heritage monographs at the 2016 Woolf conference

Scholar and author Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Cecil Woolf with their display of Bloomsbury Heritage monographs at the 2016 Woolf conference.

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I first met Cecil Woolf in 2007. I was attending my first Virginia Woolf conference, the seventeenth annual conference held at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

I, of course, was in awe. He, of course, was friendly, gracious, and encouraging. If I hadn’t known it already, I would not have imagined he was someone “important.” He was just so genuine and down to earth.

Since then, we have become friends, corresponding by snail mail and email and meeting at Woolf conferences. He sends me books. I send him cards. He gives me chocolates. I give him manuscripts.

For a long time, I have imagined coming to London and walking around Virginia’s favorite city with her nephew, the son of her husband Leonard’s youngest brother. Today my imagined day of “street haunting” became reality. Cecil and I spent seven hours exploring Bloomsbury together, with a stop for lunch and another for tea as we walked nearly six miles, according to my helpful but intrusive phone app.

As you can imagine, the conversation with this witty, insightful, and well-read man never flagged — and neither did his energy on this fine June day in London.

Here are some photos from the day. I only wish I could share the conversation as easily.

Cecil and I on a bench in Tavistock Square garden. Virginia and Leonard lived at 52 Tavistock Square from 1924-1939.

Cecil Woolf and I share a bench in Tavistock Square garden. Virginia and Leonard lived at 52 Tavistock Square from 1924-1939. Cecil remembers them sharing a bottle of wine while sitting at a table in the garden.

Cecil Woolf with the bust of Virginia Woolf located in Tavistock Square garden, dedicated in 2004.

Cecil Woolf with the bust of Virginia Woolf located in Tavistock Square garden, dedicated in 2004.

Cecil Woolf planted this Gingko biloba tree in Tavistock Square garden on Dec. 16, 2004, to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of his uncle Leonard in Colombo, Ceylon

Cecil Woolf planted this Gingko biloba tree in Tavistock Square garden on Dec. 16, 2004, to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of his uncle Leonard in Colombo, Ceylon.

Cecil Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, where Virginia lived from 1905-1907.

Cecil Woolf at 46 Gordon Square, where Virginia lived from 1905-1907.

No walk around London would be complete without a stop at a bookstore, so we visited Persephone Books.

No walk around London with Cecil Woolf would be complete without a stop at a bookstore, so we visited Persephone Books, 59 Lamb Conduit Street. The shop carries books from Cecil Woolf Publishers.

We were guided along the way by "Virginia Woolf Life and London: Bloomsbury and Beyond," written by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Cecil's wife of many years.

We were guided along the way by “Virginia Woolf Life and London: Bloomsbury and Beyond,” the classic Woolf guidebook written by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Cecil’s wife of many years.

Speaking of books, Cecil and Jean publish several new volumes in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series each year, introducing them at the annual Woolf conference.

Speaking of books, Cecil and Jean publish several new volumes in their Bloomsbury Heritage Series each year, introducing them at the annual Woolf conference. Here is part of this year’s display.

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Bloomsbury Heritage SeriesEach year at the Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, Cecil Woolf Publishers of London introduces several new monographs in their Bloomsbury Heritage Series and distributes a new catalogue of their publications.

The series of monographs is published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Cecil Woolf, under the general editorship of Cecil’s wife, the acclaimed biographerJean Moorcroft Wilson. Following in the tradition of the Hogarth Essays, these booklets range in length from eight to 80 pages and embrace the ‘Life, Works and Times of members of the Bloomsbury Group.’

Here are the six new titles that will debut at the 25th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf.

  1. Natural Connections: Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield by Bonnie Kime Scott
  2. `Eternally in yr Debt’: the Personal and Professional Relationship Between Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Robins by Hilary Newman
  3. Saxon Sydney-Turner: The Ghost of Bloomsbury by Todd Avery
  4. Virginia Woolf as Memoirist: ‘I am Made and Remade Continually’ by Alice Lowe
  5. Mistress of the Brush and Madonna of Bloomsbury, the Art of Vanessa Bell: a Biographical Sketch and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Writings on Vanessa Bell by Suellen Cox

    Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson

    Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson

  6. Septimus Smith, Modernist and War Poet: A Closer Reading by Vara S. Neverow

You can also download the Cecil Woolf Publishers: 2015 Bloomsbury Heritage Catalogue and Order Form and view the complete list of the monographs available in the series.

Cecil is the featured speaker at the conference’s Saturday evening  banquet, where he will share stories of his experiences with Virginia and Leonard.

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Joyce Muirhead of the Woolf Plaque Supporters has provided Blogging Woolf with the text of Cecil Woolf’s speech delivered on Frome Railway Station at 2 o’clock on Saturday 22nd, which is posted below. It was made at the unveiling of the blue plaque to memorialize Leonard Woolf’s 11 January 1912 journey to London where he proposed to Virginia Stephen. Blogging Woolf readers helped fund the plaque. 

Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson at Frome Station.

Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson at Frome Station

How do you relate a saga that lasted about seven years, full of fascinating detail, in ten minutes ? Well, I will try.

When Leonard Woolf met Virginia Stephen one summer afternoon in 1903,  we don’t know if it was love at first sight, but we do know from Leonard’s autobiography written half a century later, that her beauty, in a white dress and parasol, ‘took [his] breath away’.

Virginia Woolf – to give her her married name – has become a household name, not only in this country and America, but worldwide, so she needs no introduction from me. Leonard was my uncle – that is to say, one of my father’s older brothers. He was an extraordinary man: author and journalist, political thinker and campaigner, feminist, co-founder of a distinguished publishing house and has been pointed out both as a pivotal member and outsider of the Bloomsbury group. As husband of one of the great writers of the twentieth century, he has been somewhat eclipsed, but I think one can say, that without Leonard, the name Virginia Woolf would quite probably be unknown today.

I broke off with Leonard’s brief encounter with Virginia in 1903. For the next six and a half years he lost sight of her while he worked as a Colonial administrator in that far-flung outpost of the British Empire, Ceylon. During that time he kept in close touch with his friend and fellow-undergraduate at Cambridge, Lytton Strachey. In one of his letters to Leonard Lytton announces that he has proposed marriage to Virginia – and been accepted. Lytton, as we all know was gay, so it must have been a relief to all three of them, especially Leonard, that the engagement lasted only 24 hours, thus leaving the field open to himself. Leonard wrote at once to his friend, (I quote) ‘The most wonderful [thing] of all would have been to marry Virginia. She is I imagine supreme [‘supreme’ is a world that occurs frequently in their correspondence]. Do you think she would have me? Wire me, if she accepts. I’ll take the next boat home.’ He asked Lytton to ‘hand on’ his proposal of marriage via her sister Vanessa. Whether either Lytton or Vanessa passed it on we do not know.

Beresford portrait of Virginia Woolf

Beresford portrait of Virginia Woolf

Two years were to pass before Leonard was due for home leave. When he returned, in June 1911. he lost no time in seeking out Miss Stephen. At this time she is described as rather ‘fierce in her manner to most men’. She was a notably beautiful young woman, as we know from Beresford’s iconic photographic portrait, and it is not surprising that she had about half a dozen suitors. But Leonard was not ‘most men’ and the years in Ceylon, ruling an area almost as large as Wales, had not only radically changed his thinking on Colonialism but gained him a great deal  of self-confidence, which together with his steely determination was to stand him in good stead in his courtship of Virginia Stephen.

Leonard’s sister, Bella Sidney Woolf, understood her younger brother well. She wrote to him, ‘You need a very special girl and if you don’t find her you’d better steer clear of matrimony . . . .  If you marry a weak character you’ll squash her. You must marry someone who can hold her own with you and yet be good tempered’.

Sadly, there is no time this afternoon for details. We must fast forward to the time when, at last, Leonard boldly decided the time had come to propose marriage to Virginia. There are a number of versions of Leonard’s proposals, depending on which biography you read, but the one we are here to celebrate today took place on 11 January 1912 when Leonard was staying with his friend the Rector of the Church of St Mary Magdalene at Great Elm. Let me quote what he writes in his autobiography: ‘The change from the incessant whirl of London to the quiet somnolence of a Somerset rectory was the passing straight from a tornado into a calm, or from a saturnalia into a monastery. At last I had time to think. It took me 48 hours to come to a decision and on Wednesday I wired to Virginia asking whether I could see her next day. Next day I went up to London and asked her to marry me. She said she did not know and must have time – indefinite time – to see more of me before she could make up her mind . . .’ (Beginning Again, pp. 52-3)

When Leonard got back to Great Elm Rectory after his visit, before going to bed he wrote to Virginia: ‘I have not got any very clear recollection of what I really said to you this afternoon but I am sure you knew why I came – I don’t mean merely that I was in love but that that together with uncertainty drives me to do these things. Perhaps I was wrong, for before this week I always intended not to tell you unless I felt sure that you were in love & would marry me. I thought then that you liked me but that was all. I never realised how much I loved you until we talked about my going back to Ceylon. After that I could think about nothing but you. I got into a state of hopeless uncertainty, whether you loved me or could ever love me or even like me. God, I hope I shall never spend such a time again as I spent here until I telegraphed. I wrote to you once saying I would speak to you next Monday but then I felt I should be mad if I waited until then to see you. So I wired. I knew you would tell me exactly what you felt. You were exactly what I knew you are & if I hadn’t been in love before I would now. It isn’t, really it isn’t, merely because you are so beautiful – though of course that is a large reason & so it should be – that I love you: it is your mind & your character – I have never known anyone like you in that – won’t you believe that?

‘And now I will do absolutely whatever you want. I don’t think you want me to go away, but if you did, I would at once. If not, I don’t see why we cannot go on the same as before – I think I can – and then if you do find that you could love me you would tell me.

‘I hardly know whether I am saying what I mean or feel. I am extraordinarily tired. A dense mist covered the whole of Somerset & the train was late & I had to crawl my way from the station for 3 miles to the house.’

He ends by writing: ‘Don’t you think that the entrance of Walter almost proves the existence of a deity?’

This last sentence refers to Walter Lamb, another suitor, having arrived while Leonard was with Virginia, which helps to explain the confusion which Leonard alludes to in the opening of his letter.

I know our time is short, but I cannot resist quoting two passages from a letter Virginia was to write to Leonard on May Day 1912: ‘It seems to me that I am giving you a great deal of pain – some in the most casual way – and therefore I ought to be as plain with you as I can, because half of the time I suspect, you’re in a fog which I don’t see at all. Of course I can’t explain what I feel – these are some of the things that strike me. The obvious advantages of marriage stand in my way. I say to myself, Anyhow, you’ll be quite happy with him; and he will give you companionship, children, and a busy life – then I say By God, I will not look upon marriage as a profession. The only people who know of it, all think it suitable; and that makes me scrutinise my own motives all the more. Then, of course, I feel angry sometimes at the strength of your desire. Possibly, your being a Jew comes in also at this point. You seem so foreign. And then I am fearfully unstable. I pass from hot to cold in an instant, without any reason; except that I believe sheer physical effort and exhaustion influence me. All I can say is that in spite of these feelings which go chasing each other all day long when I am with you, there is some feeling which is permanent and growing.’

This is a long letter and towards the end she writes: ‘If you can still go on, as before, letting me find my own way, as that is what would please me best; and then we must both take the risks. But you have made me very happy too. We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!’

It is a letter which sends mixed messages. A lesser man than Leonard would I think have been deterred. But Leonard was ready to let Virginia ‘find [her] own way’ and go on as before.. It must have been a golden moment for him when later in May she agreed to marry him. They were wedded on Saturday, 10 August 1912.

As for the marriage, as most of you will know, it was a successful one, despite Virginia’s recurring mental breakdowns. Leonard, as a husband, has been variously depicted as either a long-suffering saint or a harsh, overbearing tyrant. I think Virginia herself should have the last words on the subject. After twenty years of marriage she wrote, ‘If it were not for L[eonard] how many times I should be thinking of death’. (Hermione Lee, p. 319) And again, a few hours before she decided to end her life in 1941, she wrote: ‘I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. . . . No one could have been so good as you have been’. (Hermione Lee pp. 759-60)

And to close, I would like to pay a very warm tribute to the Woolf Plaque Supporters for all the hard work and loving care that has gone into this permanent celebration of an historical  link. I must also thank Mr Nicholas Reid, the Manager of Frome Railway Station (as well as most of the south-west), without whose support and commitment this project could not have been brought to fruition. I would also like to mention the image of the intertwined elm trees on the plaque that you’ll see in a moment, which have a double significance: firstly they symbolise the village from which Leonard set out on his romantic mission and secondly they remind us of the two great elm trees that stood at the end of the Woolfs’ garden at their Sussex country retreat, one of which Virginia named Leonard, the other Virginia. Their ashes were scattered at the foot of their respective tree.

It gives me great pleasure to unveil  this tablet.

Leonard Woolf bust

Bust of Leonard Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House, Sussex

V Woolf bust Monk's House

Bust of Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House, Sussex

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With the exception of Virginia and Leonard Woolf themselves, Caroline Zoob and her husband Jonathan are thevw garden only two people who have had access to the garden at Monk’s House year in and year out. But we can all get a glimpse of the year-round beauty of that special place through Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House

As Zoob puts it in her Introduction, the couple “opened the curtains each day to see the garden spread out below, still shaped according to Leonard’s inspiration” during their decade-long tenancy of Monk’s House, from 2000-2011.

And in his Foreward to the volume, Cecil Woolf, Leonard’s nephew, offers recollections that go back even farther. He writes about his visits, beginning in 1936, to “that charming house and garden” where he pushed open “the creaking wooden gate” to what he remembers as a “little Eden.” The book, he writes, “brings back memories of long-ago visits before and after the war.”

Story of a home and garden’s evolution

Zoob’s 192-page book is divided into seven chapters that tell the story of the home and the garden’s evolution since 1919, when the Woolfs discovered the home in Rodmell, Sussex and were immediately enamored of the garden. The hefty book gives us a tour of that garden and fills in the background as well. And at the end of each chapter, a different garden “room” is described in detail.

Featured throughout are full-color photographs by Caroline Arber, who was a frequent visitor to Monk’s House during the Zoob’s tenure at the home. The photos include wide views of garden elements such as The Flower Walk — the borders running from the lawn steps to the Orchard — and crisp close-ups of individual flowers, such as Leonard’s beloved roses. They show Monk’s House and its garden transformed by the seasons — with the bursting bulbs of spring, the vibrantly colorful blooms of summer and the snow-capped garden sculptures of winter.

Old alongside the new

Archival photos of the Woolfs and their friends at Monk’s House are juxtaposed alongside photos of Monk’s House in the present day. An old photo that I had never before seen pictures Virginia standing outside her first writing lodge, which was converted from a toolshed. Zoob found the photo at Sissinghurst, and although a cropped version was printed in Volume 3 of Woolf’s Letters, the untrimmed new version includes the loft ladder.

Leonard's desk, as pictured on Pages 122-123.

Leonard’s desk, as pictured on Pages 122-123.

Interior close-ups of such things as both Virginia’s and Leonard’s writing desks are a special treat. Others show intimate views of details not available to visitors to the house. One includes an oak step leading toward the kitchen that is visibly work with use. Another is a 1970 photo showing the kitchen before the National Trust remodeled it for tenants.

Charming garden layouts in textiles

Another charming element of the book are the garden layouts. At first glance, they all look like watercolor sketches — and some of them are — but upon closer inspection it is clear others are textile art — a combination of embroidery and appliqué with inserted text.

Treasure available Oct. 14

The Italian Garden, picture in fabric art at left and in a photograph at right.

The Italian Garden, pictured in fabric art at left and in a photograph at right.

The book, an indispensable treasure for any Woolf fan, Anglophile, or gardener, will be available in hardback from from Jacqui Small Publishing Oct. 14.

Zoob, an embroiderer and textile artist, is the author of The Hand-Stitched Home and Childhood Treasures.

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Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Cecil Woolf are featured in an article about World War I poet Edward Thomas posted today on the Islington Tribune website.

Wilson, who is writing a biography of Thomas, spoke about him at an event at the Imperial War Museum on the eve of Remembrance Day. She is the author of biographies of World War I poets Isaac Rosenberg (2005) and Siegfried Sassoon (2009).

Churchill biographer Martin Wilson also spoke at the event, describing the conditions on the Western Front during the Great War.

Wilson serves as editor for many monographs in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series and the War Poets Series published by her husband, Cecil Woolf of Cecil Woolf Publishers, which is based in London.

She also wrote the text that every Woolfian consults when planning a trip to England in the hopes of following in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. It’s titled Virginia Woolf, Life and London: A Biography of Place.

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