Blog #55: A Tendentious Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and Marie Carmichael Stopes

I’ve been talking to the younger generation all afternoon. They are like crude hard green apples: no halo, mildew, or blight. Seduced at 15, life has no holes or corners for them. I admire, but deplore. Such an old maid, they make me feel. ‘And how do you manage not- not- not to have children?’ I ask. ‘Oh, we read Mary Stopes of course!’ Figure to yourself my dear Molly—before taking their virginity, the young men of our time produce marked copies of Stopes!

January19, 1923, Letter to Molly MacCarthy (L3, 6)

All that you will have to explore, I said to Mary Carmichael, holding your torch firm in your hand. Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the everchanging and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo-marble.

A Room Of One’s Own (1929)

My most tendentious lighthouse is the one connecting to Marie Carmichael Stopes. Marie purchased the Portland lighthouse in 1923, and Virginia would almost certainly have heard of the purchase then. Not only was Marie’s sensational defamation case against Dr. Sutherland making her front page news that year, but when Marie bought the lighthouse she was often visited there by literary lights such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Thomas Hardy. In 1897 Hardy had written the lighthouse cottage into The Well-Beloved (1892), and the lighthouse was important to him. Online photographs record three visits he paid to Marie and the lighthouse in 1923. With her interest in lighthouses, her insatiable curiosity and her deep appetite for gossip, Virginia probably would have noted the purchase of a lighthouse by a writer, scientist and woman as prominent (notorious would not be too strong a word) as Marie was at the time.

Mr. Carmichael’s name in To the Lighthouse led me to unearth or to invent the Stopes lighthouse connection. Did Virginia associate Mary Stopes with the Carmichael name in 1927? Quite possibly. Though Marie married Reginald Gates in 1911, and was remarried to Humphrey Roe in 1917, she never seems to have used the name of either husband. Marie’s maiden name and her mother’s maiden name were very important to Marie throughout her life, and she partly defined herself through those names. The fact that she published under her full maiden name might well have caught Virginia’s attention. Marie’s first book, A Journal from Japan (1910), was published as a Marie C. Stopes; her second, a textbook, Botany or the Modern Study of Plants (1912), was published as Marie Stopes; Man, Other Poems, and a Preface (1914) and Conquest; or a Piece of Jade; A New Play (1917) were again published as Marie C. Stopes; and then from Married Love (1918) on through to Love’s Creation (1928), she published as Marie Carmichael Stopes.

There is also evidence that in her private life, Marie, when expedient, sometimes referred to herself as Marie Carmichael or Mrs. Carmichael. For instance, in 1938 she befriended Lord Alfred Douglas by hiding her Stopes reputation under the Carmichael surname. Whether she had heard of Marie Stopes referred to as Marie Carmichael or not, in 1929 Virginia wrote Marie into A Room of Ones Own, thinly disguised as Mary Carmichael, the supposed author of a book called Life’s Adventure. Marie had published her first and only novel, Love’s Creation (1928), under the Marie Carmichael name, and shortly after publication had taken a full page advertisement in the Morning Post, identifying Marie Carmichael as Marie Stopes. When she came to write a Room of Ones Own, Virginia presumably knew Marie Carmichael and Marie Stopes to be one and the same person. [1]

To connect Virginia’s lighthouse with Marie Carmichael Stopes and the Portland lighthouse is to deepen thoughts about the lighthouse as a symbol of social change. Marie Carmichael Stopes, the paleobotanist turned birth control activist, had a powerful impact on the relations between the sexes, and on the structure of marriage. Married Love and her birth control handbook Wise Parenthood (1918) were sensational best sellers, and had a profound influence on changing public attitudes about sexuality, sex education, and family planning. Virginia’s letter to Molly MacCarthy gives some evidence of how profound the change was. Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, along with their two children, can be seen as shaped by this social change. Marie Carmichael Stopes’s lighthouse is one which adds facets of science, education and social engineering to Virginia’s intermittently flashing beacon of culture and civilization.

1) In her splendid Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (1910), Christina Alt analyzes the ways in which Virginia altered the reality of Marie’s book to suite her own artistic ends. Sadly, there is no record of Marie Stopes ever reading A Room of Own’s Own.


Next week, I’ll be blogging “A Romantic Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and Sir Walter Scott.”

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