Blog #150: Virginia Woolf and the Crimean War

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Physically and mentally I’m dashing madly off in all directions. Physically, because Margo and I leave for Pullman, Washington, and the Leonard and Virginia Woolf Library tomorrow morning. Mentally, because instead of tunneling Proust or Tolstoy, today I will be hastily pointing out traces of the Crimean War in Virginia’s work.

Thoughts of Tennyson and Tolstoy are responsible for this exploration. With Tennyson the Crimean War is immediately obvious in To the Lighthouse. So obvious, in fact, that “The Charge of the Light Brigade” acts as a kind of purloined letter, hiding the Crimean War by putting it in plain sight. Tennyson’s poem is so famous that my mind engaged with Tennyson’s language rather than with the war itself. Even when Virginia made me privy to Lily’s thoughts, and I read “mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava,” Balaclava remained a romantic abstraction rather than a historical reality. As a reader, my position relative to Balaclava was not much different than Mr. Ramsay’s. I may have gone on to think of what “Someone had blundered” meant to the novel, but I didn’t connect this refrain to the fact of the Crimean War.

It took Tolstoy to get me thinking about the presence of the Crimean War in the novel. Tolstoy’s connection to the Crimean War is much less obvious, as Virginia references Anna Karenina rather than Sevastopol Sketches. Once again indirection and polyvalence, or overdetermination (such an ugly, clumsy critical word), are at work. Virginia was deeply familiar with Tolstoy’s life and work, and in thinking of Tolstoy she would have thought of his Crimean War experiences and of Sevastopol Sketches and passages such as: “On the earth, torn up by a recent explosion, were lying, here and there, broken beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French, heavy cast-iron cannon overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats, which seemed to have been shaken by supreme convulsions . . .” A reader, writer and thinker like Virginia could not think of Tolstoy without remembering such scenes and without thinking about the Crimean War.

Thoughts such as the preceding led me to look for references to the Crimean War in all of Virginia’s work, and very quickly I found the following:


Mrs. Page, Mrs. Cranch, and Mrs. Garfit could see Mrs. Flanders in the orchard because the orchard was a piece of Dods Hill enclosed; and Dods Hill dominated the village. No words can exaggerate the importance of Dods Hill. It was the earth; the world against the sky; the horizon of how many glances can best be computed by those who have lived all their lives in the same village, only leaving it once to fight in the Crimea, like old George Garfit, leaning over his garden gate smoking his pipe. The progress of the sun was measured by it; the tint of the day laid against it to be judged.

Jacobs Room (1922)


The moan of doves in immemorial elms. The murmuring of innumerable bees. Forgive my weakness. It is years since I encountered the letter s in such profusion. Hallam eradicates them from the Times with a penknife every morning. Even so, the Siege of Sevastopol was almost the death of me. If I had not been engaged in writing “Maud” at the time, I doubt that I could have survived.

Freshwater (1923)


The elder is close on eighty; but if one asked her what her life has meant to her, she would say that she remembered the streets lit for the battle of Balaclava, or had heard the guns fire in Hyde Park for the birth of King Edward the Seventh. And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.

A Room of One’s Own (1929)


Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own. However, thanks to the toils of those obscure women in the past, of whom I wish we knew more, thanks, curiously enough to two wars, the Crimean which let Florence Nightingale out of her drawing-room, and the European War which opened the doors to the average woman some sixty years later, these evils are in the way to be bettered.

A Room of One’s Own (1929)


“The library’s always the nicest room in the house,” she quoted, and ran her eyes along the books. “The mirror of the soul” books were. The Faerie Queene and Kinglake’s Crimea; Keats and the Kreutzer Sonata. There they were, reflecting. What? What remedy was there for her at her age–the age of the century, thirty-nine–in books? Book-shy she was, like the rest of her generation; and gun-shy too. Yet as a person with a raging tooth runs her eye in a chemist shop over green bottles with gilt scrolls on them lest one of them may contain a cure, she considered: Keats and Shelley; Yeats and Donne. Or perhaps not a poem; a life. The life of Garibaldi. The life of Lord Palmerston. Or perhaps not a person’s life; a county’s. The Antiquities of Durham; The Proceedings of the Archæological Society of Nottingham. Or not a life at all, but science–Eddington, Darwin, or Jeans.

None of them stopped her toothache. For her generation the newspaper was a book; and, as her father-in-law had dropped the Times, she took it and read: “A horse with a green tail . . .” which was fantastic. Next, “The guard at Whitehall . . .” which was romantic and then, building word upon word she read: “The troopers told her the horse had a green tail; but she found it was just an ordinary horse. And they dragged her up to the barrack room where she was thrown upon a bed. Then one of the troopers removed part of her clothing, and she screamed and hit him about the face. . . .”

Between the Acts (1941)

Sometimes riding madly off in all directions is a useful activity. In preparing for my trip to Pullman, I looked at the WSU short-title catalogue for the Leonard and Virginia Woolf library, and listed in the catalogue I found:

Kinglake, Alexander William. Eothen. New ed. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851. George Duckworth—signer. Herbert Duckworth—signer.
_____. Eothen. New ed. London: Murray, 1859. Laura Makepeace Stephen—presentee. The Author—inscriber.
_____. Eothen. New ed. London: Harrison, 1864. Herbert Duckworth—signer.
_____. The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of its Progress Down to the Death of Lord Raglan. Edinburgh; London: Blackwood, 1863-87. 8 vols. Vols. 1-5 only. LS—signer. Review copy.

Scarcely pausing to register surprise that the author of Eothen was also the author of Crimea, I then rode off in several other directions. In my riding I learned a lot about the Crimea and Kinglake and the response to Kinglake’s book. In my riding, too, I eventually came to Leslie Stephen’s The “Times” on the American War: A Historical Study, and the following passage:

In discussing the causes of the Crimean war, Mr. Kinglake gives a prominent place to the agency of the Times. He does not decide whether the Times was the master or the slave of the British people, whether it prompted their decisions, or merely divined them by a happy instinct. The coincidence of sentiment between the Times and common sentiment is explicable on either hypothesis.

The “Times” on the American War: A Historical Study (1865)

What a wild and exhilarating ride. As I recently wrote to a friend, “Thinking about Tolstoy got me thinking about the Crimean War, and I am now convinced that Virginia wanted her readers to link World War 1 to the Crimean War. Among much else, “Someone had blundered” is meant to summon up the war behind the poem. The reference to Anna Karenina brings not just War and Peace (the Tolstoy novel referenced in the draft of To the Lighthouse), but also Sevastopol Sketches. Again and again in her writing Virginia references the Crimean War. For instance, Virginia links World War 1 and the Crimean War in A Room of One’s Own, and in Freshwater she uses the Siege of Sevastopol to make fun of Tennyson. Part of the war’s importance to her lies, I think, in its connection to her father. Leslie Stephen had a set of the Crimean War by Kinglake (the Kinglake of Eothen fame), and Virginia almost certainly browsed these volumes as a child. She inherited them when Leslie died. What made the Kinglake volumes particularly valuable to her is that Leslie Stephen referred to Kinglake’s ideas in the first sentences of The “Times” on the American War, his brash and boisterous attack on the Times. Thus Leslie’s pamphlet forged a direct link between The Crimean War and Kinglake and the insidious influence of the Times. The link is detectable in Between the Acts when Isa notices Kinglake’s Crimea in the library just before she starts glancing at the Times account of the rape. The link is much less noticeable in Lighthouse, yet I am sure that the Crimean War helped hold Tennyson, Tolstoy and the Times in suspension as she wrote. The Times is as responsible for the war as is the behaviour of the Ramsays.”

The ride is far from over. I want to learn much more about trench warfare, Fenton’s photography, William Russell’s reporting, and the deaths of William Stowe and James Foley. First, though, I want to make the Pullman pilgrimage and look for further reflections of Virginia’s soul. The “Times” on the American War: A Historical Study is only one of the many books I want to look at.

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