Blog #207: Wight Skye: Seeing Isle to Isle in To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse
has changed yet again. Nothing is simply one thing. This time, travel, not reading, has re-visioned the book. A summer visit to the Isle of Wight has, breathtakingly, blindingly, opened new tunnels and reconfigured old ones. How to convey the excitement? How to share my wonder? Beneath the Isle of Skye, beneath St. Ives blazes the Isle of Wight. The suspicions raised by reading Lawrence’s The Trespasser harden into certainty. Virginia’s Isle of Skye encompasses the Isle of Wight, as well as St. Ives. Isle to Isle: the doors in my mind quiver and shiver, swing to and fro with excitement. Nothing is simply one thing.

In the entry room of the Dimbola Museum is a photograph which starkly brings to life the circumstances of Virginia’s first visit to Freshwater. The photograph is one of a young Vanessa wearing a mourning sash. Vanessa is absorbed in reading a book, a book whose title cannot be made out. Her lips are pursed, her brow is wide, and her face seems impassive. Did Virginia take the photograph, I wonder. Though the photograph is of Vanessa, everything about it speaks to me of Virginia. The photograph is a portal into the past. “Virginia!” I cry, “Virginia!”

When Julia Stephen died in May of 1895, Leslie Stephen could not face taking the family to Talland House in St. Ives, and instead he took his children to the Isle of Wight for part of the summer. The August beaches of Freshwater were where the thirteen year old Virginia mourned and sought comfort for the loss both of her mother and St. Ives. I see her, anguished, yet numbed. I see her mourning and playing. Thirteen years old. Mother dead, St. Ives lost. Yet the beauty of the beaches, the cliffs and the downs. Explorations. Excitement. Family. I see her binding past and present, reaching towards the future.

A blinding flash. To visit Dimbola and to see Vanessa’s photograph, a photograph possibly taken by Virginia, is to glimpse how likely it is that Freshwater Bay and surroundings melded with St. Ives landscape in Virginia Woolf’s imagination. Despite substantial differences between the Tennyson inspired resort town of Freshwater and what was then the fishing village of St. Ives, the underlying geography of the two localities was and is remarkably similar. To walk from Farringdon down Bedford Lane, past the Orchard Brother’s grocery store, still owned by descendants of Anny Thackeray Ritchie’s maid, past the Church of St. Agnes, past Dimbola, and then down the hill to Freshwater Bay is to experience a Mrs. Ramsay moment where you can not help exclaiming “Oh, how beautiful!” at the great plateful of blue water before you. The downs, sprawling beyond “with the wild flowing grasses on them,” do a good imitation of “moon country, uninhabited of men” and all that is missing is the Godrevy lighthouse.

There is no record in Virginia’s diaries, letters or essays of the family’s stay on the Isle of Wight. I’ve only been able to find one written trace of that painful, long ago summer, and that trace lies in the “Reminiscence” sketch published in Moments of Being. In the sketch Virginia writes:

“That summer, after some hot months in London, we spent in Freshwater; and the heat there in the low bay, brimming as it seemed with soft vapours and luxuriant with lush plants, mixes, like smoke, with other memories of hot rooms and silence, and an atmosphere all choked with too luxuriant feelings, so that one had at times a physical need of ruthless barbarism and fresh air. Stella herself looked like the white flower of some teeming hot-house, for a change had come over her that seemed terribly symbolical. Never did anyone look so pale. And yet unexpected as it might seem, but still was most natural, the first impulse to set us free came from your grandfather; it came and went again. On a walk perhaps he would suddenly brush aside all our curiously conventional relationships, and show us for a minute an inspiriting vision of free life, bathed in an impersonal light. There were numbers of things to be learnt, books to be read, and success and happiness were to be attained there without disloyalty. Indeed it seemed possible at these moments, to continue the old life but in a more significant way, using as he told us, our sorrow to quicken the feeling that remained. But such exaltations doubtless depended for their endurance upon a closer relationship than age made possible. We were too young, and for sympathy that required less effort, he had to turn to others, whose difference of blood and temperament, made it harder for them to recognize as we did—by glimpses—his most urgent need. Beautiful was he at such moments; simple and eager as a child; and exquisitely alive to all affection; exquisitely tender. We would have helped him then if we could, given him all we had, and felt it little beside his need—but the moment passed.”

Other than the “physical need of ruthless barbarism and fresh air”, there is little here of how much the bay, the sand, the rocks and the cliffs of Freshwater and Wight would have renewed and extended the memories of St. Ives and Cornwall. There is no sense of the strong geographic similarities between the two locations; nor is there a clear glimpse Virginia and her siblings swimming, clambering over rocks, or exploring tidal pools. What there is, however, is a sympathetic vision of Leslie Stephen looking remarkably like the Mr. Ramsay portrayed near the end of To the Lighthouse, with Cam and James thinking, “Ask us anything and we will give it you.”

Beyond geography and beyond grief, Freshwater would also have had a strong impact on Virginia because of family. One of the reasons why Vanessa’s photograph hangs on the wall in Dimbola is that Dimbola was the home of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the famous Pattle sisters and Virginia’s great-aunt. Generous and impulsive, passionate and eccentric, imperious and artistic, she made Dimbola Lodge, her Freshwater residence, into the center of a salon culture through which swirled, among many others, Charles Darwin, George Frederick Watts, Ellen Terry, William Holman Hunt, Alice Lidell, Lewis Carroll, Sir Henry Taylor and George Meredith. There was also the towering figure of Alfred Lord Tennyson, next door neighbour and reluctant lodestar who drew Julia Margaret and so many other Victorians to Freshwater.

Whether or not Virginia, before visiting the Isle of Wight, had heard family stories about Julia Margaret Cameron or noticed photographs by her—very likely, given that Virginia’s mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson, was not only Julia Cameron’s niece, but also the subject of several of her photographs—Dimbola Lodge and stories about Freshwater society were to leave a deep and lasting impression on her. When, after Leslie Stephen’s death in 1904, the Stephen children moved to 46 Gordon Square, Vanessa hung five Cameron photographs of Julia Stephen on the right hand side of the entry hall, and on the other side she hung portraits of eminent Victorians, of which at least one, that of Henry Herschel, was also by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Later in life, not only did Virginia own and cherish several of Julia Margaret Cameron’s works, but her great-aunt and Freshwater repeatedly show up in several of her writings. Most obviously, they appear in Freshwater, the family play which Virginia first conceived of in 1919, extensively drafted in 1923, and then rewrote and produced in 1931. They also show up fleetingly in “Pattledom,” a brief, 1925 review of Memories and Reflections by Lady Troubridge, and at greater length in “Julia Margaret Cameron”, an introductory essay which Virginia wrote for her and Roger Fry’s collaborative publication of some of Cameron’s photographs, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women (1926). Essay, review and play brim over with exuberance and caricature, yet all of them offer admiring glimpses of Julia Margaret Cameron as an imperious force of nature, constantly troubling and enriching the life of those around her.

In Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, and Julia Prinsep Stephen(2015), Marion Dell mentions that some of Cameron’s close friends referred to her as ‘Cammy,’ sometimes spelled ‘Camme.” Dell is surely right in suggesting that “Cameron’s influence pervades To the Lighthouse. Now, as well as the Cam river and Virgil’s Saint Camilla (an association suggested by David Bradshaw in his OUP edition of To the Lighthouse) , I see Julia Margaret Cameron glint behind Cam’s name as she dashes headlong. With the Cam name, another penny drops in the associative well of my mind. Salon ripples move out from the center. Nearest the center is the St. Ives Stephen circle of family and friends, further out is the Isle of Wight circle created by Julia Margaret Cameron. The widest outpost salon circle of all is the Isle of Skye circle, containing within it the two previous and, no doubt, others yet to be noted and identified.

In the mist of the mind, the salon ripples amplify some elements. Certainly, Tennyson’s presence is amplified. While his presence in To the Lighthouse is justified by his stature as poet and by the thematic relevance of the lines quoted, his importance to Freshwater and the Cameron circle deepen the biographical richness and resonances of Virginia’s novel. The same is true of Queen Victoria. The Queen’s residence at Osborne Hall and her love of the Isle of Wight figured large in the lives of Freshwater residents. Osborne Hall itself was an salon outpost, as well as a summer refuge where the royal family could enjoy a less restrictive form of domesticity than possible at Buckingham or Windsor. Osborne Hall was also where, between 1892 and 1895, Kaiser William II, a fierce competitor in the Cowes regatta, would visit his grandmother, the Queen. Because local, the Osborne doings of the Queen and her family were of particular interest to all islanders.

The Isle of Wight also adds depth and color to the circus poster which so excites Mrs. Ramsay on the way into town. Touring circuses were an important feature of Victorian life, and Queen Victoria herself was known as a circus enthusiast and patron. While the poster with its horsemen, seals, lions and tigers would not make sense in a place as small and remote as the Isle of Skye (or, come to that, St. Ives), circuses did visit the Isle of Wight and would have been heavily advertised. Charlie Keith, famous both as clown and circus owner, is known to have performed on the Isle of Wight, possibly for the Queen, and in 1859 the circus acrobat John Amor broke his neck on the Isle of Wight while attempting a triple summersault. With its crowds and its festivities, the Cowes Regatta week in August was the optimum time for circuses to visit and to paper the Isle with their posters. While Kaiser William was trying to defeat the Britannia and boss Cowes, a grief creased Virginia may well have been struck by the glistening reds and blues of a circus poster.

Enough for now, but there will be more Wight stuff in my next blog, “A Freshwater Lighthouse: Anne Thackeray Ritchie and From an Island.”

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