Blog #215: the Curious, Concealed Case of the Hindhead Proposal

 The clues are: 
Conan Doyle               
Minta Doyle               
John Tyndall               
Lord Raleigh               
Paul Rayley               
Stella Duckworth                
Jack Hills 

Ponder and follow them for yourself, then read the following account of how my Watsonian fumblings eventually cracked the case. 

Once again the game’s afoot.  Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell has handed me an important clue connecting Virginia to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and thereby has strengthened my wild surmise  (Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf ) that Minta Doyle might owe  her surname to Sir Arthur.   

In Snapshots Maggie includes a photograph of Thoby Stephen and Conan Doyle. The photograph is dated 1896, and it was taken when the Stephen family were holidaying at Hindhead the year after Julia’s death.  Labelled “Kodaking Dr. Conan Doyle,” the photograph shows Thoby, a black mourning armband clearly visible, photographing Conan Doyle from behind.  It is a playful photograph of a photographer (Thoby) caught in the act of stalking and photographing a keen amateur photographer (Doyle) unawares.  Though the photograph is in Vanessa’s album, Maggie Humm thinks the photograph was taken by Stella.  Stella or Vanessa, the photograph is proof that the Stephen children met Doyle and that he made an impression on them.   

To find such a strong piece of evidence connecting Conan Doyle and Virginia was most exciting, so exciting, in fact, that at first I failed to see another major clue in the photograph.  I was blind to the Hindhead location and it’s import.  The significance of this location eluded me until a couple of months later when, in a reference to Vanessa Curtis’ The Hidden Houses of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, I discovered that in Hindhead the Stephen family had been staying at the house of John Tyndall as guests of Tyndall’s widow. 

With the Tyndall name a light went on!  What a discovery!  I almost swallowed an imaginary pipe in my excitement, and had I been wearing a deerstalker cap I would have tossed it high in the air.  Tyndall, Hindhead and Doyle…of course!  Minta’s surname now made geographical sense, as did, with a slight mental leap, Paul Rayley’s.  Tyndall, after all, was more than a close acquaintance of Leslie Stephen, a fellow alpinist with whom he had had a rivalry of sorts and an occasionally prickly relationship.  No, far more than that, Tyndall was a major scientist and educator who, among much else, was among the first to discover and explain the workings of the greenhouse effect.   

The Tyndall name and scientific connection provides another plausible reason for Paul Rayley’s surname.  For Virginia, the name had associations with Tyndall, as well as with Lord Rayleigh (Blog #137).  In 1869 Tyndall was the first to suggest that light scattering off nanoparticles gave the sky its blue colour, and two years later Lord Rayleigh published papers which helped to prove and confirm Tyndall’s conjecture. The work of the two men in this area overlapped to such an extent that two terms still in use today, Tyndall scattering and Rayleigh scattering, are near synonymous and sometimes cause confusion.  Elementary, my dear Andre.  Sherlock would have had no difficulty in establishing a Tyndall, Rayleigh Rayley connection.  

To see a link between Paul and Minta’s surnames and two important historical figures associated with the Stephen family stay at Hindhead in 1986 is to essentially solve the case.  Behind Paul and Minta stand Jack Waller Hills and Stella Duckworth.  For Virginia, the Doyle and Rayley names were private, playful signposts to a time, place and event which so seared her that she would return to it again and again over the years.  Consider the following passages, the first taken from the 1907 memoir which is titled “Reminiscences” in Schulkind’s Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings:    

We had been lent a house at Hindhead, and one afternoon at the end of August , Jack came there, bicycling to some place in the neighbourhood.  His visits were so often forced in this way that we suspected nothing more than the usual amount of restraint from his explosive ways, and much information about dogs and bicycles.  His opinion on these matters stood very high with us.  He stayed to dinner, and that also was characteristic of his method; but after dinner a strange lapse occurred in the usual etiquette. Stella left the room with him, to show him the garden or the moon, and decisively shut the door behind her.  We had our business to attend to also, and followed them soon with a lantern, for we were then in the habit of catching moths after dinner.  Once or twice we saw them, always hasting round a corner; once or twice we heard her skirts brushing, and once a sound of whispering.  But the moon was very bright, and there were no moths; Stella and Jack had gone in, it seemed, and we returned to the drawing room.                                

Moments of Being, 49 

The second passage is from Virginia’s diary in 1922, at a time when she was struggling with Mrs. Dalloway: 

On this day, I don’t know how many years ago, 1897 [Virginia was out by a year] to be precise, Jack came to Hindhead & was accepted by Stella in the moonlit garden.  We wandered about the house till she came in & told us.  Thoby thought they were tramps.  I tried to describe the little trees in the moonlight.  Jack was accepted in Tyndall’s little study on that bare heath twenty five years ago.  As she died so soon after, somehow it still seems to me like a real thing, unsmothered by succeeding years.                                

Tuesday, 22 August, 1922 

Again, writing in 1940, in the manuscript now known as “A Sketch of the Past,” she reverts to Hindhead House and to what took place there: 

The next thing I remember is the night at Hindhead (August 22nd, 1896)—the black and silver night of mysterious voices,the night when father packed us off to bed early; and we heard voices in the garden; and saw Stella and Jack passing; and disappearing; and the tramp came; and Thoby countered him; and Nessa and I sat up in our bedroom waiting; and Stella never came; and at last in the early morning she came and told us she was engaged; and I whispered, “Did mother know?” and she murmured, Yes”.                        

Moments of Being, 100-101


Later in the manuscript, still writing about Jack and Stella’s engagement, she records the following:   

And it was through that engagement that I had my first vision—so intense, so exciting, so rapturous was it that the word vision applies—my first vision then of love between man and woman.  It was to me like a ruby; the love I detected that winter of their engagement, glowing, red, clear intense.  It gave me a conception of love; a standard of love; a sense that nothing in the whole world is so lyrical, so musical, as a young man and a young woman in their first love for each other.  I connect it with respectable engagements;unofficial love never gives me the same feeling.  “My Love’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June’—that was the feeling they gave; the feeling that has always come back, when I hear of ‘an engagement’; not when I hear of an ‘affair’.  It derives from Stella and Jack. 

Moments of Being, 105

Compare that last passage to this one from To the Lighthouse

Such was the complexity of things.  For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) on the Miles End Road.  Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love; while the women, judging from her experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet it is also beautiful and necessary.   

To the Lighthouse

Knowledge of Hindhead deepens our understanding of To the Lighthouse. The proposal which took place there is another of the biographical points to which Virginia attached the web of her fiction.  The real-life courtship, supported and encouraged by Julia Stephen, was an important model for the novel’s.  Of course, blue-eyed Stella is no more brown-eyed Minta than brown-eyed Jack is blue-eyed Paul, yet by their surnames Virginia evoked for herself that long ago summer and deepened the reality of what she was writing.  To think about Hindhead and the people there is to increase our understanding of the characters in the novel, the emotions at play, and the primal power of the biological and cultural forces  channeled and controlled by courtship rituals. 

One last Holmesian observation, not profound, yet pleasurably plausible.  Accept Minta Doyle’s surname  as a reference to Conan Doyle, and you have an explanation for why Mrs.Ramsay is twice glimpsed–once by Lily Briscoe and once by William Bankes–wearing a deer-stalker hat.  In William’s memory,she might almost be Sherlock in action: “She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief.”  Reach back to Doyle and Hindhead through the deer-stalker and there may be a further associative fillip in thinking about how Hindhead once meant “a hill frequented by deer.”  Small wonder the Ramsay children disappear from the dinner table as “stealthily as stags”.

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