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Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room 100 years ago. And since then, many readers have wandered down Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, speculating about where Jacob lived and what he would have seen.

Pillar box at the corner of Lamb’s Conduit Street and Great Ormond Street, outside Ryman Stationery in London.

I, myself, have done just that, taking particular notice — and photos — of the classic red pillar box on the corner and stopping at The Lamb pub, which existed in Jacob’s time, for a meal.

Woolf puts London at the novel’s heart

In a piece posted on the London Fictions website, Robert Todd, member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, explores, in detail, the way Woolf puts London at the heart of her novel after Jacob reaches the age of 22 in 1909.

Woolf’s eight chapters that cover the years from 1909 on “display, amongst so much else, a vivid picture of London and Jacob’s relation to it,” according to Todd.

The London of Jacob’s Room was a young man’s world of hopes, dreams and pleasure, before responsibility is assumed.  It was also a young woman’s world, Virginia Woolf’s, after she moved to Bloomsbury in 1904.  – Robert Todd

Walking with Jacob Flanders

For that reason, Todd’s March 2020 article includes a Jacob’s Room walk, beginning with Jacob’s lodging-house on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury.

Persephone Books at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, in 2019. The shop moved to Bath in 2021.

He puts the location of Jacob’s two-room first floor flat at #59, the former site of Persephone Books, known for reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-20th century (mostly) women writers.

With a sitting room that overlooked the street, Jacob had a view of a confectioner’s shop and the famous letter-box pictured above.

Todd’s journeys with Jacob take us beyond Bloomsbury, however. With him, we travel to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly, Hyde Park, and Parliament Hill Fields.

Woolf herself lived nearby

Plaque at 38 Brunswick Square

Todd goes on to share how Woolf’s experiences while living nearby at 38 Brunswick Square influenced the sights and the action in Jacob’s Room. The University of London School of Pharmacy has stood on the site of that address since around 1936, according to Jean Moorcroft Wilson in Virginia Woolf: Life and London (1987, 2011).

Todd also speculates about how Woolf’s visits to the two rooms of friend Saxon Sydney-Turner may have influenced her descriptions of Jacob’s rooms.

A protest against war in her own voice

Jacob’s Room, of course, is not just a novel about location. As Julia Briggs notes in her biography Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (2005), Woolf’s third novel was a protest against World War I and the “shocking impersonality of its killing machine” (84).

Jacob was just one of the nearly one million British and Commonwealth soldiers who perished in that conflict. But the enormity of that loss prompted Woolf to focus on the fate of just one individual in order to make some sense of the tragic conflict, according to Briggs.

Already a pacifist, in a Jan. 23, 1916, letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis, Woolf claimed she had become “steadily more feminist'” due to “the preposterous masculine fiction” of wartime propaganda in mainstream media (L2, 76).

Three months before the novel was published, Woolf wrote in a July 26, 1922, diary entry that she had “found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice” (D2, 186).

Publishing record and reviews

Jacob’s Room was published on Oct. 27, 1922, in an edition of 1,200 copies. Wrapped in a dust jacket designed by Vanessa Bell, it sold for seven shillings and sixpence.

An additional 1,000 copies were printed soon thereafter, but by the end of 1923, fewer than 1,500 copies had been sold. The novel did, however, turn a small profit.

Woolf’s novel received mixed reviews. It was described as experimental, impressionist, and adventurous. It was criticized for its form and its lack of realism. It was also compared to the work of James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson.

In a diary entry dated Nov. 12, 1922, Woolf herself described it as “the starting point for fresh adventures” (D2, 214).

In good company

It’s no wonder that the work was compared to James Joyce’s, for Woolf’s 1922 novel was in the good company of that work and others.

James Joyce’s Ulysses, was published the same year, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.

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Mapping Woolf’s novels

Location is important in Virginia Woolf’s novels. And a page on the Londonist website maps the locations used in all ten of her novels. It also points out key factors about the locations.

Those points include:

  • Bloomsbury doesn’t figure all that frequently.
  • Piccadilly is her most-used location.
  • Only half of her novels are set principally in London.
  • Her novels are quite international in setting.

The map points reflect locations mentioned or visited in the following 10 books:

The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928), The Waves (1931), Flush: A Biography (1933), The Years (1937), Between The Acts (1941)

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Virginia Woolf may soon have a London Tube stop named after her. And you can help make it happen.

Woolf is on the list of famous women being promoted as part of the City of Women London. Organized by the Women of the World foundation, the public history project is modeled after a similar one in New York.

The idea started with Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, who created an alternative map of the New York subway system that renamed stops after women, non-binary people, and female groups. The map turned into an iconic poster that has been updated to include new additions.

Vote for Virginia 

The London version, coordinated by Solnit, Jelly-Schapiro, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Emma Watson, reimagines the city’s classic Tube map as one that celebrates women who’ve made their mark on the city. And of course, that would be likely to include Woolf.

Suggestions for the London Tube map will be gathered by consulting with historians, writers, curators, community organizers, women’s rights organizations, museums, and librarians and through an open call to the public to submit ideas. Your vote for Woolf — or the woman or non-binary individual of your choice — can be sent to cityofwomenlondon@gmail.com or submitted via an online form.

How does it impact our imaginations that so many places in so many cities are named after men and so few after women? What kind of landscape do we move through when streets and parks and statues and bridges are gendered … and it’s usually one gender, and not another? What kind of silence arises in places that so seldom speak of and to women? This map was made to sing the praises of the extraordinary women who have, since the beginning, been shapers and heroes of this city that has always been, secretly, a City of Women. And why not the subway? This is a history still emerging from underground, a reminder that it’s all connected, and that we get around.
—Rebecca Solnit

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Not everyone can say they spent the 4th of July with Virginia Woolf. But Kathleen Donnelly and I can.

Three years ago, on July 4, 2017, Kathleen and I spent a day together in London. While there we visited a life-sized wax figure of Woolf on display in the foyer of the Virginia Woolf Building at 22 Kingsway at King’s College. It was installed Oct. 21, 2015, by artist Eleanor Crook.

Gaining entry

We were not able to walk right in, however, as entry to the building is secure. However, a kind security guard allowed us inside after noticing us standing out front with our noses pressed against the window. There, we were able to look around and take photos of the wax figure and the exhibit that surrounds it.

The location is significant, as Woolf was a student at the former King’s Ladies’ Department where she took classes in Greek, Latin, history and German between 1897 and 1902.

The Virginia Woolf display in the Virginia Woolf Building at King’s College, London, is straight up this set of stairs on the left.

The life-size wax figure of Virginia Woolf in a wardrobe of her own installed in the foyer of the Virginia Woolf Building at King’s College, London.

The Woolf figure holds a copy of “A Room of One’s Own” with a Vanessa Bell cover.

One panel in the Woolf display in the foyer of the Virginia Woolf Building at King’s College, London

A quote on a panel in the Woolf display in the foyer of the Virginia Woolf Building, King’s College, London

 

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The temperature was 34 degrees and a light dusting of snow covered the ground when my copy of London in Bloom by Georgianna Lane arrived in my Ohio mailbox several weeks ago.

With its cover photo depicting pale pink roses draping a doorway, arching over a window, and filling the basket of a matching pink bicycle parked out front, the book introduced a welcome breath of spring into my life that day. We need that even more now.

Turning from fear to beauty

The coronavirus has infected our globe, and many of us are sheltering at home, attempting to stave off the ugliness of anxiety. So there is no better time to open a book full of the floral beauty of London, Virginia Woolf’s favorite city.

London in Bloom is the third and final book in Lane’s Cities in Bloom series, published by Abrams. To capture the images that fill it, she spent many early morning hours photographing the floral beauty and architectural detail of England’s capitol before residents and tourists clogged the streets, sidewalks, and parks. I daresay she would find that task easier now.

On “Tea and Tattle”

I first heard of the book on episode 27 of Francesca Wade’s “Tea and Tattle” podcast. Wade describes it as “most beautiful guide to the city’s parks, gardens, florists and hotels and should be on any London-lover’s shelf!”

Much like Woolf, a lover of gardens who incorporated them into her life and into her work, the author shares her affection for London’s gardens in her Introduction to the book:

Perhaps not surprisingly, my most memorable London experiences have been inextricably interwoven with gardens… the open spaces of London have seeped into my consciousness, awakened my imagination, and become part of me” (7).

From parks and gardens to floral displays

London in Bloom is divided into four sections:

  • parks and gardens
  • floral boutiques
  • market flowers and
  • floral displays.

Each is introduced by a page or two of text that shares Lane’s thoughts and experiences, then filled with gorgeous photos of flowers and architectural details — brickwork, tile-work, doorways — that enhance them.

Whimsical touches are also introduced in the form of light cotton floral print dresses in a shop window, teacups and cake on a tea table, and London’s trademark red phone booth and double decker buses.

Beauty and practicality

Despite some touches of red, the theme throughout is pastel — from flowers to buildings to cover pages. But the book includes the practical, as well as the beautiful.

The back section gives us instructions on creating our own London-style bouquet, a field guide to London’s spring blooming trees and shrubs, and an introductory guide to springtime blooms throughout the city.

London in Bloom provides delectable refreshment for the eye and the soul in our troubled times, whether you are a lover of flowers, a fan of London, or just in need of a bit of balm.

 

 

 

 

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