Virginia Woolf's newspaper days

Antiquarian Book Review, July 2003

Through the better part of the 1890s, Miss Virginia Stephen worked on a local newspaper. A very local newspaper. The Hyde Park Gate News reported on events at 22 Hyde Park Gate, and occasionally on family holidays to Cornwall, mixing news with gossip and serial fiction in the manner of leading popular papers of the day. It had a staff that varied between two and four (Virginia, her elder sister Vanessa, her brothers Thoby and Adrian) and a steady circulation of one: the single copy was anxiously handed to their parents for review. Virginia would have been about nine when it began; it continued until 1895, when she was 14.

For the future Virginia Woolf to become involved in this kind of thing was not, perhaps, unusual. Family magazines were a common enough amusement: HG Wells produced his own childhood paper, the Uppark Alarmist, while his mother was in service at the country house of Uppark, and Paul Bowles was also an infant journalist.

What was unusual was to come back to the same format. In the summer of 1923, with three novels (including Jacob’s Room) and two breakdowns behind her, Virginia Woolf became involved in a second little paper. The Charleston Bulletin, later The New Bulletin, was produced by Julian (who was 15 in 1923) and Quentin Bell (who was 13). With the encouragement of their mother Vanessa, who doubtless remembered The Hyde Park Gate News, it gave a gossipy, often satirical view of events at Charleston, the Sussex house which was both the family home and a centre of Bloomsbury Group activity.

Aunt Virginia, living at nearby Monk’s House, lent a regular hand. From 1923 to 1927 – during the years, that is, in which she also composed Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and the essays in The Common Reader – she contributed a series of special supplements to the Bulletin. For the most part, these supplements were Christmas or year-in-review specials; they’re handwritten, in her distinctive purple ink, with colour illustrations.
Titles include The Dunciad (with a hard ‘c’ – it’s an epic about Duncan Grant), The Messiah (concerning ‘our hero, the Messiah of Bloomsbury, Clive Bell’), and the intriguing Life-and-Death History of a Studio, the cast-list for which includes Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and an exploding cow.

The Hyde Park Gate News has long been part of the British Library’s manuscript collection, scoured by scholars for evidence about Woolf’s childhood. The 187 issues of The Charleston Bulletin, meanwhile, have sat unread in a tin trunk. They were known to exist (there are a couple of mentions in Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf); but they had never been systematically studied. This year, the Bulletin will join its predecessor in the scholarly spotlight. On 4 April the British Library announced that it had purchased the collection from Quentin Bell’s widow Olivier, for something around £100,000. Mrs Bell is donating her windfall to the Charleston Trust, which looks after the upkeep of the house. The deal was arranged through Bernard Quaritch.

As well as the Bulletin and Woolf’s supplements, the archive contains contributions from Vanessa and Clive Bell – and any number of houseguests, all roped in as Charleston Bulletin stringers. There are letters. There is also Charlestonian drama: a 24-page outline for a play called Country Life, and a complete five-act melodrama called The Conspirators, with a preface designating it ‘a reply to the series of libels and caricatures with which Charlestonians have been overwhelmed during the last two years’.

‘This is a child’s-eye view, and it doesn’t necessarily hold the Bloomsbury set in the absolute reverence that’s sometimes associated with them,’ says Dr Chris Fletcher, a curator of manuscripts at the British Museum. ‘It’s quite a candid, intimate perspective – one that hasn’t been available before.’

It also offers a new, and perhaps lighter, perspective on Woolf herself. ‘The very fact that she’s returning to this form as an adult is interesting,’ Fletcher says. ‘She saw her nephews doing it, and couldn’t resist getting involved.’

The BL are making no promises, however, about when the manuscripts will become available for study. Officials talk about the possibility of setting up an exhibition – but add that uncertainties about how much preservation work will be required prevent them from giving a date. The collection is uncatalogued, parts of it could be fragile – and there is enough material that checking could take some time. ‘It’s a large cardboard boxful,’ says Dr Fletcher, ‘so it’s not just a few things. It’s quite an extensive little archive.’

So, if you want to find out the truth about that exploding cow, you’ll have to wait. We wouldn’t spoil it for you even if we knew. Scenes from the Life-and-Death History of a Studio may be the most lightweight of Woolf’s works – but it can still raise suspense, even after 70 years.