Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper, by Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Thoby Stephen.
I've been reading lots this week, however am not close to finishing any of my books, which makes blogging a little hard! I'm near approaching the beginning of the final book of Les Misérables, so I imagine I'll still be reading that into next week, I'm a tad behind on Onegin, and I've only just started Metamorphoses, so that's no where near completion. But, thankfully (for the blog's sake), this morning I finished Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper. It is a collection of what were weekly articles for the Stephen family newspaper, written by Vanessa Stephen (Vanessa Bell), Thoby Stephen, and Adeline Virginia Stephen (our own Virginia Woolf). The articles began in 1891, when Vanessa was about twelve, Virginia nine, and Thoby eleven, and ran until 1895. It is a very interesting work, very interesting indeed, but the question is why?
There are different ways of reading it.
- It is a record of the Stephen family, headed by Sir Leslie Stephen, a very 'eminent Victorian' who, apart from many other things, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, as well as a biographer for Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot and Thomas Hobbes. His wife, Julia Stephen, was a writer, nurse, and even a Pre-Raphaelite model. Their literary circle is so immense one hardly knows where to begin in describing it.
- This is a record of an English upper middle class family in the late Victorian era.
- This is the 'juvenilia' of Virginia Woolf, author of Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One's Own (among many others).
|Julia, Thoby, Vanessa, and Virginia (1894).|
It is very tempting to read this as the third option, which is in fact the option I largely took. How could I not? I love Virginia Woolf and have read as much as I can by her. For the Virginia Woolf fan, this is fascinating and so very exciting; it's hard not to want to draw comparisons with her later works. Take To the Lighthouse - Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey take their eight children to the Hebrides where they spend each summer. In Hyde Park Gate News vol. II, no. 19 from Monday 16th May 1892,
But this blow [having music lessons twice a week instead of once] was softened by the fact that the Stephens were going to St Ives [represented in To the Lighthouse as the Hebrides] very much earlier than usual. This is a heavenly prospect to the minds of the juveniles who adore St Ives and revel in it's numerous delights and its close vicinity to the sea.
And, Adrian Stephen's disappointment at being unable to visit the lighthouse is recorded, echoing James Ramsey's disappointment in To the Lighthouse.
Hyde Park Gate News also shows very early examples of Virginia's preoccupation with the 'self' and 'inner life'. For example, vol. V, no. 6 (Monday, 11th February 1895) she writes of a dream where she was God:
But were they real? And what was I? Why did I exist? Who made me? and who made my maker? Was everything a dream, but who were the dreamers? So I wondered in my dream, and the only solution I could find was by waking, and finding my self a person.
It's hard, though, not to pick up on dates and dwell upon them too much. I know a fair bit about Mrs. Woolf, and so when I saw the article from 28th March 1892, I couldn't help but remember that this was the date of her suicide 49 years later, so it was with a little sadness I read about the 'juveniles' (as they called themselves) writing about the song "Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay". This has no relevance, and serves only to cast a gloom where there needn't be one. That said, a gloom already exists in the unsaid. But is this helpful to know? The dark side would never appear in this upper middle class family's newspaper, and those who know enough about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell know the dark side of Stephen family life (the "abnormal" half-sister, sexual abuse, Jem Stephen, their cousin, and his madness and death from starvation, and the death of their mother and sister Stella), the events at the time and the events immediately after. I think it's perhaps best to consult other sources than this, although I think a psychological reading (which I'm unequipped to give) of Hyde Park Gate News may prove quite fascinating (however this is not for this blog!). Perhaps this is a book to take as one finds it.
And it is a very funny, charming, and highly energetic book, as well as shedding light on the family life of the literary late Victorians, designed to amuse and impress their parents (more so Julia's: "The anxious infants awaited her burst of laughter. At last it came. 'Ha ha ha he he he' laughed she with all the good-natured vehemence of her nature") as well as being a fun pastime. We learn of the "trials" of the juveniles, and their delight, for example, in missing music lessons:
We see the every day, and the special events: the cricket games, trips to the zoo, visitors, days on the beach, Christmases and birthdays, new pets, going to see pantomimes, going ice-skating, Stella's new camera, Leslie Stephen receiving his D. Litt from the University of Cambridge, and boat races, all written with great enthusiasm and wit. There are stories, one not unlike Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892, which first appeared in Punch, so I wonder if they saw it): 'A Cockney's Farming Experiences' and the sequel 'The Experiences of a Paterfamilias'. And there is the mocking of love letters, my favourite being, "As I never kept your love letters you can't have them back. I therefore return the stamps which you sent". We learn of Julia, too, the patient nurse, the 'angel of the house' in fact: "Mr. Adrian Stephen has caught a severe cold and is consequently being dosed with Mrs Stephen's indefatigable Amoniated Quinine and also with his favourite beverage Malt", and,
Miss Mills who is teacher of singing to the young female Stephens is seized with a severe in disposition [sic] with [sic] prevents her giving her usual Friday lesson to them perhaps not to the great disappointment of the members concerned but doubtless to Miss Mills.
|Vanessa and Virginia playing cricket.|
The Materfamilias of the Stephen family has been caused real anxiety by her second son's maladie, which was that horrible epidemic influenza. She is is now, her material enthusiasm being aroused and as many a heart has before felt in the words of the poet"Life the vulture hovers
O'er the dieing [sic] horse
thinking ever thinking
that her boy is slowly sinking.
There is, in short, much going on in this book, so much so I wouldn't only recommend it to Woolf's fans. It's a historical document of sorts, and, as it's simplest, a funny record that will, at the very least, give readers a very pleasant three or so hours reading it. It does cast a light on Virginia Woolf's later works, and this increases an already valuable work.