52 Tavistock Square

A couple years ago, Rose Norman sponsored a trip to London for American students of Woolf. You can still find her syllabus online. Here is how she describes Virginia Woolf’s home on Tavistock Square, where Woolf lived during the height of her powers and fame (1924-1939) for a walking tour of London:
  • The Bloomsbury house Woolf lived in the longest, and where she wrote most of her novels, was destroyed in WWII and replaced by part of the Tavistock Hotel.
  • #52 was on the south side of the square, three houses from Southampton Row.
  • On the west side of the square are houses similar to it.
  • At 52 Tavistock Square, Virginia and Leonard lived on the top two floors, with a firm of solicitors on the ground two floors, and the Hogarth Press in the basement, where Virginia also had a writing room.
  • Tavistock House, on the east side of the square was the home of Charles Dickens (1851-60) and was where he wrote Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), and A Tale of Two Cities (1860-61). Now rebuilt, this is the current home of the British Medical Association.
  • From Tavistock Square, turn left into Tavistock Place and walk down to Hunter St.

Last summer, I had drinks in the Tavistock Hotel and then, at the end of the Woolf conference, stood in the drizzle with many others to watch great Woolf scholars (Gillian Beer, Hermione Lee), Woolf’s nephew, Leonard (a lovely man and very like his uncle in the face), and others unveil a bust of Virginia Woolf there. It was a happy day. I felt that Woolfians (especially Stuart Clarke and others in the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain) had reclaimed a bit of London Woolf had loved from the hands of bombers. Our work is, alas, far from done.

I have been reading and watching responses to the London bombings with an averted gaze: Dave has compiled thoughtful ones, Genevieve chimes in with moving grace and led me to McEwan’s piece in the Guardian. Even as I try to finish my own book on Woolf, as I remind myself to carry on her declaration that “thinking is my fighting,” not to cease from mental fight, I have felt more like the writers Orwell describes in “Inside the Whale”: wouldn’t it be nice to be swallowed up, Jonah-like for a while and then emerge a prophet rather than to live through this. On the 7th, the Woolf listserv’s 500 subscribers were abuzz with anxiety and concern for Tavistock Square and, most movingly, for our friends in and near London: Stuart, Lisa, Gina—please email and assure us you’re fine. They did and they are, thank God, but I think of the dozens of other families and networks of grieving friends, of people still living but with lives forever changed because of the bus they caught or did not catch that morning.

Readers of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or McEwan’s Saturday may be less surprised that last week’s horrific attacks on London’s public transit system seems to have originated from homegrown terrorists. That this is so only underscores how little our leaders (Blair and Bush, that is) seem to know about how to combat terrorism.

My own work this week has taken me back to Three Guineas (1938), a Woolf text I have never liked but always admired. When the book came out, on the eve of WWII, Woolf’s friends and family criticized her for advocating peace in the face of Hitler. They may have been right. But there is a major piece of her argument that we would do well to listen to today: she reminds us, over and over again that the enemy we seem to see abroad lives within us, in our midst, that we must fight the spirit of tyranny everywhere, even on the most apparently small scale, even—and especially—in our own families. I am not smart enough to translate that idea into terms of this grisly “war on terror” just yet, but I do think we can return to Woolf for thoughts on this.

If, hungry for peace, you long to see images of the still extant homes of Virginia Woolf, there’s no better starting place than Elisa Kay Sparks’ comprehensive website. The PowerPoint of Virginia Woolf’s Homes and Gardens is great. She took the photos herself and is generous enough to share them with anyone who is interest but, for obvious melancholy reasons, there are no images of Tavistock Square.