Friday, May 18, 2012

Newnham's Bloomsbury Connections

Newnham College’s Bloomsbury connections are no secret. In fact, we need look no further than the familial ties of former principals such as Katharine Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s cousin, Principal from 1911-1920 , and Pernel Strachey, Lytton Strachey’s sister, Principal from 1923-1941. It is most famously, however, Virginia Woolf’s address to the Newnham Arts Society on the subject of ‘Women and Fiction’ in 1928, from which emerged her seminal text, A Room of One's Own, which most underlines this connection.

Part of Newnham Library's Bloomsbury Collection
Newnham College Library holds an impressive collection of Woolf first edition works and related items. Our exhibition of these works featured as part of the 'A Room of One's Own' walking tour during Cambridge Wordfest Spring 2012.

The collection came to the College in 1981 at the bequest of Louise Hoyt Porter. Described as an ‘ardent admirer of VW’s books’, Miss Porter, a ‘strapping American’ is said to have turned up at the Hogarth Press, before eventually arranging to meet ‘her idol’ in 19331. Miss Porter wanted her treasured collection to be housed specifically in an English women’s college and, as the birth place of A Room of One’s Own, where better than here at Newnham?

The collection comprises a number of first editions of Woolf’s works. Examples include Three Guineas,(1928) a strong feminist polemic in which Woolf questions male-female relationships, women’s education and public institutions through a fictional epistolary exchange. The work’s radical feminist tone perhaps stood at odds with the sense of rationalism inherent to the overall Bloomsbury mindset, written ‘much to the embarrassed disapproval of her Bloomsbury friends.'2

Signed half title page of A Room of One's Own (1929)
Further examples include the biographical writings Orlando (1928) and Flush (1933). Orlando, a novel depicting the life of a character who transcends time and gender, and Flush, the tale of a love affair between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett from the perspective, somewhat curiously, of Barrett’s pet spaniel, both reveal Woolf’s playful attitude to biography. Notably, this may have been a reaction to her father’s role as the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography. Equally, Woolf may have been influenced by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918), exposed through her Bloomsbury companions to the biography form.

The collection also consists of signed works of Woolf’s Beau Brummell (1930), Street Haunting (1930) and A Room of One’s Own (1929).

The wider Bloomsbury context and indeed importance of the Hogarth Press, founded by Woolf and her husband Leonard in 1917 is by no means forgotten in the collection. There are early examples of Hogarth Press printing such as Kew Gardens, one of 150 copies printed in 1919, consisting of hand colour-washed wallpaper wrappers from Roger Fry’s Omega workshops. Look closely and the initials ‘L’ and ‘V’ have been clearly pasted over the original ‘Leonard’ and ‘Virginia’ in the colophon.

Particularly beautiful are the dust jackets of many of the works, including those for Granite and Rainbow (1958, Hogarth Press) Between the Acts (1941, Hogarth Press) and A Writer’s Diary (1953, Hogarth Press), all designed by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister. Further items of interest include a pamphlet, produced in 1928, promoting the Bloomsbury Group to the American market. Within this, Clive Bell’s work Civilisation, Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and Woolf’s own Orlando are all particularly focused upon.

The collection is an impressive, beautiful and fitting one for the library here at Newnham. Woolf’s own reflections on the college, we hope, render it a suitable home for her work and indeed would please her great admirer and collector Miss Porter:
‘all night the chestnut blossoms were white in the green, and dim was the cow-parsley in the meadows…the wind…lapsed dreamily in the midst of grey-blue clouds over the roofs of Newnham.’3
Polly Harper, Graduate Library Trainee


1Woolf, V, 1980, The Diary of Virginia Woolf , Volume IV 1931-1935, (ed. Anne Olivier Bell) London: Hogarth,p.141, footnote 4. 

2McNeillie, A, 2000, “Bloomsbury” The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (ed.) S. Roe & S. Sellars, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p.3. 

3Woolf,V, 1926, ‘A Women’s college from outside’ In Atalanta’s Garland: being the book of the Edinburgh University Women’s Union.

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