She wants to move. He doesn’t. She wants the rhythms of the city, the accidents of observation, her husband’s faith that she can be well in a less self-preserving, routine-contriving place. Hogarth House in suburban Richmond was the home for her when she was recovering from a long illness, but now it is 1924, and the war in the skies overhead is gone and she writes and people read her, she edits and authors choose her, she knows her own mind and it is time.
In the borough of Camden in the heart of Bloomsbury there is a home she wants.
On March 23, 1924, the Woolfs return to the beating heart of London, signing a ten-year lease for the two top floors of 52 Tavistock Square, where the Woolfs will live, as well as for the basement, where they’ll house the growing enterprise that is Hogarth Press—the office in the former kitchen, the machinery in the scullery, some books in the larder and some leaflets in a dresser and a tin cash box on a schoolmaster’s desk. (The floor in between is occupied by a legal firm.)
Woolf will write her books in the former basement billiards room—a subterranean space, a mess. Her London room of her own is the haze of weather through the skylight above her. (It is her morning.) The heat from the fireplace beside her. (It is her winter.) The baled Hogarth books like buttress and her sister’s canvases like ballast in sloppy heaps about her. (It is her way.)
A door. (She needs a door, we need a door.)
“When we have exhausted the parcels of fifty copies of each book which are kept in the office, Miss Belcher and I have to enter her studio and manhandle and open one of the very large bales of 500 that are stored there,” Richard Kennedy, who went to work for the Woolfs at the age of sixteen in 1926, reported, in his evocative illustrated book, A Boy at the Hogarth Press. “Sitting in her little space by the gas fire, she reminds me of the Bruce Bairnsfather veterans of the War, surrounded by sandbags. She looks at one of us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with her pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.”
A filthy place, they say. A sloppy one. A cold corridor’s distance from the rabble sounds of Hogarth. In a broken chair she sits. With a plank across her lap, she writes. With a typewriter near, she situates and subtracts the first draft from the next one, her clutter as substrate, until now, in my own room, the night clocking toward dawn, I perpetuate the myth. Dim the lamp to my peripheral right. Scorn the spinning wheel to my peripheral left. Fog the long-faced giraffe that stands sentinel to my windows, to my moon. Equivocate the stuffed white rabbit on my dresser and the necklace it wears when I should be sleeping and the mirror to the left of it where, in the morning, I will not measure my age, not measure my progress, there is no progress. Lying awake as if and could be that what is here isn’t and what was there is—the mold, the smoke, the web, the twine, the buttons falling through the cracks of Virginia’s thoughts, her hand moving across the pages, and someone coming soon, someone knocking, shattering the illusion.
“Tea?“ my husband asks, the dawn now breaking.
“Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down,” Virginia will declare in A Room of One’s Own, a two-part lecture that will become a slender bible of a book. “Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.” (ROO 51-52)
At Tavistock, Virginia chooses to write among chaos in a billiards room. Dankness. Darkness. Not a sunlit corner of her living room. Not a table at the local pastry shop, more hot water and a lemon, please. No. Here, in her city, Virginia chooses gobs and heaps and messes and mountains, tunneling out a cave for herself just as she tunnels out the histories of the characters she walks into her novels.
She knows what she needs. She requisitions it. She puts what aids and abets her process within reach—that writing plank, those pens, that paper, the typewriter, her sister’s art, a shot of sun, a fireplace flame, the smell of books, the industry of books, the proof that books can and will get made.
So what do we know about the rooms we need to write what it is we hope to write? Have we asked ourselves the question? Will we find our stories in a world of noise? Will we need discomfort to keep us upright? Will the conglomeration of distractions leave us less distracted? Do we need silence, walls of white, the cabin of a fishing boat, anonymity, strangeness, the pulse pop of the surreal, the dangerous?
Do we need some buttons?
Do we need a corkboard?
Do we need a clothesline and some clips?
Do we need old photographs?
Do we need a song?
Do we need a door and do we need a key or do we need our husband’s tea?
I need the spinning wheel, because it is steady on its three feet, going around and around with its history.
I need the giraffe because she came to me across continents, wrapped like a mummy, and unwrapped like a page, her story-lashed eyes watching me.
I need the doll hanging high on the wall because her skirt is built of sticks, because she’s a nest maker, because I bought her with the money made from a book I wrote, and she remembers.
I need the four short windows through which the pink ball of sun bleeds while I wait for the night to end, for the breeze to riffle through, for that red-headed finch who crazy claws at the screen and looks to the roof as if constructing, in its head, its own preposterous dreams.
I need the bed when my husband leaves so that it might become my land of counterpane—my books and my notes in a disheveled slide, my pens blotting the sheets, my scrawl inking away at the fifth draft, at the sixth. And I will make this bed when the day needs the other parts of me. And I will pile my books on the floor. And I will stuff my pens into a drawer. And I will carry my scrawl to the computer downstairs and leave the mess waiting for me, waiting for the machine to record what I dreamed from the room I make my own.
Burrowing in, as we do, among the things that we need.
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist with work appearing in The New York Times, Life Magazine, Catapult, Literary Hub, North American Review online, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Her new book is the memoir-in-essays, Wife | Daughter | Self (Forest Avenue Press). More at bethkephartbooks.com.