Saturday, November 06, 2010
Somewhere on Dartmoor, perhaps in the vicinity of Clifford Bridge, near Drewsteignton, there may still be a gate, or gateway, in front of a field backed by a wood, where almost one hundred years ago, a group of friends stopped for a chat and a photo. The photo is here on the National Portrait Gallery web-site. Second from the right in the photo sits Virginia Woolf, (then Virginia Stephen); she's wearing a neo-pagan style headscarf and seems to be squinting into the sun. Her companions are Rupert Brooke, Noel Olivier (on the left) and second from left Maitland Radford. It was August, 1911, just one year before the writer's marriage to Leonard Woolf; she was 29 and this was during the period she was working on her first novel, The Voyage Out, which she had begun sometime in 1910; it was first accepted for publishing in 1913.The party were camping at a site on the banks of the river Teign, just above Clifford Bridge, which is apparently still a camping venue, though now you can enjoy the luxury of forest lodges, rather than basic tents. Virginia's friends were from the so-called circle of 'neo-pagans', who 'worshipped nature, swimming naked and sleeping in the open' (Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf). Whilst at the camp the friends visited various local sites, including Becky Falls. which had first opened to the public in 1903. This group reputedly resembled the Bloomsbury set in that ''they were intimately connected with Cambridge and were in no sense organised'. They were mostly the children of 'eminent Victorian intellectuals', some were old Bedalians and many of the women (though not Virginia) had had a university education. All of them had 'reacted sharply ... against the decadents and the aesthetes ... and were active socialists'; but it 'was not always easy to say who was and who was not a Neo-Pagan' (Virginia Woolf; A Biography, by Quentin Bell). Bell thinks that it may have been Virginia's sister Vanessa who first invented the term. He says that there was
'a sort of innocent athletic camaraderie about them: they met, not only in drawing-rooms, but in tents, they navigated canoes, they dress in jerseys and bandannas, they walked vigorously, they were gay and serious and, in their loves, they looked in general to the opposite sex, with marriage as their ideal' (Woolf Biography/Bell).
In a letter written to Roger Fry during early September that year Virginia told him she had been 'down in Devonshire living in a Camp with eleven other people'. Apparently Rupert Brooke had invited Virginia to join the party; amongst its other members may have included some of the following: Geoffrey and Maynard Keynes, Ka (Katherine) Cox, Justin Brooke, David Garnett, Gwen Darwin, Jacques Raverat, Gerald Shove, Lytton and James Strachey, (Lytton was living in a guest-house on the moor at Manaton during this time), Maitland Radford, Oscar Eckhardt, Daphne, Bryn(hild) and Noel Olivier. Presumably Virginia enjoyed the time in Devon for the weather had been fine and there was music round the camp-fire at night, 'good conversation' and 'that peculiar serenity which attends a life passed in boundless fresh air and sunlight', though apparently the visit began badly, because when she arrived with Ka Cox after an eight mile walk from the station the other campers had gone off on an excursion to Crediton, leaving the new recruits nothing to eat except only a 'rotting blackberry pudding' (Woolf Biography/Bell). According to Brooke's biographer (Mike Read: Forever England; The Life of Rupbert Brooke) they had gone with Paul Montague, or 'Pauly', a musician and zoologist member of the party, who suggested they 'troop over' and visit his parents at 'Penton' (now 'The Beeches'), at their home in the town, for 'afternoon tea'. A little postscript to the emphasis on Woolf here is that it was this house that inspired Brooke's poem 'Dining-Room Tea' and the young poet probably posted his package of poems to his publisher from Crediton that day). The friends did not hurry back to camp to be with their new recruits, for after they had enjoyed tea with Paul's mother she suggested they should go along and visit Crediton fair, where the popular drama The Lyons Mail was being performed.
There is a glimpse of camp life just after this day-trip because Paul Montague's sister Ruth was invited with her mother to go to Clifford as a thank-you for the tea-party and she recalled later on that:
'... my mother and I were invited to spend the day at the camp at Clifford Bridge - she rode her bicycle and I my pony - returning in the dark. As I was young Rupert and Justin decided that a ball game was the best way to entertain me. I remember an enormous meal of stew cooked by my brother Paul, in which someone discovered a button. Afterwards we watched Rupert looking very beautiful swimming up and down the river'. (Forever England, 133)
Some of the party at Clifford - perhaps Virginia - went on quite strenuous expeditions whilst they were on the moor, including a 32 miles round trip to Yes Tor, which involved an organised man-hunt on the return journey with Bryn Olivier as the quarry. Evenings round the camp fire were supplemented with songs accompanied by Pauly with his Elizabethan gittern. Virginia may well have spent time writing and working on one of the many revisions of her first novel whilst she was in the camp; her writer friends seem to have been able to write there. Certainly, Brooke's biographer believes that the poet drafted his dissertation about Webster's Appius and Virginia, in the meadow by the Teign (Forever England, 134 and Lytton was working away at his first book, Landmarks in French Literature, at Manaton. Various erotic entanglements and love affairs were swirling around the place, apparently centred on Brooke's friend; the beautiful Bryn Olivier, sister of Noel; both Maitland Radford and Gerald Shove fell for her. There were also a few minor skirmishes: Bryn who had taken control of cooking and money took a dislike to Justin Brooke and the divided loyalties led to Rupert losing his temper and going off on his own to lie all night crying on a hill near Drewsteignton. The camp lasted eighteen days and seemingly tempers were beginning to get frayed towards the end of that time; all in all though surviving journals and letters seem to suggest that a good time was had by all.
Everyone knows how Virginia Woolf adored Cornwall, and that many of her novels are in one way or another linked with what was for her its magical landscapes, so the writer's more tenuous connection with Devon comes as a surprise and perhaps deserves more consideration. I do not have much time for that now, but am blogging a few facts, thoughts and impressions. As far as I know Devon appears rarely in Woolf's fiction, but in Mrs Dalloway Millicent Bruton, who is 62, 'dreams of being a little girl in Devon, playing in the clover with her brothers'. In The Voyage Out Hewet is described as living in Devonshire, which he tells Rachel is the 'loveliest place in the world'. These snippets suggest that the writer herself was quite taken with Devon and may have considered it as a territory inviting childish fantasy and magical play. I wonder if Woolf's writing was perhaps influenced by her camping experiment on the edge of the moor. I wonder if she may have reflected on some of the scenes before her as she hiked over the moor, or idled by the campfire in the evenings, and perhaps pondered on the writing of her first novel. Maybe she used some of her experiences in the development of its characters, plot and settings. Although the setting of The Voyage Out concentrates on an ocean crossing and the territory of South America, the plot highlights the theme of a journey into the wilderness as a way of psychic exploration and the image of a river is crucial to the novel. Woolf's venture into Dartmoor wilderness with its maze of rivers, may have fed into her ruminations about her writing. It seems to me that there is potential for further research here; perhaps someone who reads this may be so motivated; later on when there is more time than now, I hope I shall do so.
Recently I visited Clifford Bridge, approaching it from Mardon Down just north of Mortenhampstead. It occurred to me that this was exactly the time of year that Woolf and her friends were in the area and that they probably hiked up over here on their way to visit other local sites.
Devon lies flat like a map below, clouds floating before us as we picnic high on the down with mountain ash coming to flower in thick-set bracken, a few flighty butterflies, a long-tailed tit; golden gorse and thistles remind us of the remnants of wilderness and that the moor's beauty belies hidden dangers for the unwary. When we descend the hill to the bridge the atmosphere changes. A cloud of brownish dust swirls around the car, as though earth has been churned up and indicating that something is not right. We are not sure but it seems likely that the larches growing in the dense woods that surround the bridge are infested with sudden oak death. It occurred to me that Virginia Woolf's greeting here, at the wild camp site would have been rather different. The camp site is now private, although you could probably get in and have a look amidst the ubiquitous log cabins.