Gordon Square (where Virginia Woolf lived)

Bloomsbury Group Plaque, Gordon Square

While Virginia Woolf is not one of my favorite novelists (because low on plot), her sparkling intellect was formidable and her style at the modernist vanguard (and far more accessible and timeless than that great yawner, James Joyce). Furthermore, her long essay, A Room of One's Own, is still required feminist college reading. After stumbling last month across the house in Belsize Park where Lytton Strachey had regretfully proposed to Virginia Woolf, I was even more curious to check out the part of town where Virginia and her painter sister Vanessa (Stephen) Bell and their now-infamous circle of friends, the Bloomsbury Group—their two brothers, plus Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and more—fostered a supportive artistic and intellectual community, inspiring each other within their local London Bloomsbury neighborhood for many creatively productive years. That rare atmosphere should be celebrated, even pilgrimaged, flawed and human though it was with the group's many triangulated affections.

46 Gordon Square, London

So after a (third) trip to the vast and fascinating British Museum of human history (as viewed through the objects of conquerors), I skirted recently murderous Russell Square and walked northwest to Gordon Square, my guidebook pointing me to number 46, where Virginia and Vanessa Stephen had lived briefly with their brothers after becoming orphaned in their 20s and before moving to other nearby residences. Number 46, though, showed a blue plaque for the influential economist Keynes, a Bloomsbury friend who subsequently lived in the house for decades.

Gordon Square buildings in dappled shadow

Keynes' house, Gordon Square

number 51 Gordon Square (Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury house)

Several houses down the block, another blue plaque at number 51 indicated Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury house, while a plaque at number 50 more generally sopped up all the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia and Leonard Woolf also lived for many of their Hogarth Press years just around the block on Tavistock Square and then at nearby Mecklenburgh Square, both houses bombed in 1940. Fortunately, the Woolfs were by then based at their country home, Monk's House, near Vanessa Bell's Charleston Farmhouse. Less than a year later, Virginia drowned herself in a Sussex river, fearing another long mental breakdown. She was only 59.

Waterstones bookshop A-frame sign, Gower Street, London

pale roses, Gordon Square Garden

Gordon Square Garden path

Gordon Square Garden scene

peach rose, Gordon Square Garden

The Bloomsbury area is full of students from the University College London, sited just above the British Museum. It seems a quieter, more serious area than most of London. The old Georgian townhouses have mostly been turned into unobtrusive hotels and university offices. I sat on a bench under the trees in Gordon Square and watched pairs and groups of young people talking and eating and drinking and laughing on blankets on a warm clear evening. Then I walked around half the enclosed square before my phone rang, thinking of Virginia Woolf and her peers traversing these same paths and pavements decades, even a century, ago, the memory traces colliding gently in space and time to the scents of cut grass, pea gravel, and pale roses.

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