Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smith, 1930
Virginia Woolf’s English Hours first strikes as the work of an amateur : in tune with the Latin meaning of the word , it is the work of a sensitive man who openly expresses his strong fondness for the English countryside—as Black Dog Books publisher, he mainly focuses on regional literature and culture—, travel writing and Virginia Woolf. As such, it does not offer any academic reading of the Woolfian oeuvre ; neither does it thoroughly delve into the author’s relationship to her native land. The point of his beautifully illustrated book is elsewhere.
Focusing on Woolf’s ‘passionate affair with the English countryside’ (v), Peter Tolhurst maps out the lady’s peregrinations and explores how country experiences were encrusted in her daily life. From St Yves, her childhood Cornish ‘emotional bedrock’ (vii), to her ‘long, romantic attachment’ to Sussex (106), he impresses Woolf upon the face of England thus conveying a moving panorama of places scattered throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Chapter after chapter, we are carried from one region or locality to the other, discovering an author perpetually on the move. Far from being kept locked in her ivory tower, Woolf is portrayed as an active travelling author who belongs to the long tradition of walking writers but who also shows a fondness for cycling, motoring and boating, and relishes in taking the train or, even, pony traps !
Discovering the Spartan cottages she rented or lived in, the family homes, stately mansions, country houses and estates she visited, the monuments, villages and tourist attractions she toured, and all the landscapes and seascapes she admired, we launch on Virginia Woolf’s English Grand Tour. (In this respect, a map recording the places she haunted would have been most welcome.)
Recalling Bill Brandt’s 1986 Literary Britain , in which the photographer captures scenes that tell of the relationship of writers and poets with their environment, Tholhurst’s book pictures Woolf as a ‘literary pilgrim’ (58) who conjoins travelling with her reading of the Romantic poets, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy or Henry James, whose 1905 travel writing opus, English Hours, gives its title to the present volume.
Evidently, it touches upon the stories, essays and novels that were taking shape while Woolf roamed the country lanes ; an aspect which would deserve a much closer attention. Laying emphasis on Woolf’s sharp sense of observation and on her descriptive abilities, Tholhurst also explores how her word sketches ‘bear up all these years later’ (i), providing occasional historical contextual data on the presented locations.
Predominantly feeding on Woolf’s intimate writings (diaries, letters and autobiographical texts), Tholhurst’s biographical approach guides us through a pleasant sentimental journey to the writer’s favourite country spots. The slightly outmoded English Heritage charm of the black-and-white photographs almost authenticate Woolf’s lasting spectral presence as much as they give shape to a touchingly nostalgic vision. Somewhat romanticising the Woolfian country experiences, Virginia Woolf’s English Hours nurtures on a typically immutable pastoral Englishness, which would be worth studying further .