One cool London morning I was sauntering through Chelsea and came upon the house of Thomas Carlyle. Though he was a literary giant of quasi-mythic proportions and hero to Victorians, his theories and writing are largely forgotten or ignored outside of university departments of English. That is the fate enjoyed by many a writer, and one need not be dead. Now a National Trust site, his house is open to visitors, so I knocked, was admitted, paid the modest entrance fee, and passed a couple of hours exploring the residence from basement kitchen to the third floor, the latter consisting of a large room famously constructed to serve as a sound-proofed study for the great man. A soft-spoken, white-haired guardian, perhaps desperate for an audience, did not hesitate to explain the provenance of portraits and statuary and coats and books, most of which I have forgotten.
Hypersensitive to and distracted by the faintest noise, Carlyle tried to rise above the neighbourhood tumult (the clucking of chickens next door and street traffic) to write his monumental books. His wife Jane, whose sometimes trenchant letters reveal intellectual vigour and a critical eye focused on her husband’s penchants and proclivities, devoted her married life to maintaining and safeguarding the “space” the demigod required. The house his kingdom, the study his special preserve, which failed in its purpose as he continued to complain about noise, his wife and servants granted him every consideration and space necessary. It was an exhausting endeavour on Jane’s part to accommodate the man’s demands for absolute silence. Outside the grave, where is such to be found?
Virginia Woolf's writing cabin at Rodmell
The following week I visited Virginia Woolf’s house in Rodmell, a bus ride from Newhaven where I happened to be staying for two nights. Protected behind glass, her desk and chair stand virtually alone in her writer’s cabin at the back of the garden; no excessive ornamentation or appurtenances clutter the space. Viewing these spare premises, I fell to pondering how the entire notion of the writer’s space is a curious and contradictory phenomenon, as much connected with individual psychology as it is with cultural ideology, about which few generalities can be safely made. Woolf’s essay on the subject of women and creativity, A Room of One’s Own, explains much about her needs and her times, and the visitor to Rodmell sees the happy consequence of her argument.
Virginia Woolf's desk at Rodmell
Woolf’s cabin room furnished with chair and desk and not much else is pristine and monastic, a testament to the fact that, given her literary preoccupations and extraordinary energy, mental breakdowns notwithstanding, external paraphernalia in her cabin would only have distracted and diluted her attention. A pair of her spectacles, a rather touching sight, are placed by a notebook on the desk. One is not allowed to enter the inner sanctum, of course, but it’s easy to visualize Woolf mulling over her script, her concentration so powerful that an aura lingers decades after her departure. Such an impression, however, is merely my own imagination at work and not outside agency. If you know Woolf’s novels or essays or reviews or diaries or letters, many written in her garden room at Rodmell, you also know that she walked for fifteen minutes from this garden to the river Ouse and drowned herself. I visualized that as well, but my purpose here is desks and not deaths.
Carlyle demanded and got his space, regardless of any cost or general nuisance to the household (yet another flight of steps for a servant to mount and intensified policing on Mrs. Carlyle’s part). In reaction to the privilege accorded to the male writer by virtue of his gender, Virginia Woolf argued for and established her own space, contrary to the ideology of the day. Unlike Carlyle, however, she did not cram the room with artifacts and furnishings. This could well be a difference of style between high Victorian bric-à-brac and post-Edwardian downsizing, between a male writer certain of his ground and a female writer staking a claim to her own. I suspect, though, it’s a good deal more significant than taste in décor.
© Kenneth Radu 2012
The author in Wordsworth's garden behind Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu