A hundred years ago this month The Voyage Out, the first novel by Virginia Woolf, was published. Woolf began writing the book when she was known as Virginia Stephen and while she was living in Fitzroy Square with her brother Adrian.
Virginia and Adrian Stephen moved into 29 Fitzroy Square in March 1907. They had hesitated before taking the house as some friends had cautioned them that the neighbourhood was dangerous — a reputation it may have earned from the nearby anarchist school of ten years’ earlier run by Louise Michel. The Stephens were later reassured by the opinion of the local police, and attracted to the house because Virginia’s older sister Vanessa and husband Clive Bell lived less than a mile away at 46 Gordon Square.
Her biographer Quentin Bell wrote: “It was an agreeable house and not so close to Gordon Square that the Stephens became a mere annex of the Bells, nor yet so far that the two households could not meet whenever they chose. It was ideally placed for the purposes of those friends who got into the habit of visiting one of the houses and then strolling over to the other.”
She had the whole of the second floor of number 29 to herself and it was during her time here that she made several attempts on a manuscript for The Voyage Out. The novel started out with the title of Melymbrosia and she sought the advice of Clive Bell. In the autumn of 1908 she sends him a draft of her manuscript.
Torn by her own uncertainty and the painful process of writing, she asks Bell in a letter: “Will you think me a great bore if I turn to the dreary subject again, and ask you whether you have anything to say about that unfortunate work? I have a feeling it is all a mistake, and I believe you could tell me.”
Stephen now in her late twenties was writing about sexuality, women’s suffrage and Britain as a colonial power. Bell, and perhaps others, urged her to tone down her social commentary.
Writing to her in February 1909 he says: “Our views about men and women are doubtless very different, and the difference doesn’t matter much; but to draw rather sharp contrasts [between women and men] is not only rather absurd, but rather bad art I think”. However, Bell praised her writing saying: “It seemed to me that you gave your words a force that one expects to find only in the best poetry.”
Stephen pressed on with the novel revising it through several bouts of ill health, and in 1911 she and Adrian leave Fitzroy Square. In 1912 she marries Leonard Woolf. On 26 March 1915 a re-written Melymbrosia is published under the new title The Voyage Out and under her new name Virginia Woolf.