Freshwater by Virginia Woolf

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Posted 9th March 2017

an introduction by William Whymper

In 1904, following the death of their father Leslie Stephen, Virginia Stephen and her sister Vanessa (then both unmarried) moved into no. 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London. Later, after their marriages to Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell respectively, they became the focal point of an informal association — the Bloomsbury Group — based on friendship and an interest in the arts. Its members, many of whom were in conscious revolt against the artistic, social and sexual restrictions of Victorian society, profoundly affected the development of the avant-garde in art and literature in this country.

From the early 1920s, the group enjoyed a number of theatrical evenings, which were invariably followed by long and festive parties. These homemade entertainments ranged from a production of Milton's Comus (which must have challenged their acting skills considerably) to variety show skits that could be, in Woolf's own words, 'sublimely obscene'. Among the earlier comedies was a piece by Quentin Bell in which his home, Charleston Farmhouse in the village of Firle, East Sussex, was presented as an archaeological ruin of the distant future, visited by tourists; and later, in the mid-1930s, there was even a shadow play about John the Baptist, which featured a protruding severed head, made by Duncan Grant out of cardboard and oozing red gelatine.

In 1923, Woolf wrote the first version of Freshwater, but it was never staged. There were two reasons for this: she was, at the time, deeply involved in writing her novel Mrs Dalloway and also, she was dissatisfied with her play. 'I could write something much better,' she informed Vanessa Bell in the late autumn of 1923, 'if I gave up a little more time to it: and I foresee that the whole affair will be much more of an undertaking than I thought.' She found time to improve Freshwater a decade later, when she revised the script completely.

We know that rehearsals for the play took place throughout the summer of 1934 and it was eventually performed in Vanessa Bell's London studio at 8 Fitzroy Street on the evening of 18 January 1935, in an atmosphere of noise and levity. In particular, Clive Bell's booming voice and laughter were heard throughout the performance. Apparently the stage lighting was dim and it was not always possible to see, let alone hear, what was going on, but Virginia's diary entry of the following day records her own appreciation of 'this unbuttoned laughing evening'.

As early as 1919, Virginia had stated her intention of writing a comedy about her great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron. Woolf never knew her great aunt: Cameron died in 1879 and Woolf was born three years later in 1882. Woolf obviously researched her subject fully, and doubtless there would have been many stories circulating about this formidable lady, who had been described by Lady Ritchie, a contemporary, as 'a woman of noble plainness'.

Julia Cameron and her husband Charles, a retired Indian jurist, had moved to Freshwater Bay in 1860 to live in a house which they named Dimbola Lodge. This was just a few hundred yards from Farringford, the home of Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate.

In 1863, when she was 48, Julia was inspired to take up photography with wild enthusiasm after receiving a camera as a present from one of her seven children. She wrote in 1874: 'I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me,' although many a sitter might have asserted during the experience, 'That's funny, I feel as though I've been arrested,' such were the bullying tactics that Cameron frequently used towards those who sat for her. She was fond of allegorical and symbolic subjects and many of her photographs were designed to illustrate poetic works, notably Tennyson's.

In 1863, someone brought Kate and Ellen Terry, successful actresses from a Coventry family of jobbing actors, to Dimbola, and Mrs Cameron seized on her for a model. George Frederic Watts, who was a frequent visitor to the island and living in The Briary, the house he had built near Tennyson, fell for Ellen. Watts was 46 at the time and Ellen was 16. Watts felt it was his mission to save her from the degradations of the stage, hoping to elevate her status to that of Muse. They were married early in 1864, but the marriage was over before the end of the year. To her great bewilderment, it was made clear to Ellen that the match was unsuitable — a big surprise to her as she was quite happy with Watts — and she was despatched home to her parents in disgrace.

In her play, Virginia Woolf takes a rather different view of things. She clearly enjoyed playing fast and loose with chronology, since several of the events described in the play happened quite a lot later than 1864. Also, her treatment of three of the older characters may seem a bit cruel at times, but we must remember that she was writing for a private audience and imagining them from the perspective of Bloomsbury in the 1920s and 30s. How she must have relished the idea of writing a play that would feature these Victorians, allowing her the chance to lampoon their personalities, their ambitions and pretensions.

Compton Little Theatre is delighted to have been asked to contribute this entertaining little play to Watts Gallery - Artists' Village's Bicentenary celebrations for the birth of G F Watts. I hope you will enjoy the reading and not withhold your laughter!