Don’t do this at home

©National Trust

Katherine Sharp, the curator for Monk’s House (which I featured earlier), has just told me of a recent gift to the house of some books once owned by Virginia Woolf.

©National Trust

They are a set of the Arden edition of Shakespeare which Virginia covered with coloured paper in 1936. Her diary entry for 25 February 1936 reads: “… I’ve had headaches. Vanquish them by lying still and binding books …” – by ‘binding’ she meant re-covering the books with glued paper.

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monks House. ©NTPL/Eric Crichton

Although I wouldn’t personally recommend glueing coloured paper all over your books, it does vividly illustrate the earthy modernist taste of the Bloomsbury Group. And of course it is also poignant evidence of Virginia’s need to soothe her sometimes fragile state of mind with repetitive manual work.

Monks House, Rodmell, East Sussex. ©NTPL/Eric Crichton

The books come with a bookcase that is recorded as being in the Woolfs’ London home in the late 1930s and later came to Monk’s House. After Leonard’s death in 1969 the bookcase and the books were given to Lady Lintott, a longstanding friend of the Woolfs who lived nearby in Rodmell. Her children have now donated it to Monk’s House.

6 Responses to “Don’t do this at home”

  1. Theresa Cheek Says:

    If Lanvin and Woolf can do it, I can too!! I am seriously thinking about making jackets, not ruining the book,

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Theresa, if it inspires you, then go for it. As you say there is a fascinating tradition of personalised book covers going back to the heraldic leather bindings in eighteenth-century aristocratic libraries.

    In Japan there is a nice custom of bookshops wrapping your purchases in the bookshop’s own paper cover, so you can read the books on the train or wherever without scuffing them.

  3. Toby Worthington Says:

    Fascinating, as always. Who knew that Mrs Woolf was thus inclined?
    In a way, this post provided vindication for my youthful sins, for I
    once glued marbled paper over a first edition wrapper that was
    designed by Andy Warhol for 3 novels of Ronald Firbank.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes – when I was discovering modern art as a teenager I used to turn books into art by drawing Picassoesque doodles on the flyleaves … cringe 🙂

  5. Philip Wilkinson Says:

    Emile: Fascinating post, thank you. I’d read that line from the diaries about ‘binding books’ quoted somewhere, and took it literally. I think I imagined she’d picked up some knowledge of book-binding via the Hogarth Press. So I was interested to read what it actually referred to. Probably the old Arden Shakespeares were just bound in plain red cloth, so nothing special was spoiled and we have a revealing link to a writer’s life and sensibility.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Philip, exactly. I think that even our libraries curator would agree that in this case the ‘intervention’ makes the books more rather than less interesting.

    Apparently Virginia Woolf did have some actual bookbinding skills. But in a letter to E.M. Forster from about the same time as the diary entry quoted above she mentions that she is “… rebinding all my Shakespeares – 29 vols – in coloured paper, and thinking of then reading one of them”.

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