The real Clarissa Dalloway

“What a lark! What a plunge.” Clarissa Dalloway’s words on leaving her house to buy flowers for her party that evening might have been those of Virginia Woolf, her creator, when in 1907 she had set up home with her brother Adrian at 29 Fitzroy Square – an event which proved seminal in the creation of the Bloomsbury Group.

Woolf’s model for Mrs Dalloway was her childhood friend Kitty Maxse, née Lushington. “Almost Kitty verbatim”, Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa concerning Mrs Dalloway; “what would happen if she guessed”. (In a letter to her sister Susan, Kitty summed up their childhood days with “What a lark it all was”.) Exactly how much Clarissa mirrored Kitty has been the subject of much speculation, however. The Lushington and the Stephen families had been friends for many years and Woolf later recalled how, at her childhood home, 22 Hyde Park Gate, “The tea-table however was also fertilized by a ravishing stream of female beauty – the three Miss Lushingtons, the three Miss Stillmans, and the three Miss Montgomeries – all triplets, all ravishing, but of the nine the paragon for wit, grace and distinction was undoubtedly the lovely Kitty Lushington”.

Kitty was the eldest of the three daughters of Vernon Lushington and his wife Jane. Vernon, a lawyer, had first met Virginia’s mother, Julia Prinsep, when he was on the Northern Circuit in Liverpool. Julia married Lushington’s fellow lawyer and university friend Herbert Duckworth; in a letter dated August 16, 1867, Lushington described Julia as “a sweet amiable girl . . . prettily dressed last night in white – how I can’t say exactly, but she had a gold band around her waist, such as sometimes the striped gold dress my own [i.e. Jane] used to wear. She sang in the evening but it was not much”. After Duckworth’s death in 1870, Julia married Leslie Stephen.

When Jane Lushington died suddenly in 1884, Julia assumed maternal supervision of the Lushington girls and later encouraged the courtship of Kitty and the newspaper editor Leopold Maxse. Their engagement took place at the Stephen family’s summer residence, Talland House in Cornwall – the setting on which Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse would be based. Looking back, Virginia recalled this event as her first introduction to “the passion of love”, and Kitty and Leo appear in the novel thinly disguised as Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. A newly discovered archive of Lushington family correspondence and diaries includes a number of letters written from Talland House by Jane Lushington which shed fresh light on life at the Stephen family’s holiday home. (On more than one occasion Jane tells her husband that the Stephens have discussed the possibility that “Tomorrow they might go” – not to the Lighthouse but to Land’s End.)

Kitty Lushington was particularly close to Stella Duckworth, Julia Stephen’s daughter from her first marriage, who was closer to her in age than the others. But when Julia died in 1895, it was Kitty’s turn to take a motherly interest in all the Stephen and Duckworth children, just as Julia had taken her mother’s part some ten years before. This may have been in Virginia Woolf’s subconscious when Clarissa Dalloway made her first brief appearance in The Voyage Out (1915), Woolf’s first novel, taking a maternal interest in Rachel Vinrace, the protagonist.

In addition to the correspondence from Talland House, other letters in the Lushington family archive offer new insights into both early Bloomsbury relationships and Kitty’s character. After the death of Leslie Stephen in 1904, Virginia, her sister Vanessa, and brothers Thoby and Adrian moved to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. In December 1904, Vernon Lushington wrote to his daughter Susan: “So glad also that you have seen Vanessa & Virginia, & find their new home pretty”. Two years later, after returning from a visit to Greece and Turkey, Thoby died, leaving the sisters alone with Adrian. Although Virginia wrote, “Kitty already screams against Bloomsbury”, a newly discovered letter from Kitty to her sister Susan, dated December 1, 1906, reveals that it was Kitty who encouraged Virginia and Adrian to make a new life for themselves:
“Adrian came to dinner last night and was so nice. I really think he is charming. I can’t tell you how he is looking forward to Kingsley [Kingsley, Hampshire was then the home of Susan Lushington] – he laughed a great deal over it beforehand, which may shock you, and he is counting the hours till he goes. I am so desperately anxious that he and Virginia should set up some sort of nice interesting life for themselves together – I really think she is quite inclined to be sociable. She is going to hand me over her clothes to do, which is great fun. She has been so wonderfully good all these times – of course everything falls on her, seeing people, letters, etc., etc., – we know it all. Adrian’s very amusing and Leo is delighted with him. ”
(The “nice interesting life” Kitty wished for Virginia and Adrian was realized within just a few months when brother and sister set up home together in Fitzroy Square. It was there that the Thursday evenings which their late brother Thoby had initiated at Gordon Square were resurrected.) A few days later, Kitty wrote again to Susan: “I had such a satisfactory sight of Virginia – who says Adrian is delightful to be with & so unselfish . . . & I had quite a long talk over their new existence. I want it far away from Bell & quite an entirely fresh start – new friends, situation & all – she has been so unhappy over Thoby”.

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