Monday, May 17, 2010


WHEN JULIAN AND QUENTIN BELL'S family newspaper The Charleston Bulletin began publication in 1923, it was the second private newspaper some family members had known. The first, The Hyde Park Gate News, had been run the generation before by Julian and Quentin's mother Venessa Bell, with uncle Thoby Stephen, and aunt Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, in 1923, was already an established author and publisher, and a member of The Bloomsbury Group, the influential intellectual collective made up of the Woolfs, the Bells, and their friends. Her greatest works--Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Common Reader (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927)--were just ahead of her, written at the same time her young nephews were publishing The Bulletin. But despite these "adult" affairs, when fifteen-year-old Julian and thirteen-year-old Quentin solicited submissions from family members, Aunt Virginia, perhaps with memories of The Hyde Park Gate News in mind, took the time to contribute.

"The result," Quentin Bell writes in the afterward to the 1988 Hogarth Press edition of The Widow and the Parrot,
was a tease. We had hoped vaguely for something as funny, as subversive, and as frivolous as Virginia's conversation. Knowing this, she sent us an 'improving' story with a moral, based on the very worst Victorian examples.

"SOME FIFTY YEARS AGO Mrs Gage, an elderly widow, was sitting in her cottage in a village called Spilsby in Yorkshire." News reaches the destitute woman that her brother has died and left her a house, all of his belongings, and three thousand pounds sterling. She borrows money from the village clergyman in order to make the trip to her brother's (now her) home in Rodmell to survey her new belongings.

In Rodmell she finds that the house and all of its contents are in pitiful condition, disused and worthless. The only thing of any value is a seaman's parrot who only repeats the phrase, "'Not at home.'" She feeds the parrot, and resolves to go directly to Lewes in order to retrieve the three thousand pounds from her brother's solicitors.

At the solicitor's offices, however, Mrs Gage is asked to take a seat. "'You must prepare to face some very disagreeable news,'" the solicitor begins. "'Since I wrote to you I have gone carefully through [your brother] Mr Brand's papers. I regret to say that I can find no trace whatever of the three thousand pounds.'"

Broken, and now in debt to her clergyman with no means to repay him, Mrs Gage makes way for her brother's (now her) home. On the way back to Rodmell, night falls. All is pitch black when Mrs Gage comes to the dangerous ford on the river that lies just outside of town. But "at that moment a wonderful thing happened. An enormous light shot up into the sky..."

The flames offer enough light for Mrs Gage to ford the river and make her way into town. There, however, she finds that it is her house that is burning. "'Has anybody saved the parrot?"' she cries, and the neighbors, assuming she's crazy with grief over her losses, lead her to a neighboring cottage, where she is put to bed.

Then, in the night, there is a tap at the window. It is the parrot, alive and eager for Mrs Gage to follow him, which she does. He leads her to the smoldering ruins of her brother's cottage, and through a series of taps and pantomimes, directs Mrs Gage to remove the bricks from the ground where her brother's hearth used to be. Beneath she finds the missing gold sovereigns. They are enough for her to live out the rest of her life in comfort with the parrot as a companion.

Moral: "Such is the reward of kindness to animals."

THE WIDOW AND THE PARROT remained locked away in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over fifty years. It at last saw publication as part of the year long celebration honoring one hundred years since Virginia Woolf's birth, in the July 1982 issue of Redbook.

What might have been more startling than the text even, was the revelation shown in a reproduction of the first page of the holograph, that Woolf was the story's first illustrator. But it should not come as too great a surprise that Virginia occasionally dabbled in the visual arts (even if only as a doodler). After all, Virginia's sister (Julian and Quentin's mother) Venessa Bell was a painter who designed the book jackets and sometimes provided interior woodblock prints for many of Virginia's books. Quentin provided most of The Charleston Bulletin's illustrations, and his son Julian (named for his uncle who died in the Spanish Civil War) offered the more fully realized illustrations in the children's book edition of The Widow and the Parrot (seen above).

In fact it's interesting to compare Julian's book illustrations (from Hinton's The Heart's Clockwork):

With his grandmother Vanessa's (from Woolf's Kew Gardens):

Despite how public they made or make their lives, the Woolf/Bell's work never strays far from the family.

Background information for this post comes from Quentin Bell's "Afterword" in the Hogarth Press edition of The Widow and the Parrot, the notes to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf where the text of The Widow and the Parrot is currently available, and from Peter Robins's and the BBC's articles on the acquisition of The Charleston Bulletin archive by The British Library.

Julian Bell is a painter and art historian. His 2007 book Mirror of the World: A New History of Art was released to rave reviews. He has illustrated other books (see my Flickr set here for more from Hinton's book), but the widest selection of his art can be found on his website.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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