The Night Virginia Woolf Went Skinny-Dipping with a Poet
In August, 1911, Adeline Virginia Stephen (better known to the world as Virginia Woolf after her marriage to Leonard Woolf) visited her poet friend Rupert Brooke in Cambridge.
According to Christopher Hassall’s 1964 biography of Brooke, they went skinny-dipping one night during that visit:
It was the end of August. Virginia Stephen arrived at the Old Vicarage and occupied [a] bed on the other side of the house. The garden room was strewn with scraps of Strindberg, pages of Bland Vassen and fragments of verse. Probably the guest had brought with her an early chapter of The Voyage Out to revise while Brooke was reading or writing stretched out on the grass. One warm night there was a clear sky and a moon and they walked out to the shadowy waters of Byron’s Pool. ‘Let’s go swimming, quite naked,’ Brooke said, and they did.
(Byron’s Pool, so called because Lord Byron often swam there while in Cambridge)
Woolf was 29 at the time and Brooke was 24. They were both single (Woolf would marry exactly one year later), so one does wonder if anything else took place that night.
I think that’s unlikely. When Woolf later spoke of that night’s swim to her friend Vita Sackville-West, she didn’t mention anything beyond skinny-dipping. Given Woolf’s open attitude towards sex and her intimate relationship with Sackville-West, I think Woolf would have told her if more than skinny-dipping had taken place.
(The as-yet-unmarried Adeline Virginia Stephen with her brother-in-law Clive Bell in 1910)
Woolf and Sackville-West, who was the inspiration for Woolf’s Orlando, met in 1922 and, after a tentative start, began a sexual relationship which, according to Sackville-West, was only consummated twice. They remained friends until Woolf’s suicide on March 28, 1941.
Rupert Brooke, of course, went on to write rather idealistic war poems after the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in August, 1914, and saw combat near Antwerp as part of the Royal Naval Division in October of that year. On his way to the landing at Gallipoli, Brooke developed a fatal case of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died onboard a French hospital ship off the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea, on April 23, 1915.
(Rupert Brooke in 1913. He was allegedly described by W.B. Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England”)
Here is what perhaps has become his best-known poem:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
I have often wondered if Brooke had experienced the horrors of Gallipoli, would he have moved on from his idealistic poems of 1914 towards the darker, hardened war poetry of Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen?
No one can answer that question, of course.