The Curious Case of the Hindhead Proposal: Virginia Woolf and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Tobias Verfuss: Isle of May, 2019 (CC)

by Andre Gerard

As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after. We have not yet grasped the results which the reason alone can attain to.

“The Five Orange Pips” (1891)       

The clues, in no particular order, are:

– an 1896 photograph, possibly by Stella Duckworth
– a deer-stalker hat
– Minta Doyle
– Hindhead
– John Tyndall
– Lord Raleigh
– Paul Rayley
– Hindhead
– Stella Duckworth
– Jack Hills
– Arthur Conan Doyle

Ponder and follow them for yourself, then read the following account of how my Watsonian fumblings eventually cracked the case.


How to begin? How to present to you the curious case of the Hindhead proposal? How to convince you of a deliberate Conan Doyle presence in To the Lighthouse? When I glance over my notes and records, it is no easy matter to know what information to include and what information to leave out. Do I, for instance, mention Woolf’s interest in detective fiction, as evidenced by her ‘passion’ for Trent’s Last Case or by the Hogarth Press publishing C. B. Kitchen’s Death of My Aunt in 1929? Do I mention her friendship with T.S. Eliot, keen reader and reviewer of detective fiction, who, in a June, 1927 letter to Virginia, described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history”?

Too many notes. Too much jotting. With such a mass of material at my command, the problem is not to find but to choose. Watson is no help. Nor are Dr. Bradshaw and his colleague. Not easy to maintain a just sense of proportion when faced with such a welter of words. Sifting through all my facts and suppositions is a difficult matter, especially as some of my conclusions are the result of what might be called ‘Holmesian intuition’, founded upon conjecture and surmise rather than on absolute logical proof. Perhaps best to start tangentially. Two tangents should do.

The first, relatively short, is created by the Rigby Lowndes clock in Mrs. Dalloway. On my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, I barely noticed the clock. Caught up in plot and characterisation, I likely saw the clock – assuming I noticed it at all – as yet another manifestation of “time ratified by Greenwich”, another version of Big Ben or St. Margaret’s. On a second reading, years later and with the help of  the annotations in Ann Fernald’s superb Cambridge Mrs. Dalloway, I became aware of the clock’s suffragette implications: of Edith Rigby’s black pudding exploit and of her attempt to blow up the Liverpool Cotton Exchange, and of Mary Lowndes’ stained-glass work and her founding of the Artist’s Suffrage League. As Holmes would have seen at a glance, the shop clock is one of the many ways in which Woolf sets her novel deeply within her own time.

The second tangent intersects with the first and also has to do with names. Just as the names of Lowndes and Rigby led me ever deeper into Woolf’s world, so, too, do the names in To the Lighthouse. Sorley, Carmichael, Ramsay, Rayley, for instance. Sorley and Sorley’s little boy connect to philosopher William Ritchie Sorley (1855-1935) and his son, Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915), the young poet killed at the battle of Loos. Carmichael was the nom de plume of Marie Stopes (1880-1958) and that Carmichael association deepens the implications attendant on Prue’s death from “some illness connected with childbirth.” Ramsay connects to Ramses the Great, as well as Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916) who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1904. Likewise Rayley connects to Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919), winner of the physics Nobel that very same year, and owner of the Rayleigh Dairies.  Remember Mrs. Ramsay’s passion and concern about “the iniquity of the English dairy system” and the quality of London milk.

Names, names, so many names, and all of them connect…or can be made to connect. No Godfrey Norton or spouse, alas, yet ever so many others, including Tansley, Briscoe, Macalister and McNabb. Tansley, to call attention to yet another scientist’s name in the novel, links to Arthur Tansley (1871-1955), pioneering ecologist and founding editor of the Journal of Ecology. Briscoe is the surname of Arthur Briscoe (1873-1943), marine painter who, along with Vanessa Bell, exhibited in the 1926 Venice Biennale. Like Carmichael, McNabb and Macalister have connections to reproductive rights: Father Vincent McNabb (1869-1943), well-known Dominican friar and London preacher, repeatedly attacked Marie Stopes and her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress; and Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (1856-1925), Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1901 to 1925, a year after he was knighted published “Venereal disease Prevention, and the Moral Question” (Public Health, 1920, Vol. 33, p. 114) to support the recommendations of the National Council on Venereal Disease. Again and again in To the Lighthouse names are Cuvier bones, one of the major ways in which Virginia attached fiction to life “at all four corners.”

But enough of tangents. Enough faffing about. Doyle, of course, is the name I have been working up to. Doyle as in Minta Doyle. Doyle as in Conan Doyle. Because of the importance of names, very early in this investigation I saw the possibility that Minta Doyle’s surname might be a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The thought was a rather tenuous one, however, given that other than the name itself I had no clues to lead me in that direction. There was seemingly no reason for a Doyle reference in To the Lighthouse. There was seemingly no reason for Minta to be the one thus named. It was only when I started on George Meredith explorations that I began to have the beginnings of a case.


My sleuthing went as follows. Because Minta connects to Meredith by way of Lord Ormont and his Aminta (1893), I checked to see if there might not also be a connection between Meredith and Doyle. It turns out that the young Conan Doyle was a passionate Meredith fan. Meredith’s work was one of Doyle’s “youthful cults”, and he gave popular lectures on Meredith and wrote essays about him. In Memories and Adventures (1923), Conan Doyle describes visiting Meredith and, after a rather testy initial encounter, being asked to drink a whole bottle of Burgundy, a request which Doyle was only too happy to satisfy. On this or on another visit, Meredith also talked at length about Napoleon’s Marshals, and he brought The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot (1892) to Conan Doyle’s attention. Meredith’s comments and Marbot’s memoirs (which Clarissa is glimpsed reading in Mrs. Dalloway) supposedly inspired Doyle to write his The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896).

The Doyle Meredith connection is also a Leslie Stephen one. According to Andrew Lycett (in his Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes (2007)), on one occasion when visiting Box Hill with J.M. Barrie and Arthur Quiller Couch, Doyle met Leslie Stephen at Meredith’s. Supposedly Doyle found Stephen “retiring and unprepossessing”. What Leslie Stephen thought is not recorded, but he may well have told his family about meeting the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and Virginia, though she would later disparage Watson as “a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun”, may have been sufficiently impressed to remember this connection between Doyle and her father when she came to write To the Lighthouse. Doyle’s Scottish heritage would have been an additional reason for referencing him in a novel set on the Isle of Skye. A touch of Conan Doyle ancestry in Minta Doyle, by way of Meredith, might also supply a reason for why Mr. Carmichael is so interested in acrostics and puzzles, and also why To the Lighthouse offers so many sleuthing delights.

Ronnie Fleming: Isle of May, 2020 (CC)

The biggest delight of my Conan Doyle sleuthing may well be a false clue, even if the facts are not in doubt. In 1881, Conan Doyle published a signed article in The British Journal of Photography. Titled “After Cormorants with a Camera“, the essay is a colourful, boisterously hearty account of a trip Doyle made to the Isle of May with two friends. They hired two local sailors and their small boat to sail from the Burgh of Grail (Crail) to the Isle of May and its lighthouse. While his companions amused themselves by slaughtering great numbers of birds, Doyle spent his time developing his photographic skills and also catching several fish. In his story, Doyle describes visiting and dining with the lighthouse keeper and his wife, whose eldest son has been accidentally shot in the leg by a “stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting.” He also includes a punning reference to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

[Allow me a Woolfian bracket to make a non-Woolf observation. Obsessive Woolfian that I am, I am also a lover of Sherlock Holmes, and I can’t leave Doyle’s article without also pointing out how in it, six years before Sherlock Holmes made his now mythical debut in A Study in Scarlet (1887), the name of Holmes is thrown out in connection with a Watsonian figure. Consider the following passage:

“Couldn’t we get another fellow?” said I. “We’d have room to quarrel then.” Who could we get! This was a question easier to ask than to answer. There was Singleton, but he didn’t drink; there was Jack Hawkins, but he drank too much; then there was Holmes, but he neither smoked nor drank; while Godfrey’s continual wails about his pipe were fatal to peace and quietness. Who should it be? “Happy thought!” said I. “Who d’ye think I met in town today? The Doctor! He is our man!”

Or again:

The Doctor was there in great force, squatting like a toad in my arm chair, his beady eyes twinkling through a cloud of smoke, whence, like the Oracle of Delphi, he emitted an occasional word of wisdom.

Such deep delight in detecting embryo forms of both Holmes and Watson in this early, autobiographical essay!]

Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, a trip to a lighthouse in a small boat sailed by two local sailors with three passengers, the shooting of birds, artistic efforts to record the scene, a lighthouse keeper and his family, a lame son: uncannily strong as the parallels are between Doyle’s account and Woolf’s novel, it is highly unlikely that Woolf ever read Doyle’s essay. It was, after all, published a year before her birth, and her own biographical source material provided identical bones for her tale. All the same, because of the allusive and accretive method of her story telling, a method which invites the reader to look for subtle signs and to bring their own experience – experience both real and literary – to the story, for me To the Lighthouse now includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s little adventure.


Wait. One moment. Perhaps I was too hasty in dismissing the possibility of Woolf’s having read Doyle’s article. In 1926, Woolf, along with Roger Fry, published a book of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia’s great-aunt. In the introductory essay Woolf wrote for this book, Woolf quoted from Cameron’s autobiographical fragment “Annals of My Glass House” (1874).  Though Woolf does not refer to it, the fragment also contains the following Julia Margaret comment:

The Photographic Society of London in their Journal would have dispirited me very much had I not valued that criticism at its worth. It was unsparing and too manifestly unjust for me to attend to it.

Given this passage,  it is entirely possible, probable even, that Woolf would have read back issues of The British Journal of Photography as part of her research. If so, this is some of what she would have read:

For Mrs Cameron’s heads there must be some excuse made for their being the work of a woman; but even this does not necessitate such fearlessly bad manipulation as the majority of these heads and figures show… To expend serious criticism on them is a waste of words.

BJP, July 25, 1873

Whether Woolf read Doyle’s article or not, my detective work is not wasted. Material like this brutally reveals how prevalent and how corrosive Victorian misogyny could be. Material like this adds a fiercer fire to Charles Tansley’s ugly, oft repeated “Women can’t paint, women can’t write…” mantra.

But once again the game’s afoot. Some months ago, Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury: The Private Lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (2006) handed me an important clue connecting Virginia to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and thereby strengthened my wild surmise that Minta Doyle might owe her surname to Sir Arthur. In Snapshots, Maggie included a photograph of Thoby Stephen and Conan Doyle. The photograph is dated 1896, and it was taken when the Stephen family were holidaying at Hindhead the year after Julia’s death. Labelled “Kodaking Dr. Conan Doyle”, the photograph shows Thoby, a black mourning armband clearly visible, photographing Conan Doyle from behind. It is a playful photograph of a young photographer (Thoby) caught in the act of stalking and photographing a keen amateur photographer (Doyle) unawares. Though the photograph is in Vanessa’s album, Maggie Humm thinks the photograph was taken by Stella. Stella or Vanessa, the photograph is proof that the Stephen children met Doyle and that he made an impression on them.

Kodaking Dr. Conan Doyle, 1896

To find such a strong piece of evidence connecting Conan Doyle and Virginia was most exciting, so exciting, in fact, that at first I failed to see another major clue in the photograph. I was at my Watsonian worst instead of Holmesian best. I was blind to the Hindhead location and it’s import. The significance of this location eluded me until a couple of months later when, in Vanessa Curtis’ The Hidden Houses of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (2005), I discovered that in Hindhead the Stephen family had been staying at the house of John Tyndall as guests of Tyndall’s widow.

With the Tyndall name a light went on! What a discovery! I almost swallowed an imaginary pipe in my excitement, and had I been wearing a deerstalker cap I would have tossed it high in the air. Tyndall, Hindhead and Doyle…of course! Minta’s surname now made geographical sense, as did, with a slight mental leap, Paul Rayley’s. Tyndall, after all, was more than a close acquaintance of Leslie Stephen, a fellow alpinist with whom he had had a rivalry of sorts and an occasionally prickly relationship. No, far more than that, Tyndall was a major scientist and educator who, among much else, was one of the first to discover and explain the workings of the greenhouse effect.

The Tyndall name and scientific connection provides another plausible reason for Paul Rayley’s surname. For Virginia, Paul’s surname had associations with Tyndall, as well as with Lord Rayleigh. In 1869 Tyndall was the first to suggest that light scattering off nanoparticles gave the sky its blue colour, and two years later Lord Rayleigh published papers which helped to prove and confirm Tyndall’s conjecture. The work of the two men in this area overlapped to such an extent that two terms still in use today. Tyndall scattering and Rayleigh scattering are near synonymous and sometimes cause confusion. Elementary, my dear Andre. Sherlock would have had no difficulty in establishing a Tyndall / Rayleigh / Rayley connection.


To see a link between Paul and Minta’s surnames and two important historical figures associated with the Stephen family stay at Hindhead in 1896 is to essentially solve the case. Behind Paul and Minta stand Jack Waller Hills and Virginia’s stepsister, Stella Duckworth. For Virginia, the Doyle and Rayley names were private, playful signposts to a time, place and event which so seared her that she would return to it again and again over the years. Consider the following passages, the first taken from the 1907 memoir which is titled “Reminiscences” in Schulkind’s Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings (1976):

We had been lent a house at Hindhead, and one afternoon at the end of August, Jack came there, bicycling to some place in the neighbourhood. His visits were so often forced in this way that we suspected nothing more than the usual amount of restraint from his explosive ways, and much information about dogs and bicycles. His opinion on these matters stood very high with us. He stayed to dinner, and that also was characteristic of his method; but after dinner a strange lapse occurred in the usual etiquette. Stella left the room with him, to show him the garden or the moon, and decisively shut the door behind her. We had our business to attend to also, and followed them soon with a lantern, for we were then in the habit of catching moths after dinner. Once or twice we saw them, always hasting round a corner; once or twice we heard her skirts brushing, and once a sound of whispering. But the moon was very bright, and there were no moths; Stella and Jack had gone in, it seemed, and we returned to the drawing room.

The second passage is from Virginia’s diary in 1922, at a time when she was struggling with Mrs. Dalloway:

On this day, I don’t know how many years ago, 1897 [Virginia was out by a year] to be precise, Jack came to Hindhead & was accepted by Stella in the moonlit garden. We wandered about the house till she came in & told us. Thoby thought they were tramps. I tried to describe the little trees in the moonlight. Jack was accepted in Tyndall’s little study on that bare heath twenty five years ago. As she died so soon after, somehow it still seems to me like a real thing, unsmothered by succeeding years.

Tuesday, 22 August, 1922 

Again, writing in 1940, in the manuscript now known as “A Sketch of the Past”, she reverts to Hindhead House and to what took place there:

The next thing I remember is the night at Hindhead (August 22nd, 1896)—the black and silver night of mysterious voices, the night when father packed us off to bed early; and we heard voices in the garden; and saw Stella and Jack passing; and disappearing; and the tramp came; and Thoby countered him; and Nessa and I sat up in our bedroom waiting; and Stella never came; and at last in the early morning she came and told us she was engaged; and I whispered, “Did mother know?” and she murmured, Yes”.

Later in the manuscript, still writing about Jack and Stella’s engagement, she records the following:

And it was through that engagement that I had my first vision—so intense, so exciting, so rapturous was it that the word vision applies—my first vision then of love between man and woman. It was to me like a ruby; the love I detected that winter of their engagement, glowing, red, clear intense. It gave me a conception of love; a standard of love; a sense that nothing in the whole world is so lyrical,             so musical, as a young man and a young woman in their first love for each other. I connect it with respectable engagements; unofficial love never gives me the same feeling. “My Love’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June’—that was the feeling they gave; the feeling that has always come back, when I hear of  ‘an engagement’; not when I hear of an ‘affair’. It derives from Stella and Jack. 

Part of the reason that the Hindhead proposal burnt so deeply into Virginia’s psyche is that, less than a year after her engagement to Jack (and barely two years after the death of Julia Stephen), Stella died in the early stages of pregnancy. In To the Lighthouse, the death of Prue tersely, shockingly echoes Stella’s death:

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

For the fifteen year old Virginia the death was deeply traumatic. She had lost not just a step-sister, but a surrogate mother. In her diary for July 19, 1897, the day of Stella’s death, she wrote of it as “impossible to write of.” Many years later, though, she briefly recorded the following:

One fortnight was the length of their honeymoon. And directly she came back she was taken ill. It was appendicitis; she was going to have a baby. And that was mismanaged too; and so, after three months of intermittent illness, she died – at 24 Hyde Park Gate, on July 27th, 1897.

“A Sketch of the Past”  

The date of death is misremembered. Not surprisingly, given the deep pain attached to that memory. At the time, Virginia, often quite ill herself, spent many hours with Stella, and her brief journal fragments from that period only hint at the anguish, confusion and pain which surrounded Stella’s dying and death.

Knowledge of Hindhead deepens our understanding of To the Lighthouse. The proposal which took place there is another of the biographical points to which Virginia attached the web of her fiction. The real-life courtship, supported and encouraged by Julia Stephen, was an important model for the novel’s. Of course, blue-eyed Stella is no more brown-eyed Minta than brown-eyed Jack is blue-eyed Paul, yet by their surnames Virginia evoked for herself that long-ago summer and deepened the reality of what she was writing. To think about Hindhead and the people there is to increase our understanding of the characters in the novel, the emotions at play, and the primal power of the biological and cultural forces channelled and controlled by courtship rituals.


One last Holmesian observation, not profound, yet pleasurably plausible. Accept Minta Doyle’s surname as a reference to Conan Doyle and you have an explanation for why Mrs. Ramsay is twice glimpsed – once by Lily Briscoe and once by William Bankes – wearing a deer-stalker hat. In William’s memory, she might almost be Sherlock in action: “She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief.” Never mind that Conan Doyle never capped Sherlock with a deer-stalker; from a very early date the deer-stalker was a powerful Holmes signifier. Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891) quickly caught the public imagination and was further solidified by William Gillette’s 1899 stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes and also by his 1916 silent movie version. Reach back to Doyle and Hindhead through the deer-stalker and there may be a further associative fillip in thinking about how Hindhead once meant “a hill frequented by deer”. Another reason, perhaps, why the Ramsay children disappear from the dinner table as “stealthily as stags”.


As readers of my Mansfield To the Lighthouse ruminations may already suspect, I have a weakness for codas. It may be the pack rat in me, attracted to quirky, unusual facts and fragments of information. Less attractively, it may also be the pit bull in me, unable to let anything go until I’ve worried it half to death. Either way, here I am, codafying once again.

Pack rat and pit bull aside, this coda is an attempt at crowd-sourcing. The hope is that some code-breaker or Sherlockian reading this can help me solve a To the Lighthouse puzzle which has long tormented me: Why does Mr. Ramsay talk about the square root of one thousand two hundred and fifty-three, a number whose root is not a rational number? My sense that 1253 sets a deliberate puzzle is rooted in the conviction that in To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf very consciously included puzzles so as to challenge, entertain, educate and reward her readers. My brief overview of names and also the Hindhead proposal give some examples. Dozens of other remarkable examples could be cited; to name but two, the Headlong Hall drinking song lurking behind Mr. Bankes’ involuntary paean to Mrs. Ramsay; and the way in which Mr. Bankes’ “honeymoon on the banks of the Kennet” connects to a marriage proposal Virginia received from Edward Hilton Young, later Lord Kennet.

Acrostic or puzzle? What did Virginia mean by “one thousand two hundred and fifty-three”? In the American edition of To the Lighthouse we are told “That was the number, it seemed, on his watch.” The British edition reads “which happened to be the number on his railway ticket.” Given Mr. Carmichael’s interest in acrostics and puzzles, I am tempted to seek a hidden meaning. “It seemed” or “happened to be” are prompts to look deeper. Nothing just “seems” or “happens to be” in To the Lighthouse. The number may just be a random number, but if so it is probably the only random thing in the novel. In playing with the number I’ve looked at it as a date, as a verse number in the Bible, as a Shakespearean act/scene/line citation and as an acrostic key. So far the only “one thousand two hundred and fifty-three” possibility I’ve found that might connect to Virginia is in William of Rubruck’s account of his journey to Mongolia, as published in Hakluyt’s Voyages.  Still, although Virginia owned several editions of Hakluyt, I can’t see why she might want to bury an allusion to Rubruck in her novel.

From Rubruck:

Be it known then to your Sacred Majesty that in the year of our Lord one thousand two hundred and fifty-three, on the Nones of May (7th May), I entered the Sea of Pontus, which is commonly called Mare Majus, or the Greater Sea…

The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 125355, as Narrated by Himself, With Two Accounts of the Earlier Journey of John of Pian de Carpine.  tr. from the Latin and ed., with an introductory notice, by William Woodville Rockhill (London: Hakluyt Society, 1900)

No, definitely, Rubruck is not significant or substantial enough. “One thousand two hundred and fifty-three” continues to trouble me – surely it happens or seems to be more than the number on Mr. Ramsay’s railway ticket or the number on his watch – and I construct ever more arcane, murkier, farfetched theories to explain what the number meant to Virginia. So far, I don’t think I have come close to solving the mystery, yet the exercise has the benefit of taking me deeper into Virginia’s world and of providing new perspectives on her life. I am in the position of the ploughman’s sons in the Lafontaine fable, or of John Gray of Middleholm in James Hogg’s story of that name. There is, as yet, no sign of the treasure I am digging for, but my labours are not unrewarded.


“One thousand two hundred and fifty-three” has landed me on the Titanic. On May 3, 1912, a date which could be written 12/5/3, Virginia and Leonard went to the Wreck Commissioner’s Court in the Scottish Drill Hall, Buckingham Gate to attend the second day of Lord Mersey’s inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. While I would be surprised if the number retained, or ever had, Titanic associations in Virginia’s mind, my apophenia is alive to the possibility. If nothing else, the date has got me thinking about the way in which the sinking of the Titanic intersects with Leonard and Virginia’s courtship.

Leonard first asked Virginia to marry him on January 11, 1912, and the courtship continued throughout the Spring. On May 1, Virginia wrote Leonard a long letter (Letters, Vol. 1, 496), frankly exploring the state of her feelings towards him and towards marriage. Though the letter was ambivalent, it was encouraging enough that, in expectation of marriage, on May 2 Leonard sent a letter to the government confirming his resignation from the Ceylon civil service. The next day, Leonard and Virginia attended the second day of the Titanic Inquiry.

It would be interesting to know whether Leonard and Virginia spent the entire day at the Inquiry. Their presence at the hearings is mentioned in Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (p. 304), and in a footnote to Letters, Vol 1, 495, but neither Lee’s biography nor the Letters gives the primary source. If Virginia and Leonard did stay for the whole day, among other things they would have heard about the position and speed of the Titanic at the time of the sinking, the information available to her captain and crew about icebergs in the area, the number and capacity of the lifeboats, and the numbers and percentages of the passengers and crew who were saved (analysed according to age, gender and passenger class). The hearing that day also heard the cross examination of Archie Jewell, one of two lookouts on duty when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and Joseph Scarrott, an Able Bodied Seaman stationed near the forecastle head.

So many questions. In watching and listening to the hearings, did Virginia and Leonard discuss the similarities between this Inquiry and Joseph Conrad’s description of the Patna Inquiry in Lord Jim? Did they subsequently read some of Conrad’s thoughts about the sinking? Did Virginia relive the Dreadnought Hoax and share with Leonard some of her thoughts about the Dreadnought as a piece of naval engineering and imperial hubris? Did they, in the years to come, make closer connections between the sinking of the Titanic and WWI? Did they interpret and discuss the sinking in mythic terms, both personal and cultural? John Wilson Foster has described the sinking of the Titanic as marking “the end of an era of confidence and optimism.” Did the Titanic disaster resonate for Leonard and Virginia in this way? Did they also interpret it in more personal terms, seeing their impending convergence to be as fraught with potential disaster as with potential hope?

Even before attending the inquest, Virginia had expressed interest in the sinking. In an April 1912 letter to Katherine Cox ( Letters, Vol 1, 495), Virginia wrote:

What I should really like to do now, but must refrain, is a full account of the wreck of the Titanic. Do you know it’s a fact that ships don’t sink at that depth, but remain poised half way down, and become perfectly flat. So that Mrs. Stead is now like a pancake, and her eyes like copper coins. A curious fact, not to be circulated, out of respect for the relatives.

Though the letter is not precisely dated, it may have been written on or shortly after April 18, when The Times carried a lengthy obituary for  W. T. Stead, erstwhile editor of The Pall Mall Gazette and a major player in creating tabloid journalism. The tone of the letter, as so often in Virginia’s correspondence, is fanciful and playful. Virginia is more concerned with entertaining a friend than in reporting facts. Indeed, her “curious fact” is completely wrong, as Mrs. Stead had not accompanied her husband on the Titanic. Virginia may simply have been repeating a rumour or, equally likely, she jumped to conclusions so as to embellish her flight of fancy.


Time to start wrapping up. False clues abound and some mysteries are never solved. All the same, I do hope that some Sherlockian puzzle-solver, cleverer, luckier or more dogged than me, will one day come up with a 1253 solution. A recent event from the world of Steinbeck scholarship gives me hope. For a number of years Steinbeck scholars tried to make sense of the word “slut” scrawled in red ink at the end of The Grapes of Wrath manuscript. Who wrote the word and what did it mean? Was it a misogynistic attack on Rose of Sharon? Recently, crowd sourcing provided a satisfactory answer, one which quickly met with scholarly approval. The solution came from Sweden, where several people recognised that slut is a Swedish word meaning “finis”. Steinbeck had visited Sweden in 1937 and knew the Swedish artist and writer Bo Beskow. “Slut” was a Swedish borrowing, a playful signing off. Elementary my dear Watson. Holmes, with his quirky, wide-ranging knowledge, would have likely had the answer in a heartbeat.

And now a tangential conclusion, if only to complement my tangential beginnings. Even if 1253 remains a mystery to me, attempting a solution has given me much pleasure and has considerably deepened my understanding of To the Lighthouse and Virginia’s world. So interesting, for instance, to think of her and Leonard attending the Titanic inquest, and so rewarding to consider how her own experiences of courtship and marriage helped shape elements of To the Lighthouse (the Ramsay marriage, Lily’s narrow escape from marriage to William Bankes, and Paul and Minta’s ‘modern’ marriage take on intense new dimensions). In particular, my reading of the novel is profoundly changed by the stresses, anxieties and uncertainties contained in the aforementioned May 1, 1912 letter to Leonard. In its own, entirely original way, it is one of the most awe inspiring love letters ever written. The intensity, insight, courage and unflinching honesty take one’s breath away. Deplorably, copyright considerations prevent my sharing it with you, and so I leave it to you to go dig up this particular Cuvier bone for yourselves.

Adrian Brown: Isle of May, 2010 (CC)

About the Author

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress), editor and publisher of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, no longer earns a living as tutor and apartment manager in Vancouver. He now camps and ocean kayaks among eagles and otters on Salt Spring Island, but his primary residence remains To the Lighthouse.

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