Saturday, April 20, 2019

Virginia Woolf: Stonehenge Serendipities

Serendipity upon serendipity. I took with me to Malta (smushed into my luggage) the large hardback of Virgina's Woolf's first set of diaries, A Passionate Apprentice. While there, with two weeks to go before heading to Alton, England, I read the 1903 entries. In that year, she holidayed in Salisbury and went to Stonehenge. It dawned on me that I was soon going to be almost in the same spot: Alton is not far from Stonehenge. What a nice coincidence, I thought. Although we didn't visit, Roger and I drove past Stonehenge on the way to Bath and had a beautiful view. I was relieved the view hadn't been marred by a museum. It looked much as in the photo below:

Stonehenge today

The serendipities, however, did not end at me seeing Stonehenge not long after reading about Woolf visiting Stonehenge. 

Woolf writes about being surprised at how much smaller Stonehenge was than she envsioned: 

I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with a start that with which one sees in real life what ones eyes had always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain—so when we settled to meet the riders at ‘Stonehenge’  I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place …
Stonehenge from around the time Woolf visited

A nineteenth century photo of Stonehenge

I came home from England and continued rereading a journal I had recently found from my time living in England in 1979. Almost immediately, I came across an entry about a trip I took  to Winchester/Stonehenge. Interesting, I thought. Even more so was what I wrote, on April 27, 1979 which I have utterly no memory of thinking: 

Stonehenge. Smaller than I expected. Films, the lying camera, made me imagine towering stone. Yet despite the smallness, it makes a deep impression. You stand on the top of a hill overlooking empty deep green plains on all sides. The wind cuts through clothing, whips back hair with brutal violence. It is still there but the guide’s voice screams into the wind. The stones stand, or lie, unmoved, solid, rugged, overlooking the plains. The mounds of Saxon kings circle the rocks. 
Arrangement of the rocks—like modern sculpture. There is a sense of history, of many centuries here,  the past entrenched here, and one can become part of that, yet remain distinct. It is the same almost as it was—the landscape, the plain, the rocks, the isolation. 
And here is more of Woolf, said far more elegantly and at greater length than me, but the same idea:

Nessa & I drove there [in a pony cart], 12 miles, all winding between the crest of the downs, with the Avon at our feet. It was, to give a most important setting to the scene, a brilliantly clear day; hot in the sun, fresh in the shadow, & the trees and the fields looked brisk & vigorous with the light on them, but by no means too hot. ...
The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. …Man has nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for—I know not how many thousand years. I like to think of it; imagine those toiling pagans doing honor to the very sun now in the sky above me, & for some perverse reason I find this a more deeply impressive temple of Religion—block laid to block and half of them tumbled down in ruin so long that the earth almost hides them, then that perfect spire whence prayer & praise is at this very moment ascending.  

It was so startling for me to come across my own diary entry about Stonehenge, unread for forty years, just a few weeks after I had read Woolf's entry--and even more so to have had the same reaction that she did (even if not an unusual response). 

And now for the final serendipity, which ties back to Notre Dame and my previous blog on the narrative of place. As the photos above clearly show, the look of Stonehenge has changed since Woolf's time. I searched for old photos of Stonehenge to find a suitably "Woolfian" period photo and was stunned by the difference between then and now. The Stonehenge Woolf saw was not the same Stonehenge I saw in 1979 or a month ago driving by. I again note that what we see when we travel as tourists is a construct, a story. Who can say which is more "authentic"--"my" Stonehenge or "Woolf's"-- as the recent changes are clearly meant to make it more "authentically" what it was--or what we believe it to have been--in its heyday. 

Like the Notre Dame cathedral that burned, what is authenticity? That was already largely "restored" in a way that said more about nineteenth century interpretations of Gothic than what a medieval visitor would have seen. And it will be, as Europe always is, restored again. 

Finally, I can't help but quote at length from a humorous 2017 blog that dwells on this theme (and mentions size):


 Stonehenge was built in 1958. Our students go to investigate...It is sometimes hard to know what is authentic heritage, and what is not. ...
When we travel, we often create the things we expect to see. Quantum physicists know all about this phenomenon. ...But it would be harder, you would think, to create Stonehenge. Stonehenge is in truth pretty old (the landscape was worked on for a long time, but the stones will have been erected between 3000 and 2000 BC), but it has been touched up and ‘restored’ again and again through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part, this was to secure the stones, to stop them from collapsing (one particularly crooked sarsen stone was straightened in the early twentieth century); but every time you touch something up it starts to look a little more like what everyone thinks it should look like. Archaeologists are on record stating that not a stone of Stonehenge has not been tinkered with in some way at some point in the last hundred years, and that it is ‘largely a product of the English Heritage Industry’. Thus it conforms, now, to expectations.
And for all that, not a single student I know who has been to see it has not remarked that it is much smaller than they thought. Perhaps some sort of gradual enlargement is the next step, if the British politico-military-industrial establishment can get its act together. 


  1. At the centre of this one can approach the mystery of the place. No one seems to know exactly why it was built, which certainly invited speculation.

    I too was surprised by how small it is. I have passed it on the highway a number of times and did visit once, but it was pouring with rain so not at all a pleasurable experience. I recall there are tolls and one must pay to enter. How very British!

  2. Thanks Elaine. It is a mysterious place, I agree. I have read it became sacred, as did Bath, because of the warm water of a stream at the site, water that never froze, so people thought it had magical powers--is that true or today's theory? It is all so interesting. All the same, why build a huge structure on the site of a magical stream? I went my one time as a bus trip that must have been for a flat fee to include a tour of Winchester and Stonehenge, but I have no memory of paying (which means it couldn't have been shockingly expensive at that time!). I do know we could walk through it--nothing was roped off as I believe is now the case.

  3. Crazy that you found that journal. What great writing, even if you cant remember writing it!