Here comes a most unexpected literary connection.

Virginia Woolf, Her Half-Sister Stella Duckworth, and Lisson Grove

'The Years’, ’Virginia Woolf's historical novel about London, has a chapter called '1891'.

Virginia Woolf's historical novel ‘The Years’, about London history, has a chapter called '1891', (no doubt to tie in with the Ordnance Survey map of that date). In the novel, Eleanor is based closely on Virginia Woolf’’s stepsister Stella Duckworth, who was an admirer of Octavia Hill. Stella Duckworth had some cottages built in Lisson Grove by her cousin Edward (Jo) Fisher, who was an architect, and managed them herself.1 Charitable housing was much discussed in the household and George Duckworth, Stella’s brother, read a paper on 'The Housing Problem' to a University Extension meeting in 1903.2 George Duckworth acted for some time as the secretary to Charles Booth, the author of the famous housing surveys which are quoted later. The Booths came to dinner at Gordon Square and Virginia spent Christmas 1907 with the Booths3, so the relationship was close. The whole 1891 section of the novel was based by Virginia Woolf on real life-on matters discussed daily at the dinner table.

In the novel, Eleanor interviews a small builder who is supposed to maintain the properties for her. There is pressed brick flower above the doorway, putting the Ranston Street cottages firmly in the 'Sweetness and Light' period, but the sink  is smelly; the roof leaks; the plaster is full of holes; and the flower is cracked. All the worries of a small property maintained on a shoestring by a struggling builder.

By a curious coincidence Virginia Woolf appears to have done here, what she did in another novel elsewhere. A character wanders round a country churchyard reading out the names on the gravestones, including that of a popular best-selling novelist of the time. It is unlikely that Virginia Woolf had ever read any of her work, but when the novelist wrote protesting that she was still very much alive, they had to placate her by asking her to dinner. In 'The Years', Eleanor goes to a committee meeting. She lists their names, including Miss Sims, the same name as the lady who collected the Ranston Street rents in Margherita Rabuffi's memoir. Not the same woman, because the Miss Sims on the committee is described as 'Miss Sims (ex-mill. hand) scenting condescension,' very different from the dignified, grey-haired lady in the memoir.


  1. Her 'six cottages Lisson Grove cottages' mentioned by Octavia Hill in her obituary of Stella Duckworth, became `Peter Street' in The Years,
  2. LSE Booth Collection, 30 Jan 1903, folio 16, In Vol. 55, 56 Group A
  3. V, W, Letter 234, July 1905; Letter 337, 5 Jan. 1907.


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Updated August 8, 2011