Violet Dickinson: Mentor, Confidant, Friend, Lover?

Krystalla Dyer

Burnham Wood, Hammer Green Welwyn home of Violet Dickinson
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies DE/X929/248

Violet Dickinson was born in Frome, Somerset in 1865. The only daughter of Edmund Dickinson (1821- 1897) and The Hon. Emily Dulcibella Eden (1832-1893). Her Maternal Grandfather was Lord Auckland, the Bishop of Bath and Wells (1799-1870). The family had large amounts of wealth mainly due to her family aristocratic roots. Dickinson is linked to literary notoriety through her great aunt Emily Eden (1797-1869). Dickinson and her aunt Eleanor Eden (1836-1873) who edited Emily Eden’s letters and published them in 1919. Her father’s side was heavily into politics of the day, her paternal grandfather William Dickinson (1771-1837) was a Member of Parliament (1796 – 1802), he was involved in the Slave trade in Jamaica and so was awarded payment after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Her brother Robert Edmund Dickinson (1862 – 1947), was the mayor of Bath from 1899 to 1900. Violet Dickinson herself was Mayoress of Bath and supported her brother from 1899 – 1900.

It can be said that Dickinson struggled to adhere to the late Victorian womanly stereotype. By fifteen she was already six feet tall and considered tomboyish for the time. Historians such as Hermione Lee, who is a prominent Virigina Woolf historian, noted how while ‘well-connected, benevolent… she looked odd: extremely tall and plain, badly dressed.’ The talk surrounding her suggests that though she did not fit the traditional mould, the wealth attributed to her allowed her to escape the demands of marriage and children. In modern society, with the opportunity of greater freedom of personal identity, it could be speculated that she may have identified differently.

Relationship with Virginia Woolf

The relationship between Violet Dickinson and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) has long been debated by historians. It could be evident from the correspondences between the two women, all agree there was a closeness and fondness between them both, though the relationship is difficult to understand from a modern perspective. The relationship began in 1897 after Dickinson visited Virginia Woolf’s family home as a friend of Woolf’s half-sister Stella Duckworth (1869-1897). She is noted to have taken an interest in all the girls, specifically Virginia. The two women did not start their initial correspondence until 1902 and then proceeded to travel together. Dickinson, who was significantly older, was not considered a good example of traditional values for women but did represent self-assurance and joy which Virgina Woolf was drawn too. Taken at face value, Dickinson was ordinary and unassuming, albeit a well-connected and adaptable woman, a plentiful type in the early 20th century but her companionship was indispensable to Woolf.

Throughout her life Woolf struggled with her mental health, which fluctuated and impacted her relationships with people. The complexity and the extent of their physical relationship between the two women is largely lost as most evidence was private correspondence which was destroyed by Woolf. Though Woolf formed close bonds with others, she struggled with male company and was more comfortable amongst women, Dickinson was not her only relationship of this nature. From the length of their relationship and the remaining records, it suggests a close, intense relationship that is difficult to quantify without this full picture and being rooted in its early 20th century setting.

Burnham Wood, Welwyn

In 1904, Dickinson cared for Woolf who was suffering from a mental breakdown following the death of her father. The pair resided in Dickinson’s country home, Burnham Wood, Welwyn for some time. It was here that Woolf first attempted to take her own life but was unharmed and recovered. Dickinson was a strong advocate for Woolf’s writing and helped make connections to further it, one such connection was Margaret Littleton, an editor of the women’s supplement of The Guardian. The result was a commission for Woolf to write an article on Charlotte Bronte. A collection of photographs and documents in respect of Burnham Wood is held in the Sir Leslie Stephen collection at the New York Public Library.

Little is unfortunately recorded after Dickinson’s correspondence with Woolf, two drifted apart after Woolf’s marriage in 1912. In 1939, Dickinson aged around 74 years old returned the letters to Woolf, but reasons why she did this were unclear. Violet Dickinson is noted to have died in 1948, aged 82 in Hertfordshire. She was survived by her brother Oswald (1869 – 1854), who also lived at Burnham Wood.

This page was added on 24/01/2024.

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