A Keen Hunter of Butterflies and Moths


Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) as a child

 
 

“In her childhood Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths. With her brothers and sister she would smear tree trunks with treacle to attract and capture the insects, and then pin their lifelike corpses to cork boards, their wings outspread. It was an interest that persisted into her adult life, and when she discovered that I too was a bug hunter, she insisted that we go hunting together in the fields around Long Barn, our house in Kent, two miles from Knole, my mother’s birthplace. I was nine years old.

 
 

Butterfly, Duncan Grant, 1957

 
 

One summer’s afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: “What’s it like to be a child?” I, taken aback, replied, “Well, Virginia, you know what it’s like. You’ve been a child yourself. I don’t know what it’s like to be you, because I’ve never been grownup.” It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.

I believe that her motive was to gather copy for her portrait of James in To the Lighthouse, which she was writing at the time, and James was about my own age. She told me that it was not much use thinking back into her own childhood, because little girls are different from little boys. “But were you happy as a child?” I asked.

 

Excerpt from Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

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