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Formidable – Meeting Mrs Ann Baer

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a book entitled Virginia Woolf in Richmond, which is to be published by Aurora Metro in June 2018. I’ve been working on it since August last year, and it is really is a labour of love. Woolf has to be one of my favourite writers, and to be asked to compile extracts from her diaries and letters in relation to Richmond was incredibly exciting, yet also daunting at the same time. I’d never dreamed that my name would be associated with a book, let alone to have my name emblazoned on the cover.

About a month ago, I received a handwritten letter from a lady called Ann Baer, aged 103 – she is on the right of the photograph above.  I have to call her Mrs Baer, just my personal preference, and she had written to me with some anecdotes connected to Virginia Woolf. One was containing a reference to a schoolgirl called Jacqueline Stiven (13), who had sent (or her mother had sent) a short composition to The New Statesman; Miss Katherine Cox (headmistress) read this out in a school assembly, at which Mrs Baer was attending, at Hayes Court boarding school for girls. Unfortunately, this short composition was in fact taken from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  The passage was in reference to the lavish meals served in men’s colleges in Cambridge in comparison to the rather stingy ones in women’s colleges. Virginia Woolf herself, mentions the incident in her diaries;

Tuesday 14 November 1933 And I have precisely 3 minutes before tea to say that Jacqueline Stiven has taken up a great deal of time & inspired a great deal of ingenuity by sending a passage from A R of Ones O to the Statesman. L. was positive it was a hoax. (Diaries, Volume 4)

Virginia also mentions the situation in a letter to her nephew, Quentin Bell, on 18th November 1933;

Then all last week was spent running Jacqueline Stiven to earth. Did you see a passage in last weeks New Statesman called A dinner party [A Dinner]? Well, it was taken from a Room of One’s Own and sent in by a school girl who swore she wrote it. And Bunny believed her. Then everybody wired and wrote to say it was a hoax. And we thought it must be Logan, because of the name Stiven; and they were having Bunny on for his absurd enthusiasms. So then we all began telephoning – and it was found that Bunny has a niece who knew J. Stiven at Miss Cox’s and I had to ring up her mother, and her mother was almost in a fit – said she’d disgraced the family name. And the girl said she had written it herself. And Kingsley Martin was furious. And Bunny as slow as a steam roller with a man carrying a red flag in front. And Leonard suspicious. But that’s all over now. (Letters, Volume 5)

Bunny was David Garnett, in fact a brother-in-law of Miss Cox. Mrs Baer met Jacqueline Stiven years later, and was told that she had been falsely accused – it was her aunt who had torn a page from her exercise book and sent it to the Statesman.

The second anecdote about Woolf concerns the book Night and Day, where the heroine, Catherine, wishes to meet a man who lives in Highgate, but couldn’t remember the name of the street. She is told that the street is Mount Ararat Road, yet Mrs Baer states that there isn’t such a street in Highgate; it’s in Richmond, and not far from Paradise Road where Hogarth House stands. In fact, Mrs Baer also lived in Mount Ararat Road.

I thought this letter was marvellous, so I wrote back. I received a second letter suggesting that I could come and visit. I’d done some research on Mrs Baer, and found that she was to be featured in The Century Girls, written by Tessa Dunlop. This book features women who have lived through 100 years and gives various accounts of their lives in those times. I have to say that it’s fascinating and I’m really enjoying it.

Today was the day for the trip to see Mrs Baer. I made sure I got some flowers (tulips and roses), I parked up but had to call her as I’d forgotten the number of her house. We meet and I’m allowed inside. This house is wonderful. There’s a chaise longue in the centre of the room and two armchairs facing each other with a small table in between. She has my letters and hers on the table and we talk a little about Virginia Woolf, the statue and the book. It’s very calming being in Mrs Baer’s house. She’s certainly a formidable lady; extremely intelligent and witty along with it. We talk about the Cezanne print that hangs on the wall in front of me. She goes upstairs to fetch the colour separations for the exact same print – it’s fascinating. I’d never known how printing like that worked, but to see how each layer of colour adds to the other is intriguing. All this knowledge I believe she imbibed from her husband, Dr Bernhard Baer, a Jewish refugee from Germany. We also talk about Marjory Fleming, a Scottish child writer and poet. Her father, Frank Sidgwick (director of Sidgwick & Jackson publishers) was an editor of Fleming’s diaries, and Mrs Baer goes over to her bookcase to retrieve a copy of it. Mrs Baer is also an author herself. I see a copy of Medieval Woman: Village life in the Middle Ages, which she bought at the book launch of The Century Girls the night before.

It was a lovely afternoon, and I plan to send, or take Mrs Baer a copy of Virginia Woolf in Richmond once it is published.

#TheCenturyGirls #VirginiaWoolf

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