Virginia Woolf at the NPG
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th July, 2014
When I was doing English Lit A level, many moons ago, one of my classmates had a great passion for the writings of Virginia Woolf. She was not on the curriculum, and our English Master openly mocked this boy’s predilection, preferring instead the richness of Shakespeare, the subtlety of Jane Austen and the almost masochistically intensity of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Michael Holroyd’s seminal biography of Lytton Strachey was published that very year of 1967, yet it was only when I went to university that I got round to reading that and then dived into the world of the Bloomsbury Group like a young penguin that has just learned to swim. Once installed in Brussels, working for Reuters — and therefore at last in a financial position to buy lots of books — I savoured Virginia Woolf’s novels and all the volumes of diaries and letters and the wide range of related biographies as they came out. It was the first collective love affair of my life. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that this morning I went to the Press View of the new Virginia Woolf exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. All fans, like my school-friend, his name now long forgotten, to an extent feel they possess their idol and so it was too with me and Virginia nWoolf. Even her feminism stirred me. I was reassured in advance of the exhibition to know that it was curated by my old friend and former colleague at English PEN, the art historian and biographer, Frances Spalding, who indeed gave a brilliant unscripted tour of the exhibition to the thronging hacks at this morning’s Press View. Of course, I needn’t have worried. This is the first exhibition of its kind, amazingly, focused on the central figure of Virginia Woolf, but through photographs, paintings, letters and ephemera following her sensitively through the various phases of her life and her growing struggle with depression. Having lost so many dear friends in the First World War, she was metaphorically pummeled to the ground by the Second, with the complete destruction of one of her London homes, and the horror of more human losses. Inevitably her end is seen as tragic, with her suicide by drowning in 1941, her husband Leonard no longer able to haul her up from the depths of despair. But mercifully, she had retrieved her diaries from a bomb-damaged house and these were later stored in a bank vault by Leonard. Their later publication told us so much about the author, her life and loves (of both sexes), but also so much about England in an era now gone and of her passion for London. All this and more comes out so clearly in the exhibition, which should not be missed. And highlighted on one wall is a quote that remains in my mind above all else that she wrote: “Thinking is my fighting”.