Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

Virginia_Woolf_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1902)I find Virginia Woolf fascinating. It took me a few years to appreciate her novels, though I read and loved her non-fiction much younger, but I’ve been rereading her novels over the last year or so and am finding it a wonderful experience. Not only do her feminist views and approaches to women’s writing appeal to me, I find her novels give the best perspective of the way I (and presumably others) think that it’s the most immersive reading. I like how engaged she was with history, art and music, and I like that she was interested in clothes, too, as a way of representing ourselves (particularly apparent in Orlando) – and she appeared in Vogue, ‘merging high fashion with high culture’. Now, thanks to the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery, I discover she crocheted, too.

The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Frances Spalding (which I had to buy) explores the complex web that was Woolf’s life, through paintings of her and by those around her (in Bloomsbury), photographs, books, letters etc. The introductory panel points out the privacy Woolf wished to maintain in order to live a writer’s life, which contrasts with our desire to ‘know’ writers, and the fascination we feel for those whose books we love. But there seems little prurience here, and the focus is on the public, writerly side of Woolf, though it is also a pleasure to see pictures of her home (published in Vogue) and portraits of herself and her family and friends. vanessa-bell-conversation

‘Who was I then?’ she asked, and we are still asking exactly who she was, and trying to understand how her mind worked and produced such delicate, radical and absorbing novels and essays. From the ’eminent Victorians’ who dominated her young mind (including her father, Leslie Stephen, as well as Tennyson, Browning et al) to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, including her husband, Leonard Woolf, painters including her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and the modernist critic Roger Fry. Well-connected throughout her life, this exhibition highlights how her circle grew from her family and those around her, and offer a tranquil picture of her life. But there is much more to it than that: the daily absorption in literature, art and music created Woolf’s own unique vision (perhaps contributing to the accusation that her work is ‘elitist’) is imagined here through the exhibits.

mother's dressIn fact, rather than elitist, the exhibition suggests that the Woolfs were intentionally practising ‘cultural inclusiveness’ through the Hogarth Press, with works which ‘promoted democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-war arguments, publishing books that cut across the divides created by class, education and nationality.’

One of my favourite twentieth century paintings is here: Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation, which balances the mood between gossipy and serious, and contains echoes of how we (think they) lived at Charleston. In fact the exhibition is also illuminating of the changing forms and styles of Bell’s and Grant’s work, as well as demonstrating their ability to capture characters. There are also many delightful books from the Hogarth Press which the Woolfs set up, with eye-catching covers very resonant of the period, and including not only Woolf’s own work but that of her contemporaries. She seemed to know everyone – from TS Eliot to James Joyce; there are also letters here to Katherine Mansfield, with whom she seems to have had a volatile virginia-woolf_1652005cfriendship. Another little bit of information: I was fascinated to find out that the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner proposed to Woolf’s mother, who was connected to Pre-Raphaelite circles through her family. Woolf was photographed for Vogue in Woolner’s house, and wore her mother’s gown for the occasion.

Her last letters to Vanessa and Leonard are here, and the final item is a painting by Duncan Grant in 1960, Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf, Charleston. Now, the beautiful woman with the soulful eyes of the earlier paintings and photographs is replaced with a more severe representation; she is doubly memorialised here, the eyes blank but surrounded by books and the reminders of her life’s work.



Book Review: Unexploded

141_Alison%20MacLeod-UnexplodedMy fourth novel from the Man Booker Prize longlist is Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded. Now I must confess to a general fascination with fiction set in the Home Front during WWII, but it is mostly nostalgic, or clichéd, or poorly written, or all three. It is also a subject that has been done to death, so a novel needs to be beautifully written and offer something fresh by way of both plot and approach in order to stand out in this area (such as Sarah Waters’ novel The Night Watch). I wanted to like Unexploded so much that I was afraid I would be disappointed – but I wasn’t. Unexploded is set in Brighton in the early years of the war, and focuses on the lives of Evelyn Beaumont, her husband Geoffrey, a banker, and her eight-year-old son, Philip. After the fall of Paris, Brighton is expecting German invasion any day, and amid the heat and tension of the summer of 1940, MacLeod perfectly captures the simmering, unexploded problems of the Beaumonts’ marriage. Later, as winter comes, the weather again affects and reflects the novel’s events in a literary style which I find very satisfying.

In many ways this novel couples the relationship of Geoffrey and Evelyn with the war itself, with the central metaphor of what is ‘unexploded’ relating to the bombs, the marriage and several other issues besides – some of which do explode during the novel, and some of which don’t. This could be trite, but in this novel it isn’t. MacLeod handles the personal and international crises deftly, and the tension of both situations reaches a crisis when Evelyn meets a troubled German Jew, Otto, in the Camp for which her husband has become responsible. Perhaps Otto serves too much as an escape route for Evelyn rather than a character in his own right, but one feels a great deal of sympathy for him, and for the terrible experiences he has had; he is a sensitively-drawn character whose existence also emphasises the A visit to the chaotician … Alison MacLeod.anti-Semitic feeling that was also rife in Britain at the time. Characters are often revealed to be less pleasant than one expects, and a pulsing vein of xenophobia underlies much of the characters’ motivations.

This is a tightly-structured novel, both in terms of plot and also the way it is written – lyrical and often beautiful, some of the things described are also terrible, such as Otto’s experiences at Sachsenhausen, and a memorable description of what happens when a house takes a direct hit from a bomb. The atmosphere of fear is one which is antithetical to the cosy nostalgia so many novels display towards this period – this feels real, visceral and frightening. Nothing appears in the novel without a reason, leaving me with the feeling that MacLeod is a novelist one can trust – there are no red herrings, no pointless encounters, objects or descriptions – it is all directed, focused and exciting.

Wartime BrightonThe novel’s lyricism, occasionally verging on stream-of-consciousness, owes something to Virginia Woolf, who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Evelyn is a keen reader of Woolf, and in a moment of defiance she slips away one afternoon to hear Woolf lecture. Though we only hear parts of it through Evelyn, reducing it to snippets which reverberate in her mind about truth to oneself, the echoes are convincing and the references to Woolf significant. There is, perhaps, something Mrs Dalloway-esque about Evelyn, the housewife trying to conform as she looks after her son and the house, battling with her emotions and searching for meaning.

The myths of heroism, of neighbourliness and stoicism which began during the war and have been perpetuated since, are exploded in Unexploded. Philip’s friend Orson has a brother who is fighting, Hal, the hero, who turns out to be anything but a hero, while the persecuted Otto is not an uncomplicatedly sympathetic character. Nor is Geoffrey quite the good but dull man he first seems, and it is this tendency towards mining the depths of characters, combined with ironic quoting of the edicts of the day which subverts any nostalgic glow into something much more genuine and believable. There is a symmetry to the plot which feels unforced, and a journey of discovery of both the past and the present which concludes in an open-ended way without leaving the reader unsatisfied.

Photographs of the Bloomsbury Set

Another small display at the National Portrait Gallery is ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey’. Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, formed a relationship at Cambridge with Lettice Ramsey, whose firm Ramsey and Muspratt’s photographs make up this exhibition. This exhibition features photographs of many of the Bloomsbury set, remarkable people including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, as well as Angelica, Quentin and Julian Bell, and some of the Cambridge Apostles, many of whom went on to have illustrious careers: John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore, George Rylands and Donald MacLean, for example. The display is full of intense studio portraits in which you sense the sitter’s self-importance, and casual snapshots which are in many ways much more appealing, giving access to a private side of a figure.

At the end of the display is a beautiful bust of Vanessa Bell by Marcel Gimond, which depicts Bell, calm and Madonna-like – which is appropriate given her remarkably close relationship with her son (who died fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War). The bust, with its heavy-lidded eyes and stern expression, looks almost sorrowful. Exhibitions like this are always fascinating, I think, for the insight they give into the characters of significant historical or literary figures, as well as flagging up the relationships between them.

The display coincides with the publication of Julian Bell: from Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, by Peter Stansky and Williams Abrahams.


Will Self sets out his stall right at the beginning of Umbrella (long-listed for the ManBooker Prize), with an epigraph from James Joyce:  ‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’. This is Modernism, with a capital M, reformed and recreated for the 21st century. This is not a populist novel: it is self-consciously well-written, clever, with a flexible chronology which bounces the reader back and forth between times and characters. The narrative is the stream-of-consciousness style employed by Joyce and Woolf, with the allusiveness and intertextuality of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s not the easiest read, but it is spectacularly well-crafted, aware of its own literary nature, and ought to be in the shortlist, in my opinion – even though there were moments when I wished I could be reading something else! What this novel shows, though, is that Modernism as a literary style is far from dead, and works as well now as it did in the early twentieth century.

The text is alliterative, allusive, and peppered with italics, which, I concluded, are mostly quotations: some from other works of literature (including slightly obscure poets such as George Darley) but others are from the characters’ own minds, quoting something someone else has said to them. Like Eliot, Self seems to litter his work with ‘found’ words, from the overheard to the highbrow (King Lear, for example, and, I think, E.M. Forster) to popular culture (The Kinks, the Beatles, ‘Woman’s Hour’ and Mary Poppins). The effect is actually very much like being inside someone’s head – when thoughts, echoes, words and conversations flit in and out of your mind. Consequently, it is a novel where it should be easy to inhabit the characters, but, due to the complex structure of the narrative, it can take a while to get to grips with them, especially given that the italicised quotes give the impression of a multiplicity of voices, though in fact there are only two main ‘speaking’ parts. The main characters are Dr Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist in an institution, and Audrey Death, who has spent much of her life in the institution. The plot zooms between a present (the 1970s), Audrey’s past (early twentieth century – her childhood, adolescence and period working in a factory during the war) and Busner’s old age (presumably now). Audrey’s complex medical history, and the lack of care she has received (manifested by the mispellings of her name) are identified by Busner, and it is this relationship between the psychiatrist, his work and the catatonic patient which forms the heart of the novel, accompanied by the recollections of Audrey, apparently absent in her own present. Self’s relationship with London is always apparent: he describes it in loving, though not always loveable, detail and conjures up the city in different phases of its life.

The subject of madness lends itself to a diffracted narrative. It is intentionally baffling in many ways – just as you think you’re coming to grips with it, the thread of the story seems to draw away from you, but it comes back again – you kind of have to let it wash over you and I didn’t find it difficult to follow. This is challenging reading, though, that makes you concentrate and wants you to think – it’s marvellous to read something that doesn’t explain itself to you – but don’t be put off, it’s also somehow captivating, though somewhat bleak. I didn’t expect to like it but I did – it isn’t always exactly enjoyable, and if you’re looking for a feel-good read, this isn’t it; but it is modern literature at its verbose, discursive best. A particularly good example of the writing would be this phrase: ‘confirming the tight joins of the granite setts already laid out along the rule-straight roadways of his metropolitan mind’. I rather like it.

There’s a great ‘digested read’ on the Guardian website here if you don’t fancy the whole book!

Wyndham Lewis Portraits

In between getting Russian visas yesterday, I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to have a look at the Wyndham Lewis portraits exhibition. I know more about Lewis’s writing than about his painting, due to a friend whose MA thesis was on Blast, but since he demonstrated Vorticism through his art as well as his writing, I thought it would be an interesting experience, and so it was. Firstly, the unnerving thing about it is when you realise you’re standing in a room full of portraits, and none of them are smiling. Many also avoid your gaze. I feel – though I may be wrong – that Lewis may have liked painting people, but he didn’t actually have much time for humanity in general. The second unnerving thing was how many of the male portraits looked like my head of department, but fortunately that shouldn’t affect too many other people….
Lewis’s most famous portrait, of TS Eliot (1938), above, is of a “man haunted by a vision” – or that’s what Lewis said of his later portrait of Eliot, but it seems truer of this one. Like Eliot, Lewis felt he had suffered for his art, perhaps sacrificing too much of his personal life to his creative vision. Actually, in the portraits of Froanna, his wife, one wonders if it was her that was sacrificed, too. The portraits are beautiful, often in warm colours (Lewis liked monochromatic painting), domestic, and seem tenderly done, but she looks infinitely sad.
I was interested by Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael, particularly because post-war artists were urged to return to a classical style, which Lewis does ironically, only with the title, while the image itself is modelled on one of Shakespeare. His skill seems so unique, though – there is nothing realist about these figures, yet one feels like reaching out and touching them. Cubist influences are evident throughout, particularly in the chiselled noses and foreheads, as though Lewis’s role was not so much to paint them as to carve them out of stone. It’s suggested that Cubism is a “radical simplification” of what we see, but in some ways it seems infinitely more complicated, as though these shapes out of which people and things are created are endless, going on forever into a background we can’t focus on.
Perhaps one of my favourite portraits here was that of Edith Sitwell (left). She is elegant, lean, poised – and almost dehumanised (and Lewis left out her hands, which she saw as her only redeeming feature.) She, too, seems sad, lonely even, in this surprisingly detailed background (for Lewis). But it’s also the essence of what we expect of a 1920s writer (I think) – it plays to the image of celebrated writers, alone, sombre, brooding. I think Lewis liked to play with celebrity; he certainly played with his own image enough, with his obsessive hat-wearing and portraying himself as the “Enemy”.
Perhaps his most sympathetic portrait is that of Mary Webb, the novelist, whose physical defects he gently disguises, while the tangled profusion of her hair seems to reflect her interest in the natural world in her novels. One of the least sympathetic, however, seems to be of Virginia Woolf (though no-one is sure that this is who it is). Lewis despised the Bloomsbury Group, and described A Room of One’s Own as a “feminist fairytale” – and Woolf, if it is she, seems to be a spectre haunting that fairyland, if his portrait is anything to go by! But then, he was a man of strong opinions, and not afraid to show it, which might not have made him pleasant, but it does make him interesting.