pennypaperbrain: (Sherlock brain by redscharlach)
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I went to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.


I kind of feel, when doing that sort of thing, that I should somehow have managed to secrete havingbeenbreathedout in my bag, as it's unfair that she doesn’t get to go (due to being on the other side of the world, as well as inability to fit in the bag), while I can if I wish wander around Bloomsbury daily, in an oblivious fashion. I had some Unreal Cities thinks though. (Where was Irene Adler?)

It was a Woolf exhibition, but there’s no such thing as one of those without her context. Seeing the books and essays and photos and art and letters of the Bloomsberries laid out in cases made them look like a cleaned-up tumblr dash, all queerness and brainfails and niche and crushes and markedly individual but deeply interrelated creativity. Strange handles like lyttonstrachey, all at an untouchable remove on the other side of a screen on the other side of the world occupying the streets that are mine now, 100 years before me.

The exhibition is one room, with some portraiture, but less than I would have expected given that it was in the NPG. The handwritten material interested me most, and the beautiful handmade books from the Hogarth Press. Like fanfiction authors, Woolf was able to write exactly what she pleased because she published it herself. (Also because she had enough money to not need to worry about making a living, which is not an advantage most of us have.)

I was familiar with quite a lot of the content, but two things jumped out at me. One was the letter – or piece of paper – with which Virginia Stephen and Leonard Woolf announced their engagement to Lytton Strachey. It just says ‘Ha! Ha!’, then the signatures. Looking in on Bloomsbury from the outside, knowing about the people (but of course not knowing the people) it seems a crystalisation of then-emerging issues that are so familiar to us now. Strachey had previously proposed to Virginia although he was confirmedly gay; Leonard was in erotic love with Virginia but however she felt about that it didn’t ultimately lead anywhere except to separate bedrooms; Virginia has variously been pinned as lesbian, bi, asexual or too damaged by abuse to experience sexuality... so these ill-fitting but people temporarily found a little coracle of normality: respectable engagement. Ha ha.

The other thing was Woolf’s two suicide letters, to her husband and sister, framed next to each other at the end of the exhibition. It would be quite easy to do that tackily but this exhibition was I thought unusually successful at handling the importance of a famous writer’s mental illness vs the undesirability that’s summed up in the fact that there is actually a book out there called ‘The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath’ as if she died first and the rest was an afterthought. The accompanying text for the exhibits was just a little arch in its attempts to avoid applying a modern prism to an historical personage, relating without comment Woolf’s symptoms at various points in her life and describing her as ‘subject to sudden changes of mood’ rather than gallopingly bipolar, but I appreciated the consideration of the subject. The letters fitted harmoniously into the exhibition as a whole, and cannot fail to be moving. Up close to a physical document you can see the pressure of the pen, the flow or failure of ink; the physical nature of the writing is an extra dimension of communication. Both letters read as parallel statements of devotion and decoupling, an attempt to grasp and preserve light while falling away from it. The letter to Vanessa, which is less known than the one to Leonard, ends with ‘I have fought against it but can’t any longer’, which seems like an entirely reasonable ultimate statement and could replace the entire suicide sensationalism industry.

I personally have a lot of Virginia Woolf feels, for biographical as well as literary reasons. For the last few years various parts of Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park have been my patch for purposes of both writing and wandering about trying to deal with being mental. Everywhere it's written on the walls, visible to me at least: ‘Virginia woz ere: richer, madder, prettier and better-writerer than you’. Having that sort of relationship with the literary past cycles through imposture, appropriation, pretension and ultimately settles on companionability.

The exhibition was, of course, full of tourists evincing varying levels of bemusement, but it was definitely worth peering between their shoulders. I didn’t learn very much, but I did see a few new things. I haven’t actually read any Woolf novels right through for a few years, and the best writers’ texts change every time you read them. This primed me for what I might find the next time I do.
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July 2014

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