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North East academic puts novelist Virginia Woolf back in the spotlight

A Newcastle University professor is inviting us to reconsider one of the country's most intriguing writers Virginia Woolf

Professor Frances Spalding
Professor Frances Spalding

An exhibition about Virginia Woolf, who is regarded as one of the 20th Century’s great writers, has been curated for the National Portrait Gallery by a Newcastle academic.

Prof Frances Spalding, of Newcastle University, has written several books about great artists but for this exhibition focused on a writer who spent much of her time among artists.

Her mother, Julia Stephen, modelled for the Pre-Raphaelite painters and her sister, Vanessa Bell, was a portrait painter. Both sisters were members of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals who lived in that area of London in the early decades of the last century.

Virginia Woolf is remembered for novels including Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, all written during the 1920s. But she is also regarded as a prime mover in the modernist movement, altering the shape and purpose of fiction.

“Woolf has been the subject of a vast academic industry for 50 years,” says Prof Spalding. “Yet she remains an elusive and paradoxical figure.

“This exhibition brings her closer to us, often using her own words to explain a person, an idea or situation.”

In 1904, when she was 22, Woolf’s writing career was almost nipped in the bud. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, a founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, died and she became mentally ill and attempted suicide.

Virginia Woolf by by Vanessa Bell (left); Virginia Woolf in July 1902 by George Charles Beresford (centre); Leonard and Virginia Woolf by Gisela Freund (right)
Virginia Woolf by by Vanessa Bell (left); Virginia Woolf in July 1902 by George Charles Beresford (centre); Leonard and Virginia Woolf by Gisela Freund (right)

She was taken under the wing of her half-sister’s friend, Violet Dickinson.

Prof Spalding says: “She screamed and shouted, refused to eat and could be violent. It’s hard to spend even an hour in the company of someone in that condition but this kind, enormously tall woman, who had experience of working with the mentally ill, gradually cured her.

“Not only did she save her, she also encouraged her to write and her parting gift to her was a large, deep inkwell.

“Being of an older generation, she also temporarily filled a maternal role, for Virginia Stephen, as she then was, had lost her mother at the age of 13, some nine years before her father’s death.”

According to Prof Spalding, Virginia Woolf was once regarded as an elitist snob but that view is changing due to her belief that high standards of writing and music should go hand-in-hand with cultural inclusiveness and gender equality.

During the Second World War, the writer’s home was badly damaged by a bomb, as was the house she moved into, and she was able to salvage only a few belongings. They included her diaries, which are included in the exhibition along with portraits, letters and rare archive material.

Virginia Woolf, who suffered periods of depression throughout her life, drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex on March 28, 1941.

The exhibition has been two years in the making. “We’re not looking to make any sea-change in the thinking about her work, but instead we want to bring to light certain intense moments that shaped the writer she became,” says Prof Spalding.

Virginia Woolf is cited as an influence by many contemporary novelists and appears as a character in Toby’s Room by Durham author Pat Barker.

The exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision runs at the National Portrait Gallery until October 26.


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