National Portrait Gallery, 10 July – 26 October 2014
Virginia Woolf is one of my heroes, whom I discovered on an English Literature degree introductory module, during which I read To the Lighthouse, but wasn’t particularly impressed with at the time. It wasn’t until I discovered her essays, and learned about the context of the times in which she lived, that I was hooked. Like pieces of a puzzle rendering a vague image gradually clear, the more a level of consciousness I had not been able to articulate found expression.
I took an exam and picked my question based on her quote about the experience life being comparable to a luminous halo: consciousness flickering.
I read Mrs Dalloway for my second year modernism module and A Room of One’s Own for one called ‘Images of women’. Her dazzling narratives represented so well the vagaries of consciousness, and her non-linear representations of time expressed what I had only bluntly grasped. Her calm and reasonable – but nevertheless impassioned – essays in defense of, and for the advancement of the rights of women, thrilled my soul.
I finally understood why I had always suspected it would have been much better to have been born a man. It was because of Virginia Woolf – and the lecturer who introduced her to me – that my intellectual awakening occurred.
Virginia Woolf came into my life as part of a wider context of higher education, but she has never left it. She is an inspirational light which continues to shine through the decades.
I included Mrs Dalloway in my undergraduate dissertation, which was about representations of the tea table in modernist literature, and how it symbolises the confinement of women but also may provide a route to their liberation. In my Master’s thesis, I wrote about all of her fiction and their explorations of women’s issues through tea. It was awarded a 2:1, and I can now proudly say that I have read all of her novels.
So, though I already know a lot about her, the exhibition was fascinating because it provided a complex and insightful window into her personal relationships, the places she lived, and her art. Her work suffuses London, where she spent much of her life, where I now live, and where the exhibition took place. Her work is still relevant and I have yet to discover a modern feminist writer that matches her; though I live in hope. It provided a valuable new lens through which to view a most mysterious woman and her legacy.
If you would like to see the exhibition, it runs until 26 October.