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28 February 2016

From The Roaring Queen to Downton Abbey: the afterlives of Virginia Woolf

On the 75th anniversary of her death, we look back at all the ways the idea of Virginia Woolf lived on.

By Holly Williams

75 years ago, on 28 March, one of literature’s greatest figures took her own life. Virginia Woolf died aged 59, leaving us nine novels, among them Modernist classics Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, proto-feminist essays, witty biographies, short stories and deliciously candid diaries. There’s still a keen appetite for all those words and thoughts. But there is, perhaps, an even keener appetite for Woolf herself.

She’s famous far beyond her work: people know Woolf as an icon of “the writer” – often with a side order of “tortured genius” and “difficult woman”. She’s inspired countless books, films, plays, even ballets, and achieved notoriety as everything from lesbian icon to symbol of high art, from trailblazing feminist to ghastly snob. For many years, she was the best-selling postcard at the National Portrait Gallery: perhaps because it is so easy to see whatever story we want in her image.

Admittedly, she does have a genuinely dramatic life story. Sexually abused by her half-brothers, losing her mother and half-sister in childhood, she became a central member of the Bloomsbury Group – a gilded circle of radical artists and thinkers, who’ve become as famous for their bed-hopping as their work. Virginia married Leonard Woolf, but swerved into the arms of aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. She also suffered mental breakdowns and depression, finally leading her to drown herself in the River Ouse.

Still, she’d probably have hated the idea of being famous for anything other than her writing: “the ‘fame’ is becoming vulgar & a nuisance,” she wrote in her diary in 1928. “It means nothing.” So what would she have made of the many reinventions of her as a semi-fictionalised figure?

Most famously, there’s Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, and the prosthetic-nosed film version. But there’s been a recent flood of Woolfs: from the Woolf Works ballet at the Royal Opera House to Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and her Sister, from the BBC’s Bloomsbury drama Life in Squares to the forthcoming film of Eileen Atkins’ play Vita & Virginia.

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But this is not, in fact, a new trend – there are rude, reverent, and downright bizarre lesser-known Woolf cameos, beginning in her own lifetime, with her own husband. Leonard Woolf’s 1914 social comedy, The Wise Virgins, centres on a man deciding whether to marry an unconventional young beauty, Camilla Lawrence. Begun on their honeymoon, it was pretty obvious who Camilla was based on… Meanwhile in 1927, Marjorie Strachey released The Counterfeits, an insider’s account of the Bloomsbury group, lightly fictionalised; ridiculously, it featured one Volumnia Fox.

Woolf was only thinly veiled in Hugh Walpole’s Hans Frost in 1929, as the novelist Jane Rose, while in Wyndham Lewis’ caustic literary satire, The Roaring Queen (1936), she becomes Rhoda Hyman – no, really! – the “patronising queen of the highbrow world”.

Bloomsbury were an artistic set too, of course, and Woolf was the subject of many paintings by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and by Roger Fry; Man Ray took celebrated, if stern, photographs of her. Rather more, er, abstractly, she features in Judy Chicago’s seminal Seventies feminist artwork The Dinner Party: 39 place settings representing women from history. Here’s Woolf as a 3D, flowery, vulva-like porcelain plate.

To leap forward a few decades, photographer Tim Walker recently shot a whole edition of Italian Vogue – inspired by the idea of Woolf riding over the English countryside to see Sackville-West. Cue shots of gaunter-than-usual glum models in long black dresses and pearls.

Such severity taps into the popular conception of Woolf as a fearful figure, as argued in Brenda R Silver’s book, Virginia Woolf Icon. Probably more than anything else, the mere title of Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? cemented this. The play’s drunken, warring couple repeatedly sing the phrase after hearing it at a university faculty party; what starts as a joke soon turns dark.

A reply, of sorts, Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was made in 1978 for TV by Alan Bennett; he plays a shy lecturer, watched over by a poster of Woolf. He slowly becomes aware of his own homosexuality – but the poster gets defaced with a pair of big cartoon tits, and ends up in the bin. It was directed by Stephen Frears, who weirdly also directed another show in which a Woolf poster was a central plot device: Hanif Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in 1987. Her image hangs in the room of feminist, radical social worker Rosie. In her lover’s nightmare, it looms, enveloped in flames. Is Woolf a sign of Rosie being ferociously right on, a challenge to the dominance of heterosexual masculinity? She’s certainly scary.

It was far from her last TV cameo: eagle-eyed viewers were able to spot Woolf in, of all things, Downton Abbey in 2013. Woolf was used to signal that it was the Twenties, and high society was about to get (ever so lightly) shaken up.

Still, when it comes to using her as a reference point, the pop-cultural artefact that surely takes the Bloomsbury biscuit is… Basic Instinct 2. The panned 2006 film stars Sharon Stone as a psychopathic novelist who has just narrowly escaped drowning – and sends her Bloomsbury-based psychologist insane with mind games. Her pen name? Why, Woolf, of course.

Editor’s note, 10 March 2016: This article has been amended to include correct attribution of the idea of Woolf as a “fearful figure”.

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