Portrait of

Virginia Woolf

By

Jeanette Winterson

With

Charlotte Casiraghi and Keira Knightley

See the Film

The fourth edition of the Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon [Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon] was held at Somerset House, a leading London arts centre.

In conversation with writer Erica Wagner, ambassador and spokesperson for the House Charlotte Casiraghi invited writer Jeanette Winterson to pay tribute to the work of Virginia Woolf. Actress and CHANEL ambassador Keira Knightley opened the discussion by reading an extract from ‘Professions for Women’, a speech Virginia Woolf gave to the National Society for Women's Service in 1931.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British writer who revolutionised the history of writing in the 20th century. Her novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves introduced a highly innovative and modern style of writing. A key figure in the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, she is also a major influence on current feminist thought thanks to her uncompromising and avant-garde spirit of critique.

Virginia Woolf, To the lighthouse, 1927.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931.

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson CBE is a writer and essayist. Her novels explore the boundaries of physicality and the imagination, gender polarities, and sexual identities, and have won several literary awards. She also writes for many prominent publications including The Guardian, The Times, TIME, The Observer, The New York Times, and Harper’s Bazaar. She was made an officer of Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006.

© The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. Used under license.
© TIME USA LLC.. All rights reserved. Used under license.

Erica Wagner

Erica Wagner’s books include Chief Engineer, Ariel’s Gift, Seizure and Gravity. She received the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award in 2014 and is a contributing writer for the New Statesman, consulting literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar and lead editorial advisor for Creatd, Inc. Her new book, Mary and Mr Eliot, will be published in 2022.

Erica Wagner, Chief Engineer, © Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2017.
Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift, © Faber & Faber, 2001.
Erica Wagner, Seizure, © Faber & Faber, 2007.
Erica Wagner, Gravity, © Granta Books, 1997.
© Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.
Mary and Mr Eliot by Erica Wagner. Published by Faber & Faber. Copyright © Erica Wagner. Reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN.

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Virginia Woolf
By writer Francesca Wade

My favourite painting by Vanessa Bell shows three women sitting by a window, leaning together conspiratorially in the midst of a heated discussion. It’s rare and exciting to see this sort of intimacy portrayed in art: an unsentimental depiction of female friendship showing women talking together in animation, sharing confidences or opinions, inviting the viewer in to join the debate. The painting captured the imagination of Virginia Woolf, the artist’s sister. ‘I think you are a most remarkable painter,’ she wrote to Bell after admiring Conversation (1913-16). ‘But I maintain you are into the bargain, a satirist, a conveyer of impressions about human life: a short story writer of great wit and able to bring off a situation in a way that rouses my envy.’

Woolf’s rich and extensive body of work invites exactly the sort of spirited discussion that this painting conjures. In the eight decades since her death (after walking into the River Ouse on 28 March 1941) her novels, essays and short stories have been the subject of books, television series, films, exhibitions, a ballet, and many, many conversations, both public and private — particularly between women, for whom her radical calls for equality and empowerment often hold deep significance. Woolf herself loved conversation: her diaries are full of records of long debates with friends, around dining tables, on the telephone, while walking through the maze of London’s streets or tramping across the verdant Sussex countryside. Her nonfiction work — in particular her book-length essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas — is addressed directly to her audiences, who gain the pleasure of witnessing her nimble mind in action as her arguments unfold in a crescendo of eloquent, impassioned sentences. Yet much of her fiction revolves around the impossibility of truly knowing another person: her novels are full of characters who hide their thoughts from those around them, pondering the ultimate isolation of humankind as they struggle to establish who they are and how they wish to live.

There are so many possible beginnings for a conversation about Virginia Woolf, and so many directions — from grand philosophical theories of her work to the close-reading of gemlike individual phrases — in which that conversation might swerve as the night wears on. We could start on 25 January 1882, with the birth of Adeline Virginia Stephen into a well-to-do Victorian family; or with the deaths, in quick succession, of her mother, her beloved half-sister Stella, and her father, leaving Woolf free to escape the half-brothers who hoped their sisters would blend decorously into upper class society, and forge instead a very different path. When she wrote about her own life, Woolf often opened with her much-mythologised ‘new beginning’ of 1904, when she and her siblings left the family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington for 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where they agreed that ‘everything was going to be different’. The regular Thursday nights there, with mixed groups wandering in to discuss literature, art, sexuality and philosophy, became the origin of the Bloomsbury Group, a loose gathering of friends who exerted enormous and enduring influence on British culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Another beginning might be Woolf’s birth as a writer, publishing her first book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement. ‘Now we are free women,’ she wrote to her friend Violet Dickinson on receiving her first professional payslip: the ability to make one’s own living, as she went on to argue in her groundbreaking essay A Room of One’s Own, is fundamental to a woman’s sense of her own identity, and her path to intellectual and material freedom.

Conversations about Woolf don’t tend, surprisingly, to start with her early novels: The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) are relatively conventional in form, though both feature heroines frustrated by the ways external expectations fail to reflect their private hopes and desires. Woolf would come to attribute her true creative start as a writer to the influence of her friend Roger Fry, who curated the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in November 1910, which brought the work of Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne to London for the first time. ‘On or about December 1910,’ wrote Woolf famously in her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, referring to the exhibition, ‘human character changed.’ These colourful, abstract, modern works, which aimed not to represent their subjects realistically but to convey their essence through innovative and sensuous formal arrangements, opened up for Woolf whole new ways of drawing character and relationships in fiction, and left her convinced that a novel could offer not just a plot but a representation of inner lives. With her third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), which reveals its hero Jacob Flanders through fragments of other people’s memories, Woolf felt she had ‘found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice’. This shift towards a non-linear style of narrative, moving between perspectives and emphasising images and sensations rather than events, reached its zenith in The Waves (1931), Woolf’s great experiment in recording the impressions and thoughts of characters without conversation or external reality at all. Contemplating her fiction while she worked on Mrs Dalloway (1925), she described her ‘tunnelling’ process, a technique which enabled her to flicker between past and present, revealing more of characters’ histories as she needed it. In her diaries, and in the beginnings of memoir which she was working on as she died, we see Woolf excavating her own past, sifting through her memories in search of the ‘moments of being’ in which, she suggested, her innermost self might be located.

Of course we could talk about Woolf’s romantic relationships: her marriage to Leonard Woolf, and their work together at the Hogarth Press, their long-running publishing project which printed most of Woolf’s own books — with cover designs by her sister Vanessa — alongside important works by modernist contemporaries (and friends) including Katherine Mansfield and T. S. Eliot. Or the thrill of her entanglement with Vita Sackville-West, who provided the inspiration for Orlando (1928), her romp down the centuries through a character whose personality and sex shift as time passes, revealing the hypocrisies inherent to society’s strict policing of gender norms. We could examine Woolf’s pioneering writing on illness, and her own struggles with mental health; we could talk about her response to war, the ‘preposterous masculine fiction’ which haunts much of her writing, from the futile death of Jacob Flanders to the shellshocked and suicidal Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway (1925). In a lighter mood, we could talk about Woolf’s self-proclaimed love of clothes, which she described as ‘frock consciousness’ — an attention to surfaces and aesthetics which manifested also in her wonderfully evocative essays about London, where she describes the thrill of gazing through the windows of Oxford Street’s luxury shops, caught up in the swell of a crowd. We could spend hours dissecting her marvellous essay ‘Street Haunting’, a paean to the imaginative possibilities of the city — and as cities across Europe emerge from periods of lockdown, we might find parallels in Mrs Dalloway, her great novel about a city slowly reestablishing its verve while its denizens begin to process the horrors of a long war.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf urged women to ‘look back through our mothers’, to seek forebears from whom to learn as we seek new ways of living on equal terms with men. Woolf was enraged by the ways in which women have been systematically deprived of the conditions, material and emotional, under which artistic work can prosper, and writes powerfully of the way women’s imaginations have been historically stifled by their confinement to the domestic sphere. ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,’ she wrote; towards the end of her life she was working on a history of English literature which aimed to write women back into history, and tell the stories that male historians, focused on kings and wars, had chosen to leave out. Today, many women look to Woolf as they ponder their own place in a world still dominated by men: her life and her work sound a clarion call to readers to ‘rewrite history’ by creating the future they want to see. Every reader has their own Woolf: her work is so teeming with ideas, characters, experiments, revelations, that anyone who encounters her will come away changed in their own unique way. This is why her work is the perfect subject for a conversation — a chance to share our own Woolfs with each other, as we come together in celebration of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, whose legacy has been so empowering for so many.

Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, May 12, 1928.
Vanessa Bell, Conversation, © Estate of Vanessa Bell, 1913-1916. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas,© Oxford World’s Classics, 2015.
Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, 1972. © Times Literary Supplement.
Virginia Woolf to Violet Dickinson, June 29, 1906.
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, 1915.
Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, 1919.
Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, November 1910.
Virginia Woolf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, 1924.
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, 1922.
Virginia Woolf, Diary, July 26, 1922.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 1925.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando, 1928.
Virginia Woolf to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, January 23, 1916.
Virginia Woolf, Diary, 1925.
Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting, 1930.

Listen to the full Literary rendezvous

Bibliographic record

Virginia Woolf, Professions for Women,

1931

Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,

1985

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion,

1987

Jeanette Winterson , Sexing the Cherry,

1989

Jeanette Winterson, The Powerbook,

2000

Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping,

2004

Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods,

2007

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate,

2012

Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein: A Love Story,

2019

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, 2011.

© Royal Society of Literature.

Jeanette Winterson, 12 Bytes,

2021

Virginia Woolf, A Room of one’s own,

1929

Virginia Woolf, To the lighthouse,

1927

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway,

1925

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