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What lies beneath: Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell


Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell

Last year in London's National Portrait Gallery, a glass case containing a strong and sturdy walking stick was on display. It looked ordinary, functional, useful. But it spoke a terrible sorrow once you realised that that very stick was left on the banks of the river Ouse, in Sussex, its owner having placed a large stone in her pocket and walked into the river to die, on a bright, clear, cold day in March 1941.

The woman was Virginia Woolf and her final note to her husband Leonard, which she left on the sitting-room mantelpiece, spoke of how she felt certain she was going mad again, that "I owe all the happiness of my life to you"; how "everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness" and "I can't go on spoiling your life any longer."

And she ends: "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."

Born Adeline Virginia Stephen on this day in 1882, the third of four children, her mother died when she was thirteen and she had the first of several breakdowns that same year.

Soon afterwards, her much older half-brother, George Duckworth, began molesting the young Virginia and spoiled her life before it had hardly begun.

There's no doubting she was a troubled genius but genius she was. Woolf was a great modernist. In Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse she shaped the way we think; she explains us to ourselves.

This portrait, by Woolf's sister Vanessa, was painted circa 1912, the year Virginia Stephen became Virginia Woolf. She was thirty.

Three years later she published her first novel, the conventional The Voyage Out.

Photographs of the younger Woolf prove her extraordinarily beautiful and this painting adds a thoughtful, reflective, wistful quality to our understanding of her.

Seated, hands placed firmly on the table, the gesture says there's work to be done and she was a Trojan worker.

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It also captures what she herself has called the flight of the mind. And hers was a remarkable mind.

Be not afraid of Virginia Woolf. She's one-hundred-and-thirty-three years old and going strong.

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