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6.4.04

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

This post is dedicated to Terry Teachout, who has professed an ambivalence (one might say hostility) toward all things Bloomsbury (from About Last Night, on February 10):

The Bloomsbury group bores me silly. Always has. All hat, no cattle—and that most definitely includes the only marginally readable Virginia Woolf. It's the highbrow counterpart of the Algonquin Round Table, with better gossip and fewer one-liners. Now they're all dead, and about time, too. The sooner they're forgotten, the better for British literature.
"Marginally readable"? I instantly became an admirer when I first read Virginia Woolf in high school: as someone who enjoyed reading Jacob's Room, The Waves, A Room of One's Own, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, I am surprised that those words could be applied to her books.

And it is surprising that boredom can be a reaction to the people featured in movies like The Hours (2002) and, more salaciously, Carrington (1995), based on the racy biographical account of Bloomsbury by Michael Holroyd (Lytton Strachey [buy this book from Amazon], 1967–1968; to make The Literary Saloon like us more, we are trying to avoid using links to Amazon without identifying them as such). For heaven's sake, in the latter movie, Dora Carrington (the incomparable Emma Thompson) is shown with disarming frankness, as in the book, having a series of anonymous trysts. I can see a number of reactions to this group of people, but being bored silly is not one of them.

Not that I think I am able, or really even want, to change Terry's mind, but the latest news from the battleground to keep Bloomsbury's memory alive is the discovery of a portrait of Virginia Woolf, once thought lost, by her sister Vanessa Bell. In an article (Rediscovered portrait on display, April 5) in The Guardian, Maev Kennedy reports:
A long-lost portrait of a calm, cheerful and relatively short-nosed Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell has been rediscovered after 70 years. It was painted in 1934, at the time when she turned down an official request from the National Portrait Gallery.

In a letter to her nephew Quentin Bell, she forecast the probable fate of any such portrait. "They keep the drawing in a cellar, and when I've been dead 10 years they have it out and say 'does anyone want to know what Mrs Woolf looked like?' 'No,' say all the others. Then it's torn up." In the end the National Portrait Gallery acquired 18 images of Woolf, and none has been torn up.
The story is also reported, with a much better image of the painting, by BBC News (Virginia Woolf portrait uncovered, April 5). In related news, the British Library has recently purchased a collection of manuscript documents written by Virginia Woolf with and for her two nephews, Julian and Quentin, in mock newspapers that show their "view of the Bloomsbury set, who were renowned for their Bohemian lifestyle. Outings, dinner parties and dances are all recounted and often illustrated."

To disappoint Terry further, here is a list (with images) of the portraits of Virginia Woolf in the National Portrait Gallery in London. You can make pilgrimages to Bloomsbury shrines like the country homes Monk's House and Charleston, in Lewes. The latter is where the rediscovered portrait will be on exhibit.

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