Photographs of Virginia Woolf line the gallery of the mind’s eye:
The George Beresford photo (1902), young, lovely, wistful, eyes dominant and downcast, an angelic, if posed image;
A studio portrait (1925), pensive, head turned to her left, with eyes cast off into a deep middle distance, simply dressed and set against wallpaper of equatorial rainforest brilliance;
A Vogue magazine photo (1926), seated, lost to us in thought, head turned to her right, eyes dominant, wearing a fashionable Victorian gown of her mother’s, the image caught by a high-fashion photographer;
And more: glamorous images of an ethereal Virginia Woolf wrapped in a silk shawl or caught staring off into far, inaccessible corridors of thought, or on holiday with a brilliant scarf wound ‘round her head beneath a hat of truly epic proportions;
Then there’s the most “glamorous” moment, for which, of course, we have no photo at all, only an incandescent, iconic apparition: Woolf’s suicide.
The cult of glamour has done more damage to Virginia Woolf than her most virulent critics. She has not herself to blame, even if the photos supply “evidence,” since she had to be forced or tricked into posing for most of them. Not herself to blame for her image being stamped on everything from tea cozies to mouse pads to pencil cases. Not herself to blame for being made into a victim in this age of victims and victimization.
There’s nothing glamorous about her suicide or anybody’s, for that matter. The Hours got it right: the deep, breath-exhausting immersion into the roiling waters of a tidal river filled with hair-tangling, skin-wrinkling, body-bloating cold muck.
Virginia Woolf was a woman who conquered breakdowns, and pursued her vocation with singular dedication and diligence; a woman who steadfastly resisted victimization, who thought of herself as — indeed, was – a survivor; above all, she was an artist who struggled to reshape language and restructure narrative in order to represent her own vision. Her suicide was not a glamorous act — nor an act of madness — but rather her last opportunity to exercise control over her own story, to complete the text of her life on her own terms.
My own mental photograph of her derives from the words of Victoria Ocampo, an Argentinian writer: “Virginia, very thin, in black, without powder, without rouge, without jewelry, infinitely lovely, the stamp of all her dreams printed on her face.”