Cambridge Celebrates Woolf

Cambridge entertained two cultural activities dedicated to Virginia Woolf that coincided, delightfully, in the first week of term. Vita and Virginia (which theatrically reinterpreted letters sent between the pair) has just finished its run at the Corpus Playroom. The Fitzwilliam will host Virginia Woolf: an Exhibition Inspired by her Writings until the 9th of December. It was fortuitous (rather than a result of any concerted planning on my part) when I returned to Cambridge after deciding to do my dissertation on Woolf that, in the first week, there should be two diversions I could take from work in the guise of ‘research’. That this happened was, however no surprise; rather, continued interest is testament to Woolf’s enduring legacy. Her works plead with us to be unpicked, none perhaps as much as A Room Of One’s Own, which was pulsing in my mind when I first visited the exhibition.

The pathway Woolf’s work undertakes is a fruitful resource for visualisation (in the form of an exhibition), given her love for art’s power to ‘fix’ reality in a way prose struggles. The synergy across art forms is captured and preserved wonderfully in Laura Smith’s curation. The exhibition is spread across two rooms, the walls of which are, in themselves, arresting. Oversized sketches of various women in static dynamism enclose the room. The lines are sparse; the reality is flat, suggestive, and perfectly substantialises Woolf’s observation that ‘women have sat indoors’ for so many years that ‘the very walls are permeated by their creative force’. It is as if a potent, and profoundly feminine, creative energy had spun out from the recesses of the room and spattered the walls in a brilliant technicolour vision. It is a thrilling way for femininity to repossess a space.

The promotional material for Vita and Virginia made much of the eponymous Sackville-West’s estimation of herself as ‘reduced to a thing that wants Virginia’. This is fitting for a play that offers a literally reductive perspective (it focusses exclusively on their relationship). This is not meant as a criticism. The dialogue of Vita and Virginia is adapted from letters, and the neat materialisation of the literary is no mean feat. However, those expecting more than a study of this relationship will be disappointed. In a similar vein, those expecting a blow by blow insight into Woolf’s life will find little of worth at the Fitzwilliam.  That is not to say that the experiences are useless; rather, the opposite.

Woolf proposes in A Room of One’s Own that ‘masterpieces are not single and solitary births’ but the outcome of many ‘years of thinking’ in common in the ‘experience of the mass’. It is not unreasonable to suggest she would have enjoyed the Fitzwilliam’s thematic approach to displaying works with tangible, anecdotal, geographic, or imagined connections to her own. Woolf believes that when art is mostly fully enjoyed when we ‘see it come to life’ (as in Vita and Virginia’s literal realisation). When this happens, we cannot help but ‘exclaim in rapture’ that ‘this is what I have always felt and known and desired’. This is, of course, pertinent in relation to the dearth of queer storylines treated with sensitivity on-stage. In this way Woolf anticipates our contemporary discourse about representation of marginalised groups in art. I left both with a lingering sense that Woolf’s vision of the ‘single voice’ of art had reached, in the distinctive bloom of early Michaelmas, at least a partial actualisation. 

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