The Unsaid: The Silence of Virginia Woolf

Here is where the artist Adeline Virginia Stephen was born. She lived in this house, at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in west London, for the first twenty-two years of her life. The whitewashed Victorian façade holds the sunlight brightly when the weather is good. It’s a short walk from here to Yeoman’s Row, and in July, 1902, when she was twenty, she went there to have her portrait taken. She was accompanied, I imagine, by her seventy-year-old father, the noted man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen. I picture them moving side by side: she in the white summer dress worn in the portrait, and he in one of the dark suits he was often cased in, his long, unkempt beard hiding the knot of his black silk necktie. They might have gone around the giant dome of the Royal Albert Hall and into Kensington Gore. Then left on to Princes Consort Road, crossing Exhibition Road, continuing to Princes Gardens, before needling through the quiet back mews till they reach Brompton Road. Second on the right is Yeoman’s Row, where the photographer George Charles Beresford had set up his studio that same year.

It was no doubt an anxious time for Beresford. This was an unexpected turn in his career. After spending four years working as a civil engineer in British India, he had contracted malaria and was forced to return to England. He studied art, and now was hoping to establish himself as a leading photographic portraitist. He would do well. A few days from now, the grand Auguste Rodin would walk through the door and sit facing slightly up, pointing his large temple, with its clump of bulging veins, toward the light. Beresford succeeded in capturing something frivolous and majestic in the French sculptor. The following year, he photographed a somewhat bored and melancholy young Winston Churchill. The year after that, Joseph Conrad sat looking into his lens, unable to altogether conceal his quiet, exile’s anxiety. Between 1902 and 1932, Beresford photographed some of the most noted artists, politicians, intellectuals and socialites of the time. Many of the negatives are now held at the National Portrait Gallery.

What Beresford couldn’t have known that day was that his twenty-year-old sitter, Sir Leslie Stephen’s fourth daughter, was destined to become a writer without whom the pantheon of literature would be incomplete. And certainly it couldn’t have occurred to her, least of all to her father, in the fifteen or twenty minutes it would have taken them to walk from Hyde Park Gate to Yeoman’s Row, that one of the photographs Beresford was to take that afternoon was going to become the most iconic likeness of the artist we would later come to know as Virginia Woolf.

In all the four portraits Beresford took, he had the author sitting and looking away from the camera. He was obviously inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Or perhaps, what with the strong and abundant hair tied loosely in a bun, and the jaw running in an uninterrupted arc from the careful chin to the over-attentive ear, it was his sitter’s profile that brought to mind those Victorian painters. It’s the first of these pictures—I suspect it was the first because it lacks the self-consciousness of the other three—that was to be the most successful. In it she is looking away more naturally than in the others, as if a private thought had caught her attention. There is determination in the neck. The open shell of the ear is unusually large, tensing the rim. It hints at the great danger of listening, as if acknowledging that ears cannot choose not to hear what is directed at them. More than most, she would have known the danger of that, the lasting stain of language. She seems to be concerned with this, trying to accept the vulnerability. Her cheek, occupying the central space in the photograph, seems full with utterance. Those shut lips are concealing an ocean of words. What Beresford managed to capture, and what eludes him in the following three portraits, is depth and its promise; an instinctive devotion to reality, to what Woolf was to later call “the white light of truth.”

One cannot help but read in the portrait signs of the conflicting forces the author was to contend with for the remainder of her life: the discrepancy between the reality of men and women; the need as an artist to be veiled yet available, attentive to her individual potential yet resistant to public prescriptions and constraints; and one’s exposure to history and madness. Seen from our time, the photograph is a classical representation of the artist at the dawn of the twentieth century—the century of two world wars—where death and horror threatened to obliterate art and poetry. Here is the fragile, androgynous figure of a great novelist silently and only obliquely aware of the arsenal of her gifts and the demands of her time. It is as if Beresford had shone a light into a psychological space rather than onto a body. His lens is looking down into the depth, from which a light bounces back. It brings to mind a sentence about Mrs. Ramsay, one of many extraordinary sentences in “To the Lighthouse”:
It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.
In “To the Lighthouse,” Woolf’s fifth novel, she mastered a sort of sentence that she had been edging toward, a sentence we can now call her own: a freely progressing, long, fractured series of observations and insights, unburdened and unhurried by the need to tell the “story,” yet moving with the unrelenting progression of a scalpel. It steals away, like “a light stealing under water,” revealing not merely information but the cadence and temper of inner lives, and how they resonate against the images and sensations of the physical world. It has a precise power that is disinterested in overpowering reality. The momentum sweeps you away till that last word, “trembling,” and the echo it sends back. That earlier “at the moment” hinges it to the subjective, freeing it from any claim of authority. Yet the result is superbly authoritative. The acoustic quality of Woolf’s prose in “To the Lighthouse” reverberates, and therefore her sentences are not easy to drop or leave behind. They mark indelibly.

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