September 16 – November 22, 2008
Curated by William Beekman and Sarah Funke
In September 2008, The Grolier Club will present This Perpetual Fight: Love and Loss in Virginia Woolf’s Intimate Circle, an exhibit drawn from a number of private collections and from the Smith College Library, the Theater Collection of Harvard University, the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. The exhibit, curated by Sarah Funke and William Beekman, will include over 200 items, including books, images, letters and other manuscript materials, some of which have never been exhibited publicly. The items on display pertain to Virginia Woolf, her parents, her husband, Leonard Woolf, and their friends and relations. The circle around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, including the painters Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington and Roger Fry, the economist John Maynard Keynes, authors Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and other luminaries of the period, became known as the Bloomsbury Group (for the hitherto unfashionable area of London where the Woolfs lived), and has been, ever since, by turns famous and infamous.
The title of the exhibit is drawn from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she is reflecting on the death of her good friend Roger Fry:
I had a notion that I could describe the tremendous feeling at Roger's funeral: but of course I can't. I mean the universal feeling: how we all fought with our brains, loves and so on: and must be vanquished. A fear then came to me, of death. Of course I shall lie there too before that gate, and slide in, and it frightens me. But why? I mean, I felt the vainness of this perpetual fight, with our brains and loving each other, against the other things; if Roger could die.
The “universal feeling” was an express or implied theme in much of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and one that resonates with the story of her own life, from her troubled childhood, through her loss of family, friends and security in two World Wars, to her struggles with mental illness and her eventual suicide. And yet Virginia Woolf was, by all accounts, a lively and engaging woman. She had a prodigiously active career, and she stood at the center of a large group of notable, engaged figures, many of them public intellectuals at the forefront of their generation, who were connected to her (and to each other) by bonds of family, affinity and affection.
Virginia Woolf’s novels are still widely read, but she also published influential literary criticism and feminist essays. Her husband Leonard was a political journalist, the editor of a number of prominent journals, and an intellectual founder of what would be born as the League of Nations. They came from two very different backgrounds (hers academic and genteel; his Jewish and professional), but they formed a lifelong bond in a marriage blessed with everything except sex and children. In addition to their other achievements the Woolfs founded and (until shortly before Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941) personally managed the Hogarth Press, which began as a hobby and grew into a flourishing publishing business.
Supporting characters in the exhibit include Virginia Woolf’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, so memorably portrayed as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; her older sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, who married the art critic and bon vivant Clive Bell, bore two sons and a daughter (all adored by Virginia Woolf), and made her life in a farmhouse in Sussex which she decorated extravagantly with her lover and artistic collaborator, Duncan Grant, applying their original art to every available surface; Grant’s gay cousin, Lytton Strachey, the famously eccentric historian who proposed to Virginia Woolf and then, after she refused him, made his life with Dora Carrington, a beautiful young artist who married another man but dedicated her life to Strachey and committed suicide after his death; T.S. Eliot, whose early poetry was set by hand and first published in book form by the Woolfs; and the exotic, glamorous lesbian Vita Sackville-West, a best selling author from a noble English family (and wife to Sir Harold Nicolson) who swept Virginia Woolf off her feet and then settled into the role of close friend (and Hogarth Press author).
This group, and their friends, produced mountains of books, hundreds of square feet of paintings and reams of press. The exhibit documents how their lives and work intertwined and enriched each other, and how Virginia Woolf’s greatest literary work (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own) resonates with the story of her own life and the people who were so dear to her. The exhibit will also be documented by a large format illustrated catalogue, which will be available for purchase onsite at the Grolier Club, and through University Press of New England (UPNE), exclusive distributors of Grolier Club publications .
Location and times: This Perpetual Fight will be on view at the Grolier Club from September 16 - November 22, 2008, with the exception of October 13, when the Club is closed for the Columbus Day holiday. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 AM - 5 PM. Open to the public free of charge. For more information call the Grolier Club at (212) 838-6690.