As a young woman, Virginia Woolf toured London’s National Portrait Gallery and grieved to find that almost all the portraits in the collection were of men. Woolf was so resentful that she later refused to sit for a drawing commissioned by the gallery, seemingly renouncing an opportunity to add her own portrait to its walls. One hundred years later, in the summer of 2014, I found myself at the museum touring “Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision,” a special exhibition devoted entirely to the woman who renounced this very same gallery because of her feminist beliefs.
As the United States prepares for its very first presidential election featuring a woman on a major party’s ticket, I am especially reminded of Woolf, a feminist decades ahead of her time. Through both her writing and her social beliefs, Virginia Woolf gave voice to women’s experiences long before “the wage gap” was common jargon. While Woolf’s feminist ideals are frequently remembered through her essays, especially the definitive A Room of One’s Own, her progressive aims subtly permeate even her earliest fiction.
Jacob’s Room, Woolf’s third novel and her first definitively experimental body of writing, explores the coming of age of protagonist Jacob Flanders during the early twentieth century. Woolf’s decision to tell Jacob’s story predominantly through the perspectives of the women who know him, rather than Jacob’s own narration, transforms a traditional character study into a commentary on the predominance of women in the life of a male character. The looming advent of the First World War features heavily throughout the story, and Woolf’s focus on the war’s effect on the private domestic home front was at that time so rare that other authors — even women— criticized her for not covering the action and politics of war more overtly. The novel further elaborates on the impact of the war at home by commenting on ties between patriarchal society and militarism, never directly blaming a chauvinistic culture for the war but still subtly laying the foundation for examining the potential connection. These themes later served as partial inspiration for Three Guineas, Woolf’s essay on war and the role of women in a war-torn patriarchy, and The Years, the last Woolf novel released in her lifetime.
The publication of Jacob’s Room in October of 1922 was especially significant to Woolf as it was the first of her own novels to be released by her very own Hogarth Press. Both Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf enjoying book printing as a hobby, and when they bought their own printing press to keep in the dining room of their residence at Hogarth House, they simultaneously founded their own publishing house in 1917. Female business owners were few and far between in early and mid-century England, but Woolf vigorously sought printing success and Hogarth Press went on to publish works by T.S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky and Sigmund Freud. Woolf even commissioned her sister, Vanessa Bell, to create the cover artwork for numerous Hogarth Press publications; Woolf herself remained a co-owner of the press for most of her life, as well as its most widely published female author.
At the National Gallery’s exhibit I viewed several Hogarth Press first editions of Woolf’s books, and I remember feeling awed by this woman’s commitment to the pursuit of her art and her ethics — even as she lived in a time with few fundamental rights, and fewer critical accolades, for women. As the long fight for gender equality continues, I am grateful for all the barriers Virginia Woolf conquered, as a writer and as a woman, over one hundred years ago.
Featured image: “Portrait of Virginia Woolf” by George Charles Beresford, Public Domain via Wikimedia.