Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Was Virginia Woolf a Snob? the Case of Aristocratic Portraits in Orlando

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Was Virginia Woolf a Snob? the Case of Aristocratic Portraits in Orlando

Article excerpt

When Virginia Woolf introduced the idea of Orlando (1928) to Vita Sackville-West, whose life was the basis for Orlando, she explained that Sackville-West's "excellence as a subject" arose largely from her "noble birth," adding teasingly: "(But whats [sic] 400 years of nobility, all the same?)" (L3 429). Even before she contemplated Orlando, Woolf wrote of Sackville-West in her diary: "Snob as I am, I trace her passions 500 years back, & they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine" (D2 235-36). From the outset, Woolf thus tied her interest in Sackville-West to her own snobbishness. This was a character trait that had great interest for Woolf, who made it a theme for introspection in one of the papers she read to the Bloomsbury Memoir Club in 1936. In this paper, entitled "Am I a Snob?," she juxtaposes her desire to engage with members of the upper class with her indifference toward meeting writers, intellectuals, and scientists--she would rather meet the Prince of Wales than Einstein--and concludes that she is "a coronet snob," confessing: "I want coronets; but they must be old coronets; coronets that carry land with them and country houses; coronets that breed simplicity, eccentricity, ease" (186). Although there are no coronets on display in the portraits that illustrate Orlando, the photographs of Sackville-West, a famous aristocrat at the time, and the historical paintings of her aristocratic ancestors portray the coronet-wearing segment of society in a visually convincing and enticing manner. The historical paintings, used to illustrate Orlando as a man, and the photographs, used to illustrate Orlando as a woman (the portraits show Orlando first as a boy in the Elizabethan age and lastly as a thirty-six-year-old woman in 1928) thus accord with Woolf's craving for "coronets." However, the illustrations express more than Woolf's "attraction to aristocracy, to Englishness, to wealth," which Suzanne Raitt identifies as part of Woolf's attraction to Sackville-West as a lover (Raitt 160). The illustrations also articulate the ambivalence to these "social privileges" that Woolf, according to Raitt, later demonstrated in Three Guineas (1938). The illustrations thus anticipate Woolf's most political works, beginning with A Room of One's Own (1929), and they involve Sackville-West directly in a critical exposition of the aristocracy.

The element of class critique in Orlando's illustrations may seem incongruous with Woolf's reverence for the aristocracy, but it is in line with her politically charged pictorial practice in Three Guineas. Diane F. Gillespie has argued that the photographs of a general, heralds, participants in a university procession, a judge and an archbishop are used in Three Guineas "to exemplify and to challenge the kinds of masculine values she indicts as causes of war" (136). Likewise, Maggie Humm has analyzed how the photographs become "timeless dead icons of patriarchy" (227), while Merry M. Pawlowski has read them as "illustrations of the masculine spectacle of public space" (725). Most recently, Rebecca Wisor has shown the relevance of the identities of the men in the photographs for Woolf's anti-patriarchal stance. Although a visual representation of the aristocracy is manifest in Orlando's illustrations, the relevance of this for Woolf's class politics has not received critical attention. Studies have shown how Woolf maintained her relationship to Sackville-West by involving her in the production of the images (Gillespie 136, Humm 217), and some scholars have focused on how the images relate to Orlando's change from man to woman (Erika Flesher, Talia Schaffer). As we will see below, both Woolf's relationship to Sackville-West and Orlando's gender have an important class dimension. Elizabeth Hirsh has drawn attention to how Woolf's inclusion of the Sackville portraits functions as a way of taking possession of Sackville-West, de-privatizing her life, heritage and estate (171-75). However, Woolf not only takes ownership of Sackville-West's life, heritage and estate via the Sackville portraits, she also uses the portraits to debunk Sackville-West's class, and she additionally couples them with photographs that parody those same portraits. …

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