Virginia Woolf’s Personal Photo Album Digitized & Put Online by Harvard: See Candid Snapshots of Woolf, Her Family, and Friends from the Bloomsbury Group

Some writ­ers are rest­less by nature, roam­ing like Ernest Hem­ing­way or Hen­ry Miller, set­tling nowhere and every­where. Oth­ers are home­bod­ies, like William Faulkn­er and Vir­ginia Woolf. Their fic­tion reflects their desire to nest in place. Strolling the grounds of Faulkner’s Rowan Oak one swel­ter­ing sum­mer, I swear I saw the author round a cor­ner of the house, lost in thought and wear­ing rid­ing clothes. Vis­i­tors to Vir­ginia Woolf’s home in the vil­lage of Rod­mell in East Sus­sex have sure­ly had sim­i­lar visions.

Woolf’s home con­tains her writ­ing life with­in the lush gar­den grounds and cot­tage walls of the 17th cen­tu­ry Monk’s House—Vir­ginia and Leonard’s retreat, then per­ma­nent home, from 1919 until her sui­cide by drown­ing in the near­by Riv­er Ouse in 1941.

Even in death she belonged to the house; Leonard buried her ash­es beneath an elm in the Monk’s House gar­den. Although Leonard was the gar­den­er, “there are very few entries” in Virginia’s diary “which do not men­tion the gar­den.”

But there are many oth­er ways to meet the author of Mrs. Dal­loway and Jacob’s Room than trav­el­ing to her writer’s lodge, a tidy, tiny house on the Monk’s House grounds that served as her office. Like an avid Instragrammer—or like my moth­er and prob­a­bly yours—Woolf kept care­ful record of her life in pho­to albums, which now reside at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The Monk’s House albums, num­bered 1–6, con­tain images of Woolf, her fam­i­ly, and her many friends, includ­ing such famous mem­bers of the Blooms­bury group as E.M. Forster (above, top), John May­nard Keynes, and Lyt­ton Stra­chey (below, with Woolf and W.B. Yeats, and play­ing chess with sis­ter Mar­jorie). Har­vard has dig­i­tized one album, Monk’s House 4, dat­ed 1939 on the cov­er. You can view its scanned pages at their library site.

There are vaca­tion pho­tos and fam­i­ly pho­tos; land­scapes and pho­tos of pets; clip­pings from news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines; and, of course, the gar­den. The albums span the peri­od 1890 to 1947 (includ­ing addi­tions by Leonard after Virginia’s death). Many of the pho­tos are labeled, many are not. Many of the albums’ pages are left blank. The pho­tographs are arranged in no par­tic­u­lar order. The net effect is that of a life rec­ol­lect­ed in preg­nant images laced with lacu­nae, a psy­cho­log­i­cal theme of so much of Woolf’s writ­ing. Woolf, writes Mag­gie Humm, “believed that pho­tographs could help her to sur­vive those iden­ti­ty-destroy­ing moments of her own life—her inco­her­ent ill­ness­es.”

But pho­tog­ra­phy was also a means for cul­ti­vat­ing rela­tion­ships. Woolf “skill­ful­ly trans­formed friends and moments into art­ful tableaux, and she was sur­round­ed by female friends and fam­i­ly who were also ener­getic pho­tog­ra­phers,” includ­ing her sis­ter, Lady Otto­line Mor­rell, her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, and her great aunt Julia Mar­garet Cameron. She “fre­quent­ly invit­ed friends to share her reflec­tions. The let­ters and diaries describe a con­stant exchange of pho­tographs, in which the pho­tographs become a meet­ing-place, a con­ver­sa­tion, aide-mémoires, and some­times mech­a­nisms of sur­vival and entice­ment.”

Unlike Monk’s House, a world built and shared with her hus­band, Woolf’s albums rep­re­sent her own per­son­al net­work of rela­tion­ships. They serve as memo­ri­als and med­i­ta­tions after the deaths of those close to her. “Pho­tographs of friends were impor­tant memen­to mori,” such as the por­trait of poet Julian Bell, above, her nephew, who was killed in the Span­ish Civ­il War. The pho­tos doc­u­ment gath­er­ings and impor­tant life events among her social cir­cle. They per­form all the tasks of ordi­nary pho­to albums, and more—showing us the “chain of per­cep­tions” of which per­son­al iden­ti­ty is made in Woolf’s mod­ernist vision, with rep­e­ti­tions and sequences cen­tered around famil­iar objects like her favorite chair.

For fans, avid read­ers, crit­ics, and lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans, the pho­tographs pro­vide a visu­al record of a life we come to know so well through the let­ters, diaries, and romans à clef. Writ­ing to her sis­ter, Woolf once described paint­ing a por­trait “using dozens of snap­shots in the paint.” Vis­it her pho­to album here at the Har­vard Library site, and flip through the pages of her life in snap­shots.

via @HarvardTheatre

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Vir­ginia Woolf

In the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Her Voice, Vir­ginia Woolf Explains Why Writ­ing Isn’t a “Craft” (1937)

The Steamy Love Let­ters of Vir­ginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925–1929)

Why Should We Read Vir­ginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion Makes the Case

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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