Black-and-white portrait of a young woman in profile with brown hair pulled back in a large bun at back of her head, wearing a lacy white gown with high collar and long sleeves.

Portrait of Virginia Stephen, 1902

Transcript below

Brandon Taylor: I think that this is maybe the photo that a lot of people will be familiar with. I think it’s… They often use it as the jacket photo in the reprints of her books. I think, yeah, it does seem more posed. She seems here, I think, still haunted. I think that’s a running trend of Virginia Woolf’s photos, but also her style of dress is totally different. It seems freer somehow than the sort of Victorian…

Francesca Wade: Well, this would have been, I think, just after the death of her mother and just before the death of her father, so it’s sort of on the cusp between when the life of her childhood is really disintegrating around her, but she hadn’t yet set out on her own as a writer and was still working out who she might be and what possibilities might be open to her. I think her father did not think that his daughters would be writers or artists, and so she was really being touted around as a, you know, eligible young society woman, and her brothers would take her off to parties, and she and Vanessa would kind of sit in the corner looking grumpy. She does look contemplative. 

Brandon Taylor: Yeah, and you know, she’s not meeting the camera head-on—she’s gazing at something just off view, and there’s a kind of… One could read it as a wry kind of smile, just the slightest twitch of the lips, and it is, I think, like a receptive, open expression, but it’s impossible to know what she might be laughing at, because one might say, oh, she’s being very coy here, or maybe she’s cracking up at the idea of posing in this way. There’s a little liveliness to her expression, I feel, and the longer I look at it, the more I notice different ways of reading her expression.

Francesca Wade: Yeah, she’s refusing to be kind of…to lead the life that she’s being told she has to lead. She’s playing along to a certain extent, but she is plotting her escape. 

Brandon Taylor: Oh yeah, she’s got her eyes on the prize. 

End of Transcript