This post was contributed by Roisin Lynch, an intern at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Virginia Woolf wrote her little-known and only play Freshwater in 1923, and revised it in 1935 for a single performance by her family and friends in her sister Vanessa Bell’s art studio in Bloomsbury.

Freshwater is a comedy, poking good-natured fun at Woolf’s great aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the artistic and moral sensibilities of her Victorian set. In the Cameron’s home at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (played by Woolf’s brother, Adrian Stephen, in 1935) lurks about the house reciting Maud at every opportunity, while Julia Cameron (played by Vanessa Bell) searches in vain to find a policeman with manly enough calves to play Galahad in one of her Arthurian photographs. The plot centres on Ellen Terry (Woolf’s niece, Angelica Bell), the sixteen year old wife of George Frederic Watts (Duncan Grant). Bored by life as a model for her elderly husband’s paintings, at the end of the play she escapes – wearing trousers, no less – to the dissolute freedom of a life in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

As part of a series of events during Arts Week, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of English gave a lively and enjoyable rehearsed reading of the play in the beautiful Keynes library in the School of Art’s buildings in Gordon Square, once home to Woolf herself. The performance was enthusiastically received by the audience, in particular the various props – a copy of Maud, a helpfully annotated picture of a leg, a small model omnibus – held up by Professor Hilary Fraser to embellish the reading, and the very special guest appearance at the end of the play by Queen Victoria herself.


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