A new exhibit at New York Public Library offers an intimate look at Virginia Woolf's life


Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf began pushing the boundaries of literature and eviscerating the patriarchy. Her words still resonate today. 

A landmark new exhibit at New York Public Library, “Virginia Woolf: A Modern Mind” explores the famed author’s life and creative process. It’s on view for free now through March 5, 2023 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the library’s main branch by Bryant Park). 

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At the Virginia Woolf exhibit, where mementos sit in a glass case.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Public Library

About the exhibit

New York Public Library holds one of the world’s most important collections of Woolf’s writings, and it drew on those for the exhibition. The show features personal notebooks, diaries, family photographs and unpublished letters offering insight into one of the 20th century’s most important authors. Diary entries chronicle how Woolf came to reject the conventional forms of her Victorian predecessors, experiment with shifting perspectives, employ stream-of-consciousness narration and explore the innermost thoughts of her characters.

“Virginia Woolf: A Modern Mind” is the first major exhibition of Woolf’s writings at the library in 30 years.

“Through her own writings, we can follow Woolf’s creative development alongside her personal struggles and achievements. Her candid diary entries about her desire to be a great writer, alongside those in which she reflects on a lifetime marked by illness, speak to a very relatable desire to be the best you can be, despite inner turmoil,” the exhibit’s curator Carolyn Vega, head of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, said in a statement. “And her writings on the fluidity of gender are ever more important today. After she died, Woolf’s widower selected The New York Public Library to be the custodian of her archive because it was important to him that her writings be kept together and made available to the public; we are excited to share her insightful, sensitive, private writings with visitors.”

… her writings on the fluidity of gender are ever more important today.

Mementos include early drafts of Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and the final draft of To the Lighthouse (1927). Those drafts were written in large notebooks that Woolf bound or re-covered herself.

You’ll also see intimate letters and diaries documenting her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, who was the inspiration for Orlando (1928). Also featured are books that Woolf printed by hand for the Hogarth Press and original dust jacket designs for the author’s books by her own sister Vanessa Bell. Diary entries date back to 1897 and up to 1941, her last journal posting.

Big fans of Woolf should also check out the library’s gift shop for beautiful copies of her tomes, plus themed tote bags, necklaces and journals.

A sepia-toned portrait of Virginia Woolf.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Public Library / Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature

About Virginia Woolf

The author lived from 1882 to 1941 and became one of the most important figures of English literary modernism, the library explained. Her early years were marked by turmoil, as she grieved the loss of her mother and two siblings and was a victim of sexual abuse by her half-brothers. 

As she grew older and established her writing career, she eventually founded her own printing press along with her husband Leonard. The Hogarth Press published modernist literature, radical political tracts and psychoanalysis after its founding in 1917.

An image of the cover of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Public Library

Woolf is best known for her novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as for A Room of One’s Own (1929) and other writings critical of the patriarchy. She engaged with questions of gender, class, consciousness and privilege, though she herself was part of the cultural elite.

Over the decades, she’s become known as a protofeminist and an LGBTQ+ icon.

We thought it would be fitting to leave you with words from the author herself. Here, in 1920, she describes her vision for a new literary form: “no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist.”

“Virginia Woolf: A Modern Mind” is on view through March 5, 2023 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Reserve free timed tickets here. 



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