Virginia Woolf and “the hermaphrodite”: A feminist fan of Orlando and critic of Roger Fry
in In and out of Bloomsbury
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After Virginia Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry was published in 1940, she received a letter from Mary Louisa Gordon strongly critical of her portrayal of Roger’s wife, the artist Helen Coombe, and even more critical of Roger’s character and conduct. Mary and Helen had been friends before the latter married in 1896 and went on to develop severe mental health problems. In 1936 the Woolfs had published Mary’s historical novel, Chase of the Wild Goose, about the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The essay is in four sections. The first is introductory. The second is about Mary, discussing Chase of the Wild Goose, its relationship to Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, and Virginia’s comments on it and its author, whom, in letters to Ethel Smyth, she calls “the Hermaphrodite.” It goes on to describe Mary’s life and career as medical doctor, suffragist, first female Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, and scathing critic of the prison system. The third section presents Mary’s letter to Virginia, with significant corrections of the text published by Beth Rigel Daugherty; and the fourth describes Helen’s life, personality, and artistic talents, with discussion of Mary’s assessments of her and Roger.

In and out of Bloomsbury

Biographical essays on twentieth-century writers and artists

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