Ask an English major the title of Virginia Woolf’s best novel, and they’ll probably have a ready answer. Most likely, they’ll nominate the interwar social commentary Mrs. Dalloway, the experimental queer text Orlando, or even the famously dense but intellectually rewarding To the Lighthouse. Yet if asked to name Woolf’s best play, they’ll probably draw a blank. “Virginia Woolf wrote plays?”
They, along with everyone else, can be forgiven for this ignorance, as Woolf wrote only one play in her lifetime, mostly as a joke. One of the ways that her circle of colleagues and friends, known today as the Bloomsbury Group, liked to amuse themselves was by putting on wild, private performances in their own homes.
“An evening’s entertainment in Bloomsbury could range from Shakespeare to can-can dancing,” writes Elizabeth Wright in her study of the group’s juvenile performance history. “From ballet to bawdy music-hall ditties; it could be meticulously planned or entirely spontaneous; topical or historical; serious, but generally silly.”
Woolf contributed to the fun by whipping up Freshwater: A Comedy, which, according to Woolf scholar Penny Farfan, was intended solely for an evening’s entertainment on January 19, 1935. The subjects of this three-act spectacle? Her own aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the ridiculous drama surrounding her posse, which included the poet Alfred Tennyson and the actress Ellen Terry, two elites Woolf molded into caricatures and exploited for Bloomsbury’s viewing pleasure.
While Woolf admired her aunt’s accomplishments as a female artist, she still thought Cameron was guilty of being a snobbish Victorian, bound to the social customs and conceited character traits that, in the eyes of the Bloomsbury Group, stifled the previous age artistically and narrowed their potential. As Woolf not-so-affectionately represented Cameron in a monologue in her play:
That is Julia Margaret Cameron’s message to her age! [She sits down facing the audience.] All my sisters were beautiful, but I had genius [touching her forehead]. They were the brides of men, but I am the bride of Art. I have sought the beautiful in the most unlikely places. I have searched the police force at Freshwater, and not a man have I found with calves worthy of Sir Galahad.
It is well known that Woolf liked to take aim at the pomposity of her parents’ erudite friends. Though she drew inspiration from some of their output—she would praise George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”—their rigid and narcissistic demeanor was to her nothing more than free material for mockery. Many of the long-winded, insufferable speeches and conversations that appear in Freshwater are likely drawn from what Woolf was forced to endure as a child, sitting in her parents’ drawing room and listening to members of her father’s social circle congratulate themselves on their “enlightened” opinions.
Freshwater is rife with inside jokes, era-specific satire, and biting humor that veers toward the mean-spirited. Perhaps that’s why it’s not considered a timeless masterpiece like some of Woolf’s other creations. It was written for a specific audience, in specific moment in time. It drew a few cheap laughs and was an ample excuse to assemble friends for a social gathering. And that was exactly what Woolf intended.