I was sitting at my desk yesterday with no work to do, so I did what I always do— picked up a book. The sort of job I have is the sort of job where a book such as Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry is laying at arms reach. It’s quite wonderful.
It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous” woman, who had “a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded and an equal determination to be loved” (4).
Woolf’s introduction is a short biography of the fascinating character of Cameron. Born in India to “the biggest liar in India” as her father was called, and who eventually, spectacularly drank himself to death, and to a French mother who was the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, Julia Margaret Cameron was a famously eccentric and lovable woman. Woolf tells a wonderful story of the perils of rejecting Cameron’s generosity: she was fond of giving shawls as gifts and if they were not wanted she would threaten to throw them in the fire, but if they were returned, she would sell them and use the money to purchase a an expensive invalid bed for the local hospital—donated in the name of the person who had rejected the shawl, naturally! much to the surprise of the bemused shawl-rejector cum donor. Better to “submit to the shawl,” as Woolf delightfully relates the tale.
She wrote letters till the postman left, and then began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy. Sitting at Wandsworth Station she wrote page after page to Alfred Tennyson until “as I was folding your letter came the screams of the train, and then the yells of the porters with the threat that the train would not wait for me,” so that she had to thrust the document into strange hands and run down the steps (4).
I’m sure I would have loved her as well. She didn’t begin to take photographs until her son gave her a camera when she was fifty years old—that is the sort of detail that always encourages me. And what beautiful photographs they were.
But it was “The Echo,” plate 21, that caught my heart in my throat. To think of Echo—who bore the brunt of Hera’s jealousy and was thereby helpless to do anything other than repeat the last words spoken to her causing her to tragically lose her love, Narcissus—and to see how Cameron’s photograph perfectly captures that muted love, is heartbreaking on a gray day such as this one.
As for Cameron, she seems to have had a happy life. Her marriage to the philosopher and jurist Charles Hay Cameron was of seeming felicity. I love everything about Woolf’s version of events and hope it was all true. Woolf ends the essay in such a way that I can hardly be in doubt:
The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died” (5).