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Planned Virginia Woolf Monument Overlooking the Thames River Criticized as Insensitive

A planned monument to Virginia Woolf overlooking the Thames River is under fire for its controversial placement, as the celebrated author committed suicide by drowning. The life-size likeness of Woolf designed by Laury Dizengremel would be positioned on a park bench in southwest London, where she lived with her husband, the writer Leonard Woolf, for a decade starting in 1914. The Richmond council’s environment, sustainability, culture, and sports committee approved the proposal last Thursday, but a local conservation group raised concerns that its location was problematic given Woolf’s biography.

The prolific English novelist struggled from depression throughout her life an,d following several prior suicide attempts, filled her pockets with stones and walked into River Ouse near Lewes in East Sussex in 1941, at age 59. Currently there is only one memorial to Woolf in Richmond, an English Heritage blue plaque on Hogarth House where she and Leonard established their publishing house, the Hogarth Press. The bronze statue of Woolf depicts her reclining on the bench, an arm outstretched and a book closed on her lap. It faced pushback almost immediately from community activists who suggested several alternative placements to the riverside, according to a report in the Guardian.

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Barry May, chairman of the Richmond Society, told the Guardian that “given the manner of her illness and eventually the way that she died … it struck us as a little bit insensitive to have this statue and figure of Virginia Woolf seated on a bench gazing over the water.”

Charlotte Banks, from the publishing house Aurora Metro, led the fundraising campaign to realize a monument to Woolf in Richmond. In a meeting with the Richmond city council, Banks said that efforts “to change the location of the statue which has been chosen for many practical reasons … comes across as an attempt to push people like [Woolf] out of sight. The statue’s intent is to celebrate diverse lives and encourage conversations around mental health, feminism, sexuality and gender. This cannot be done if the statue is tucked away on a residential street.”

The campaign from Aurora Metro received thousands of pounds in donations last November following the unveiling of a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft, a widely lambasted depiction of a slim, naked woman rising from silvery churning waves. The Mary on the Green campaign, which raised the funds for the statue, has said in a statement, “Our position has always been that the artwork should capture Wollstonecraft’s spirit: she was a pioneer who defied convention, and she deserves a memorial that’s as radical as she was.”

The statue baffled viewers worldwide and renewed scrutiny over the sexual nature of historical monuments to women. This past September, a scantily clad statue of a female field worker unveiled in Italy was called an “offense to women and the history it should celebrate,” by a local female politician. The work, a woman in a transparent, body-hugging dress, honors a failed socialist uprising in which 300 soldiers were massacred.

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