Archive for February, 2011

The beauty of the world, which is soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

A new collaborative online writing project called Hearts Asunder launches tomorrow.

It will use 400-word blog posts to illustrate the Woolf quote above by “smashing ideas from her writing against items from today’s pop culture to help yank her charm and relevance into the 21st Century,” according to creator Brianna Goldberg.

The self-described “lit-loving Canadian writer and radio producer” will curate the project, which will run from March 1-28, the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death. It is conceived of as a commemoration of her death as well as a celebration of her unique way of seeing the world as a double-edged sword that can incite both pain and laughter.

Goldberg’s aim is to overcome a tendency many Woolf scholars deplore. That is the public’s proclivity to focus on Woolf’s sad, serious side — including her final walk to the River Ouse — to the exclusion of her witty, humorous side, including her incredibly productive life.

Steven Daldry’s popular 2002 film The Hours helped reinvigorate interest in Woolf and her writing. But it also reinforced the view of Woolf as a tragic figure, one reason why some Woolf fans and scholars panned the film. However, the film won a multitude of awards, including Nicole Kidman’s Oscar for best actress, the Golden Globes award for best drama and the best adapted screenplay honor from the Writers Guild of America.

Since then, online interest in Woolf has grown. And while I have my doubts that Woolf’s charm and relevance need to be “yanked” into the 21st century, no one has launched a project that inserts Woolf into mainstream media and pop culture the way that The Hours did. As a result, the public impression of Woolf remains a serious one.

Goldberg agrees, and she hopes her project will change that.

“I believe Woolf has been absorbed into our culture as an overly dour, overly serious character. By pairing her work with items of today’s pop culture in this blog project, I hope we can help show the author and her work in a new light—one that celebrates her sense of humour AND her gravitas. And her relevance to the 21st Century,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Goldberg says Hearts Asunder will feature a series of blog posts that take ideas, characters, and/or themes from Woolf’s work and “smash them against items of contemporary pop culture, resulting in brief and unique bits of creative writing in a variety of styles. In short, it’s a VW culture-jam.”

Blog contributors include a Canadian Stratford Festival actor, a baseball historian, a music critic, the star of a viral video comedy team, a mommy blogger and others. Goldberg says the writers have an interesting mix of perspectives and various levels of familiarity with Woolf’s work.

“But they’re all excited and eager to learn more about VW’s work through this project—and really, that’s a main goal of the concept for me, too,” she wrote.

Hearts Asunder is live now, and the full version of the Tumblr blog will launch tomorrow. See the RSS feed at the top of the right sidebar for links to the site’s most recent posts.

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Did you know that a student researcher found a 1932 love letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West decades after Sackville-West’s deathin 1962?

That letter was for sale recently at the 44th California International Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco. The letter asks, “When am I going to see you? because you know you love now several people, women I mean, physically I mean, better, oftener, more carnally than me.”

It was Woolf’s only known writing about their physical relationship, said Peter Harrington, a London bookseller who offered the manuscript for $51,000.

Woolf and Sackville-West became romantically involved in the 1920s. Woolf’s pseudo-biography Orlando (1928) was based on Sackville-West and is set in her family home in Kent, Knole. Her son, Nigel Nic0lson, has described the novel as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”

Nicolson writes about his recollections of his mother’s relationship with Woolf in Portrait of a Marriage (1973).

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Graph of the number of times Virginia Woolf's name appears in English language books published between 1920 and 2008

How popular is Virginia Woolf around the world?

The Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer can help us figure that out. The database is culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books. Its dataset consists of the 500 billion words in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian, explained the New York Times back in December.

This new resource allows anyone who logs onto the site to type in a string of up to five words and see a graph that charts the phrase’s frequency over time.

Take “Virginia Woolf,” for instance. The graph at right shows the number of times her name appeared in English language books between 1920 and 2008. As you can see, she reached the pinnacle of her popularity in those books in the late 1980s.

But we can break this down further. While her popularity peaked in British English books in the mid- to late 1980s, for Americans, the highpoint came in the late 1990s.

Among authors writing in German, Woolf peaked in the late 1980s, but her popularity was still riding high among authors writing in French into the mid-1990s. In both Russian and Chinese, Woolf’s popularity is simply a flat line.

Graph showing the number of times Virginia Woolf's name appears in English language books of fiction published between 1920 and 2008

This next bit will interest Alice Lowe, author of Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, published by Cecil Woolf Publishers. Woolf peaked in the English fiction category in the late 1990s.

Woolf as commodity

Books, however, are not the only medium invoking Woolf’s name. In Virginia Woolf Icon (1999), Brenda Silver analyzes the appropriation of Woolf by both high and pop culture, from her 1937 appearance on the cover of Time to more recent appearances in movies, TV and theater.

And you can see for yourself the long list of items in the right sidebar that use her name, her words and/or her image. They range from dolls to mugs to tea towels to underwear.

Woolf in the online world

Virginia Woolf is a huge presence online, something that has grown dramatically since Silver published her book. Online sightings of her name and work come in by the dozens each week.

In “Virginia Woolf in the Cyber City: Connecting in the Virtual Public Square” in Woolf and the City: Selected Papers from the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, I mention that on 17 May 2009, my Google Web search on the name “Virginia Woolf” turned up 2.7 million hits (215).

On that same date, I found 31,400 hits for “Virginia Woolf groups” and 458,000 hits under the Google Images category for “Virginia Woolf.” My Facebook search conducted on the same date found more than 500 Woolf groups, with the total number of group members ranging from six to 2,600.

Tidbits on Woolf’s popularity in Europe and beyond

Below are some interesting tidbits regarding Woolf’s popularity that I found in The Reception of Virginia Woolf in Europe by Mary Ann Caws and Nicola Luckhurst and other sources.

  • In recent days, Woolfians from Italy, Africa, France and the U.S. have subscribed to Blogging Woolf.
  • According to the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of the Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Woolf organizations exist in the NetherlandsKorea and Japan, in addition to the Société d’Etudes Woolfiennes in France. And, of course, we must not forget the International VW Society and the VW Society of Great Britain. Links to these organizations appear in the right sidebar.
  • During the 1920s and ’30s, Woolf’s texts were translated into French faster than into any other language, according to Caws and Luckhurst (5).
  • On Page 10 of their book, Caws and Luckhurst provide a full list of European languages and dates of publication of translations of the full text of Woolf’s writing in book form. Swedish was first with Jacob’s Room in 1927. Lithuanian was last with Mrs. Dalloway in 1994.
  • The first of Woolf’s books to be translated into Turkish was To the Lighthouse, which appeared in 1945.
  • In “‘For God’s and Virginia’s sake why a translation?’ – Virginia Woolf’s Transfer to the Low Countries,”  published in Comparative Critical Studies in 2006, Els Andringa says the first mention of Woolf in a Dutch publication was in 1920 in a scholarly book on literature. But only after 1925 did regular reviews and essays begin appearing (204), while the first translation of her work in Dutch was not published until 1948. However, the boom in Woolf translations did not arrive until 1976 (205).
  • The Hogarth Press encouraged formal, consistent relationships with foreign publishing houses that may have helped spur translation of Woolf’s works (Caws and Luckhurst 330).
  • Susan Sellers posted an interview with Professor Yang Lixin in which the scholar explained Woolf’s popularity in China: “As an important pioneer of the ‘stream of consciousness’ literary technique and the western feminist movement, Virginia Woolf is well known in China – particularly to the common reader she herself valued so much.”
  • Biljana Dojčinović-Nešic discusses the political ramifications of translations of Woolf’s work, as well as Woolf’s views on translations, in “Translation as Border-Crossing: Virginia Woolf’s Case.”

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Still winter here. Snow falling. Roads bad. People complaining that their usual 15-minute drive home took two hours.

So I am staying indoors and putting up my third blog post of the day.

This one is easy. All I have to do is link you to Fernham‘s post on “Pearls and Power,” which aptly summarizes the sometimes edgy discussion that took place on the VWoolf Listserv during the last few days.

See if you agree with list mistress Anne that the dispute was between the “‘No sex, please, we’re British’ camp versus the acolytes of the clitoris.”

To illustrate the topic, I decided to play it safe. I snapped a photo of my piled-up pearls — genuine, imitation, new and hand-me-down. You may think of them however you wish.

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Does the bronze statue of the new Indian Dalit Goddess of English resemble Virginia Woolf? That question was posed to the VWoolf Listserv and linked readers to the BBC photo and story.

Maybe it does. Or maybe it is the medium — combined with the hairdo — that provides the resemblance.

As soon as I saw the photo, I thought of Italian sculptor Valentina Mazzei‘s lovely bronze bust of Virginia Woolf. It was on display at the art exhibition that was part of the 2010 Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Woolf and the Natural World at Georgetown University.

Mary Ellen Foley posted the link to the Goddess of English story, and several list readers responded to her suggestion that it bore a resemblance to Woolf.

Harish Trivedi thought the statue “had too round and even plump a face.” Self-identified common reader Mark Scott thought the statue did look like Woolf.

But Trivedi also spoke to the irony of the goddess’s name. “And as for Indians knowing English, there are not really that many of us around, even after a couple of centuries of British rule. 5% of the population?  10% ? Even 20%? Estimates vary, depending on what is meant by ‘knowing’ English,” he wrote.

You can see more photos of Valentina and her Woolf bust here.

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