Archive for March, 2015

Vanessa & Her SisterNearly everyone has reviewed Priya Parmar’s novel, Vanessa and Her Sister. But I haven’t read much about Lea Rachel’s The Other Shakespeare.

Together, they make up a tale of two sisters–Virginia Woolf’s and William Shakespeare’s.

Parmar’s novel drops us down into the middle of the Bloomsbury Group, as seen by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s fictional work creates a life for Judith Shakespeare, the character Woolf imagined for us in A Room of One’s Own (1929).

I read both novels recently. And while I would not want to miss Parmar’s, I enjoyed Rachel’s more. The reason? It was easier for me to suspend my disbelief about the life of a young woman in the sixteenth century who is Shakespeare’s sister than it was for me to do the same for Woolf, Vanessa and their friends.

Vanessa and Her Sister

Because I know a bit more about the Bloomsberries than I do about Shakespeare and his family, I felt uncomfortable while I read Vanessa and Her Sister. At first, I read with a hyper-critical eye, trying to separate truth from fiction, on the alert for any misstep, any word or phrase, action or tone that didn’t ring true. I wondered whether the telegrams and letters Parmar includes in the novel were copies of actual documents. Then, when I did some online research, I wondered why they weren’t.

By the middle of the novel, I relaxed a bit, enjoying the story Parmar spins so expertly — and happy to feel as though I was privy to the inner workings of this famous group of friends, thanks to Parmar’s thorough research. The diary entries from Vanessa and the letters and telegrams from other Bloomsbury Group members — all created by Parmar — made Vanessa’s perspective on this group of friends within which she played a central role seem mostly believable to me.

But my anxiety returned when the author covers the twisted relationship between Virginia and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell and delves into Vanessa’s tortured reaction to it. It was just too difficult for me to focus that much of my attention on such a one-sided view of Virginia’s very bad behavior as she woos Clive’s affection and attention away from Vanessa, who has so recently given birth to the couple’s first child, Julian. After that, I couldn’t wait for the book to end.

Critical reaction

Lesley McDowell, the author of The Independent’s review of Vanessa and Her Sister, had the opposite reaction. She wished the book “would never end” and praised its delicious gossip, beautiful writing and the near-perfect portrayal of the sibling rivalry between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Other reviews of the book and interviews with the author include an NPR interview, reviews in the New York Times and Wilton Bulletin, and mentions in USA Today, the New York Daily News, The Missoulian, and on the Glamour blog

The Other Shakespeare

The Other Shakespeare, which I read next, is much lighter fare, despite its tragic ending. Rachel’s tale of Judith, The Other Shakespearethe imagined elder sister of William Shakespeare who creates little dramas and organizes her siblings to stage them in the woods near their family home, was entertaining.

Rachel’s novel kept my interest and attention as it follows Judith from her small village to London, exploring her life as well as the gender politics that her role as daughter, sister, servant, lover and writer entail. The author does a nice job of detailing the ways Judith is denied opportunity and fulfillment simply because she is female. She works them into the story quite neatly, thus developing Woolf’s original premise about Judith in A Room of One’s Own.

And the novel includes references to Woolf and her writing, the identification of which entitle the reader to enter a contest for an Amazon.com gift card giveaway. You can even try out the first chapter of the novel for free by downloading the first chapter as a PDF.

Both books are worth a read. Read Vanessa and Her Sister if you are a true Woolf devotee and don’t want to be left out of the discussion about the novel. And read The Other Shakespeare for fun as well as insights into a woman’s life in 16th-century England.

Then stay tuned for Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent.

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It was 74 years ago today, on March 28, 1941, that Virginia Woolf left two suicide notesAfterwords behind, walked out of Monk’s House and across the Sussex Downs and headed for the River Ouse. With a stone in her coat pocket, she waded into the river and drowned. She is still missed today.

Past tributes

Many tributes have been made to her on the anniversary of her death. Eight years ago, a video, The Adventures of Virginia Woolf, was posted on YouTube that speculates on what Woolf would have accomplished if she had chosen to live on that fateful date in March of 1941.

Four years ago, the Elite Theatre Company presented the world premiere of Arthur Kraft’s  drama “Goat,” about what might have happened if a psychologist had prevented Woolf’s suicide.

That same year, her great niece, Emma Woolf, wrote an article for The Independent, “Literary haunts: Virginia’s London walks,” that speculated about what Virginia Woolf would have thought of today’s London.

“The Writer’s Almanac” has payed tribute to her.

Tributes this year

And each year on this day, social media lights up with posts that commemorate her life, her work and her death, making Woolf a trending topic. One example is @HistoryTime_’s Twitter post below that features a photograph of The New York Times coverage of her death.

History Time tweet

The most notable piece so far this year is Maria Popova’s critique of the media treatment of Woolf’s death 75 years ago in her post on Brain Pickings: “March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media.”

The perfect accompaniment to that is the video of actress Louise Brealey’s poignant reading of Woolf’s last letter to Leonard, which is posted on The Telegraph website. A video of Brealey reading the letter at the Hay Festival is also available on YouTube, but the audio is not as pristine.

Screenshot of Louise Brealey reading Woolf's last letter on The Telegraph website.

Screenshot of Louise Brealey reading Woolf’s last letter on The Telegraph website.



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London Transport in the 1920sSome time ago, the VWoolf Listserv entertained a discussion of the meaning behind the omnibus on which Elizabeth Dalloway travels in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). I recently came across some notes from that discussion, and here they are:

  • An essay largely on omnibus travel in Woolf’s works is included in Woolf and the City: Selected Papers of the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. Elizabeth F. Evans & Sarah E. Cornish (Clemson UP, 2010), Pg. 31-39.
  • The London Transport Museum has London transport maps from the dates of Woolf’s novels.
  • In “Moments of Being,” Woolf remembered her mother, who “did all her immense rounds shopping, calling, visiting hospitals and work houses in omnibuses.  She was an omnibus expert.  She would nip from the red to the blue, from the blue to the yellow, and make them somehow connect and convey her all over London.  Sometimes she would come home very tired, owning that she had missed her bus or the bus had been full up, or she had got beyond the radius of her favourite buses.”
  • The most famous bus route in London is the no. 11.  The savvy (and economical) tourist choses that bus rather than a tour bus, as the no. 11 goes past so many famous sights, inc. St Paul’s, on its way to Liverpool St Station.
  • Background: In the first half of the 1920s in the centre of London, almost all buses were double-decker with open tops and open staircases.  (There were single-deckers farther out, but they had roofs; otherwise, I suppose they would have been like charabancs.)  The driver was in the open air and had no protection from the elements, not even a windscreen. While there was quite a variety of vehicles (see earlier email), the majority fell into two types:
    • The B: downstairs passengers sat lengthways with their backs to the windows. 
    • The K (also the S-type): downstairs passengers sat on ?transverse seats, two by two either side of the central gangway … the layout with which we are familiar today? (Baker, p. 57).
  • By the 1920s the main company was the London Transport General Company, and its livery was red, which is why London buses are red today.
  • The reference to a pirate bus is yet one more post-war reference in the novel. Some young men, having acquired skills in a war which was described as the first truly mechanical one, bought a war-surplus bus or lorry and set up business.  A small down payment was all that was necessary. The Metropolitan Police had to approve the roadworthiness of the vehicle, but, that done, it could operate wherever its owner chose. At the beginning of 1920 the demand for buses far outstripped the number available, and there was plenty of scope for those who were prepared to take up the challenge. Very few of these enterprises were long lived. (See London Transport in the 1920s (Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing, 2009) pp. 7-8).
  • One additional reflection on the middle-class people on the omnibus. B.S. Rowntree’s Poverty, A Study of Town Life, observed that poor people who were living at “merely physical efficiency” must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus?  that nearly 30% of Edwardians lived in poverty.


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Today is the first day of spring as well as the day that the solar eclipse will be visible in the UK and Scandinavia. Here’s what Virginia Woolf had to say about both.

Virginia Woolf on spring:

I enjoy the spring more than the autumn now. One does, I think, as one gets older. — Jacob’s Room

Virginia Woolf on the solar eclipse in 1927, which she traveled to Yorkshire to view:

very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; suddenly the light went out. There was no colour. The earth was dead.

The partial eclipse in the UK today will see 85 percent of the sun blocked out in southern England and 98 percent in the Hebrides.

Only one or two eclipses per century are visible from anywhere in the UK. The last solar eclipse in the UK was in 1999. The next one will occur in August 2026.

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Composer Brian Mark has set Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Craftsmanship,” to music. The piece was  broadcast on 29 April 1937 as part of BBC Radio’s “Words Fail Me” series.

With “A Eulogy to Words,” he has fulfilled an eight-year ambition to create a piece for chamber orchestra and electronics. It is written for London’s Royal Academy of Music and conducted by Michael Alexander Young.

Maria Popova of Brainpickings.org called it “the best thing since the Solar System set to Bach and Carl Sagan adapted as a three-movement choral suite.”

Have a listen and tell us what you think of the piece, which runs nearly 10 minutes, in the comments section below.

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