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Archive for May 29th, 2022

Tomorrow is Memorial Day in the U.S., the day when we remember and honor those who died in the service of our country. Although I consider myself a pacifist, I feel a special sense of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, the conflict I often think of as “the Good War.”

I am not alone. Elizabeth D. Samet, author of Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (2021), explains that this “flattering and seductive narrative” regarding World War II took hold in the 1990s, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the conflict. And it has become engrained in American consciousness since then.

The U.S., ambivalence and isolationism

Samet makes the case for a different reality, one of American ambivalence about the war, as well as a reluctance to become involved.  The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed that, but it still did not result in universal American support. The ambivalence, differences of opinion, and different levels of support for the war existed before, during — and even after — U.S. involvement, she explains.

“The idea that we went to war specifically or primarily to liberate Europe is largely a fiction, even though we obviously helped to accomplish that feat,” Samet explains. “We went to war because we were attacked and because we felt suddenly that there was an existential threat.”

The lives of the Woolfs during World War II

Virginia and Leonard Woolf, living in London and Lewes during the war years, experienced deprivation, bombing, and enemy planes flying overhead, leaving them no choice but to support the war. Leonard was a member of the Home Guard. Virginia wove messages about war and its consequences into her writing. Most notable from the mid-1930s on are three novels: The Years (1937), Three Guineas (1938), and the posthumously published Between the Acts (1941), as well as essays such as “The Leaning Tower” (1940) and “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940).

Nevertheless, they tried to live their lives as normally as possible, despite the enemy planes that flew above their heads at Monk’s House. This passage from Leonard’s Downhill All the Way (1967), volume four in his five-volume autobiography, provides a good example.

I will end … with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler — the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. … Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.

The Woolfs and wartime music

As part of their effort to get on with their lives, the Woolf listened to music on the wireless, as well as on their gramophone. And now, thanks to Marielle O’Neill, doctoral researcher at Leeds Trinity University and Executive Council Member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, we can listen in on the wartime music they enjoyed.

With the help of Stephen Barkway’s classical music expertise, O’Neill has created a playlist on Spotify of the Woolfs’ wartime music. She based her list on a purchase of Woolfs’ gramophone records made by Sheila Wilkinson, Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain co-founder.

Wilkinson purchased the records and their annotated storage box at a Lewes auction 20 years ago. According to Barkway, Leonard recorded — in his own shaky hand — the dates on which he and Virginia listened to each record on index cards cut in half. Wilkinson found four of these cards in the archive that corresponded with the records she had purchased.

Wilkinson donated the records to Charleston, who later sold them to the National Trust, which ultimately returned them to Monk’s House.

Listen to the Woolfs’ wartime music on Spotify

The Woolfs’ Wartime Music can now be accessed by everyone, thanks to O’Neill’s ingenuity. She has included old recordings that appeared on the 78 rpm records purchased from Monk’s House. They include music by Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and Brahms.

In addition, members of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain can read Barkway’s article about the Woolfs’ musical tastes around the time of the Second World War in the May issue of the society’s Virginia Woolf Bulletin. In “Some of the Woolfs’ Gramophone Records: A Spotify Playlist,” Barkway pairs the Woolfs’ musical selections with events from the Woolfs’ life, as well as with quotes from Virginia’s diary, letters, and autobiographical writing.

The article includes information that Wilkinson shared in a booklet she produced for delegates during a “Virginia in Yorkshire” study week in Settle. On the final night that week, Barkway introduced and played the Woolfs’ records at Wilkinson’s request.

Join the VWSGB

If you are not a member of the VWSGB but would like to be, you can easily join.

 

 

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