Archive for the ‘women’s history’ Category

This Christmas day, I unwrapped a present from my landlady and, completely unexpectedly, a small purple hardback book with gold lettering and a beautiful portrait of Virginia Woolf fell onto my lap. I was delighted, and proceeded to read it cover to cover amidst wrapping paper and ended up holding back tears to prevent myself being utterly embarrassed in front of my in-laws.

virginia woolf life portraits

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Virginia Woolf (Life Portraits) by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford poetically weaves the story of Woolf’s life with Alkayat’s considered text and Cosford’s illustrations, a fresh response to the Bloomsbury aesthetic. It opens with the following quote from Mrs Dalloway:

She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was on the outside, looking on.

This liminality, both the relation between work and life and Woolf’s psychological flux, is represented thoughtfully throughout the biography.

street haunting in life portrait

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Alkayat focuses on the personal details of life: how Vanessa Bell’s sheepdog Gurth accompanied her “street haunting”, how Leonard and Virginia Woolf spent nights during the First World War in their coal cellar sitting on boxes, and that they later named their car “the umbrella”. She also puts us on a first name basis with Virginia, Vanessa and Duncan, et al. – a choice which made me feel closer to their world.

charleston in woolf life portrait

© Nina Cosford

Cosford’s illustrations are both sensitive to the Bloomsbury style and offer a fresh perspective. Her bold lines and patterns used to illustrate the pages about Vanessa Bell’s cover designs for Virginia Woolf’s novels, for example, are edged with mark-making in the mode of Bell. Her use of colour also seems emotive, following the waves of high and low that punctuate the narrative. Her illustrations capture the paraphernalia of every-day life, from the objects atop Woolf’s writing desk – diary, hair grips, photo of Julia, sweets – to the plants in the garden at Monks House, bringing Virginia’s life closer to home.

monks house plants

© Nina Cosford

Illustration and text come together beautifully in this miniature autobiography and would provide any reader with a poetic and surprising escape into the life of Virginia Woolf.


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From Twitter via @CitizenWald came the tweet at the bottom of this post. And because it was about a Virginia Woolf desk, I had to find out more.

It turns out that Virginia Woolf designed this writing desk herself, and it was painted by her nephew Quentin Bell. It certainly doesn’t look like the messy desk in The Lodge at Monk’s House that Annie Leibovitz photographed several years ago.

The desk Woolf designed was just one artifact acquired as part of one of the largest and most significant private collections on women’s history by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.

The collection, assembled over a period of 45 years by noted collector Lisa Unger Baskin, includes the work of women from the Renaissance to the modern era. More than 8,600 rare books and thousands of manuscripts, journals, ephemera and artifacts are in the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection at Duke.

Materials from the collection will be available to researchers once they have been cataloged. Some items will be on display in the renovated Rubenstein Library when it reopens to the public at the end of August 2015.

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Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make HistoryVirginia Woolf is known for at least one famous feminist quote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is known for another: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Or at least she should be, since that sentence has appeared on buttons, t-shirts, and more.

In real life, most people are probably not aware that Ulrich wrote that line. It first appeared in an obscure scholarly article she published in American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association, in 1976.

Now it is the title of her new book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, published by Knopf. It’s a book that focuses on three women who weren’t perfectly well-behaved and, so, made history.

One of the three is Virginia Woolf. The other two are 15th century French writer Christine de Pizan and 19th century American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ulrich discusses a key work from each: de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, Stanton’s 1898 memoir Eighty Years and More, and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Ulrich writes about these three authors as women who experienced book-inspired feminist awakenings at very different historical moments, writes Megan Marshall on Slate.

Ulrich is a true history lover and has a special interest in telling women’s stories that often remain untold. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, she described herself an “evangelist for history.”

In her new book, she articulates her thoughts about history with these words: “If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender norms have constrained the range of female activity but because history hasn’t been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic.”

In Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Ulrich helps capture the stories and the times of three notable women writers of the past. She uses their stories and their work– and adds context and analysis — to tell the tale of what she describes as “the renaissance in women’s history.”

And how lovely that she included Woolf among her trio of notables.

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Read more about Urlich and her book in the Harvard University Gazette. Read the NY Times review. Or read an interview with the author in the Bellingham Herald.

Read an April 2009 review.

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