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Archive for the ‘Woolf in Contemporary Fiction’ Category

Adriana Varga of Nevada State University delivered a paper at this year’s Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, part of a panel on “Feminist Spaces.” Her title was “Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: Ethical and Aesthetic Affinities in the Age of Brexit and the British Housing Crisis.”

The novel she discussed, Three Rooms, is, as Adriana pointed out, as applicable to the U.S. today as to Britain (now more than ever, I would add), in its emphasis not only on unaffordable housing and insufficient employment, but on sexism and racism, disinformation in social media.

Paying homage to Woolf

From the epigraph to the last page, Hanya pays homage to Woolf and makes connections to A Room of One’s Own, starting with three quotes in the epigraph, the third of which reads: “Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.”

The first-person narrator is a young middle-class woman of color who has a temporary position as a postdoctoral research assistant. She lives in a furnished room in an Oxford house that once had been the residence of Walter and Clara Pater. The blue plaque outside reminds her daily that she occupies borrowed space. A housemate asks if she’s read “this Pater chap,” and she replies that she has, and that his sister was impressive too: “She dealt in languages, taught Greek to Virginia Woolf so that Woolf might hear the birds better.”

Punctuated by quotes from Woolf, Pater, Yeats, and others, the narrator’s day to day life is dominated by place and race, politics and economics.

In England, there was no question of home: depending on who you were, it was either always there, or not. It all worked by empire, by assumption. An orphan girl could advertise and inherit another woman’s burnt trove. Orlando found nothing different within themselves in the same mirror, hung within the same ancestral abode.

A student tells her, “The country’s going to hell and I can’t finish my essay … how do I know what matters … the pound hit a twenty-month low … what use was an English degree now that fake news had eliminated the meaning of words anyway?”

Another decries the required reading as dead and lazy:

They had been given Heart of Darkness so that they couldn’t say the course hadn’t covered questions of imperialisim and race. They had been given Mrs. Dalloway so that they couldn’t say the course hadn’t addressed feminism.

When her post ends, she moves to London to work for low pay and tentative status at a prestigious fashion magazine. Unable to afford even a room, she sublets the sofa of a friend of a friend for £80 a month.

Focusing on space

I’ve highlighted the narrator’s travails, but Hamya, in an interview, stresses that her focus is on space rather than character or dialogue. The context is rooms—the narrator’s downward trajectory in contrast to those in power, occupying rooms at Eton and Oxford, chambers in Westminster and country houses—in a climate of right-wing nationalism and the precarity of life for women of color.

When her employment contract isn’t extended, she has no choice but to move back to her parents’ house, into her childhood room, which isn’t hers either—she doesn’t even have house keys. On the train there, she muses about her circumstances and the link between the lack of personal space and her ability to achieve anything: “I had not found a job with which I could afford to put my life in one place.”

I’m grateful to Adriana Vargas for bringing Three Rooms to my attention and for her excellent conference paper.

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Bloomsbury Books is a quiet, dusty, tradition-bound London bookstore that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men. But in 1950, it’s a new world, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans.

This is from the dustcover promo in my serendipitous sale table acquisition, Bloomsbury Girls, a recently published novel by Natalie Jenner, author of the international best-seller The Jane Austen Society.

My first reaction was to cringe at the title, but it’s true, we were all still girls, regardless of age, in 1950. The novel is a coming-into-their-own story about three women challenging the set-in-stone hierarchy at a fictional bookstore in Bloomsbury.

Real-life personages—Daphne du Maurier, Peggy Guggenheim, Samuel Beckett—appear as characters in the novel, but you can’t be in a Bloomsbury bookshop without the spiritual presence of and references to Virginia Woolf.

When Vivien is named acting manager during a temporary shake-up, the first thing she does is create a prominent display of classic women authors. Woolf, she observes, is “the only woman whom the male stiff did not seem to mind taking up valuable shelf space,” but she moves them all front and center:

Anne Bronte would gain her rightful place next to her sisters, Katherine Mansfield would join her longtime pen pal Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Gaskell would emerge from the Victorian shadow of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope.

Vivien is a closeted writer, too. After one of her stories is plagiarized by a male colleague, she expresses her frustration to a friend in Queen Square, near the store. Returning to the shop,

she knew she was angrily stomping the very ground where T.S. Eliot had worked as an editor, Virginia Woolf had drawn inspiration for her novel Night and Day, and Thackeray had set his earliest chapters in Vanity Fair.

Evie, doing research in the store’s archives, rues the many lost and forgotten books and wants to reprint the important ones: “Typeset and print it, just like Virginia Woolf ‘n’ her husband did … with a handpress, in her drawing room!”

Light and just a bit frothy, but entertaining. Woolfians could do worse than transplant ourselves to an earlier time in a Bloomsbury square.

 

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Recently I revisited an old post about The Lost Garden, a moving homage to Virginia Woolf. I’ve read almost everything Helen Humphreys has written and was delighted with her most recent work, And a Dog Called Fig. A memoir, subtitled Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life, it weaves her life and writing with the dogs who have shared her journey, including the incumbent, a vizsla named Fig.

Lacking a college education, Humphreys relied on reading literature, starting alphabetically until “impatient with my methodical approach, I skipped ahead to W so that I could read Virginia Woolf.”

Woolf as model

Woolf became her model when she started writing: “I followed Woolf’s example of how to live a writing day—working in the morning, walking in the afternoon, writing letters or listening to music in the evenings.”

Humphreys always had dogs, and Woolf too had dogs to accompany her on her walks as well as to stimulate her work. First Grizzle, who was memorialized in her story “Gipsy, the Mongrel,” then Pinka, who graced the cover of her novel Flush.

Their respective dogs connected Humphreys more closely to Woolf:  “When I can recognize the look in Virginia Woolf’s dog’s eyes as being a look I have seen on my own dog … I can imagine her interactions with Grizzle as being similar to some of my interactions with Charlotte [Fig’s predecessor, also a vizsla].”

Writers whose dogs were prominent

Emily Bronte, Gertrude Stein, Agatha Christie, and Zora Neale Hurston are among the writers Humphreys cites whose dogs were prominent in their lives.

She thinks these bonds are significant:

“Structure in a novel, and in life, is the perfect balance of order and chaos. The structure of a day could be the four dog walks undertaken at regular intervals.” She constructed her novel Wild Dogs after “the way that a dog turns and turns before settling down to sleep … I wanted the story to turn like that, to circle back on itself and then continue again before coming to rest.”

Humphreys relates the joys and lessons she found in her lifetime with dogs, about discipline and patience, loneliness and grief, communion and communication, and ponders near the end: “Do they make us better, or do they simply return us to who we are?”

More on Woolf and dogs

For more on this topic, see our post on Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte.

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If you can get to Cambridge or London this month or next, you are in luck. You have two chances to learn more about the relationship between Maynard Keynes and ballerina Lydia Lopokova, straight from Susan Sellers, author of Firebird: A Bloomsbury Love Story, which explores the couple’s love story.

Maggie Humm, whose recent novel Talland House explores the life of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse heroine, Lily Briscoe, joins Sellers for both conversations, the first in Cambridge and the second in London.

Here are the details for both events.

A Bloomsbury Love Story

When: Sunday 24 April 2022, 10-11 a.m. BST
Where: The Cambridge Union Society, 9a Bridge Street, Cambridge CB2 1UB
Why: Part of the Cambridge Literary Festival
Cost: Tickets £12. Book here.

Susan Sellers and Maggie Humm, two world-leading experts talk about the women of Bloomsbury, and what a lifetime of reading, researching, teaching and writing about Virginia Woolf has taught them.

An Evening in Bloomsbury with Susan Sellers and Maggie Humm

When: Thursday 5 May 2022, 6.30 p.m. BST
Where: Hatchards, 187 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LE
Cost: Tickets £10 Book here.

Join Susan Sellers discussing the lives of Bloomsbury’s most unlikely lovers, Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova, with Maggie Humm.

It is the winter of 1921 and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes launch a flamboyant new production at London’s Alhambra Theatre. Maynard Keynes is in the audience, though he expects little from the evening. Despite Lydia’s many triumphs, including the title role in Stravinsky’s Firebird, Maynard’s mind is made up – he considers her ‘a rotten dancer’. Besides, Lydia has at least one husband in tow and Maynard has only ever loved men.

Tonight, however, as Susan Sellers relates, that is all about to change and while The Firebird is a fictional re-imagining, life is often stranger and more surprising. Especially, perhaps, when it comes to the lives of theBloomsbury Group.

About the speakers

Susan Sellers

Susan Sellers is professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of St. Andrews. Her first Bloomsbury-inspired novel, Vanessa and Virginia, was an editor’s pick for The New York Times and has been translated into 16 languages.

Maggie Humm

Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor, international Woolf scholar and novelist. She has written many books on feminism, art and Virginia Woolf, and in 2020 published her debut novel Talland House, a gripping historical romance/detective fiction set in picturesque Cornwall and London during World War I. Shortlisted for several prizes including Eyelands and Impress, Talland House was chosen by the Washington Independent Review of Books as one of its ’51 Favorite Books’ of 2020.

 

When the don met the dancer – this is the story of how Maynard Keynes, the great economist, fell for Lydia Lopokova, celebrity ballerina and Russian émigrée. And it is also a story of resistances, when a different kind of woman stepped into the settled world of Virginia, Vanessa, and all the rest of their English entourage. – In Firebird, Susan Sellers restages the bright Bloomsbury years of the early 1920s as they have never been seen before. – Rachel Bowlby

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In her commemoration of the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, Paula Maggio refers to the coverage in the New York Times. This took me back to one of my favorite novels, The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, which was a prominent example in my 2010 Bloomsbury Heritage Series monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction.

I’ve excerpted the section here:

“The Lost Garden, a story of a team of ‘Land Girls’, as the Women’s Land Army during World War II was known, begins at the time of Woolf’s death, but she nevertheless exerts a dominant influence. Helen Humphreys builds a connection with Woolf through Gwen Davis, a horticulturalist who is assigned to oversee wartime food production at a Devon farm. When Gwen is on the train out of London in March of 1941 to assume her duties, she sees over someone’s shoulder the announcement on the front page of The Times of Virginia Woolf’s disappearance and likely death:

I think of the letter I was writing in my head this morning to Mrs. Woolf. All the letters I write in my head. And now I’ve missed my chance to let her know how much I have loved her books, and to tell her that one evening, seven years ago, I think I followed her through the streets of London.

“Woolf is never far from Gwen’s thoughts. When viewing the estate at which she will be working, she notes that, ‘There is a river at the bottom of the hill. I think of Mrs. Woolf’. When one of her charges tells about her fiancé, who is missing in action, Gwen reflects that, ‘This makes me think of Virginia Woolf. Missing in action. That’s exactly what’s happened to her. She seems definitely to be a casualty of war at the moment. Like any other’.

“When Woolf’s death is confirmed, Gwen turns to the novel she treasures, To the Lighthouse. The final scene brings her clarity and closure:

There is Lily Briscoe on the lawn, trying to finish her painting… Her hand holds a paintbrush as a conductor holds a baton. This is the music of the moment, these words and images, and all of a sudden I know that it doesn’t matter whether or not it was Mrs. Woolf I followed through London that June evening seven years ago. I will never be closer to her than now. The book is the shared experience, the shared intimacy. The author is at one end of the experience of writing and the reader is at the other, and the book is the contract between you.

“Woolf has been an almost tangible presence, and the physical proximity of Gwen’s earlier sighting of her seems to transcend Woolf’s death and bring comfort, maintaining the ethereal connection that is enhanced by her identification with the novels. Gwen feels a bond with Woolf, a sense that in spite of obvious differences, they shared some common sensibilities, perhaps were kindred spirits. Woolf anchors Gwen in the reality of her life while at the same time enabling her to escape it.

“The Lost Garden is so infused with Woolf, deliberately invoking both the pathos of her disappearance and death and the magnitude of her impact on one reader.”

Some of the monographs in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series from Cecil Woolf Publishers.

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