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Archive for the ‘Woolf in Contemporary Fiction’ Category

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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Two recent novels that have garnered rave reviews are touted as being influenced by Mrs. DallowayBoth are written by Black women, and both tackle the unholy trinity of race, class, and gender.

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

The New York Times review was titled “This Novel Nods to Virginia Woolf While Staring Down Modern Class Lines.” Inspired as well by Toni Morrison’s Sula and Audre Lorde’s Zami, Asali Solomon’s salute to Woolf is evident in the novel’s single-day-with-flashbacks structure and the culminating dinner party.

Liselle, a Black woman married to a white man, is giving a party for her husband’s associates. Her preparations, anticipation, and the dinner itself are the backdrop as she questions her life and dissatisfaction while moving in and out of the past, recalling earlier times and her college friend and lover, Selena.

Liselle isn’t heading out to buy the flowers herself; nor is she reveling in a lovely June day. It begins:

“Late one April afternoon, Liselle stood at the large kitchen window rubbing her hands together for warmth. She acknowledged that early spring was her least favorite time of year.”

A direct reference to Woolf is Liselle’s description of one of the guests: “Her face, its Virginia Woolf hollows….”

And the ending, which I won’t disclose, also pays homage to Mrs. Dalloway.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

The Guardian called Assembly “A modern Mrs. Dalloway … a short sharp shock of a novel … Assembly fulfils, with exquisite precision, Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall.”

Another reviewer saw it is “Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway meets Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

The nameless narrator is a young Black woman achieving success in the world of finance, while her grudging colleagues write her off as the company’s face of diversity. She isn’t giving a party; rather she’s preparing to attend one, hosted by her white boyfriend’s old-money family, who tolerate her on the assumption that she’s a passing phase, much as Clarissa Dalloway worried about but dismissed her daughter’s infatuation with Doris Kilman.

A first-person narration from an interior perspective, she questions her identity and her place in the world. Like Clarissa, unseen and unknown: “not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.”

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Imagine my double-take when, scrolling through the LitHub Daily recently, I came across an ad for a new book, Insignificance by James Clammer.

The caption read “A plumber’s Mrs. Dalloway.”

The book is described as an interior-monologue lyric novel, a single day in the life of Joe Forbes, reluctant plumber and anguished father. The TLS calls it “A descent into the suburban uncanny and the English soul.” The Spectator links it to Woolf: “Like Mrs. Dalloway, it immerses us in the rush of a different life, the strangeness of another body.”

I may not read it, but the reviewers are taking it seriously, and it sounds compelling. Who am I to snicker?

Palace of the Drowned

A New York Times review drew me to Christine Mangan’s Palace of the Drowned, which “heaves with allusions to other books and other authors — a little Patricia Highsmith here, a little Virginia Woolf there, glimpses of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” someplace else.”

A novel about a novelist, when Frankie’s latest work is panned and she causes a scene, she goes to Italy, where she’s stalked by an admirer:

“You’re not the first author to receive a bad review,” Gilly tells her. “Dostoyevsky. Hemingway. Did you know Virginia Woolf was terribly affected by criticism? She didn’t even like to read what others wrote about her fellow authors. She said that no creative writer can swallow another contemporary.”

As the Highsmith and Jackson references imply, there’s suspense and intrigue here too, and Venice—all that’s missing are the Bellinis (the drink, not the painter or the composer).

The Plot

 I can’t resist novels about writers writing; Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is another. A twisted tale of plagiarism and intrigue, the protagonist justifies his actions: “He would hardly be the first to take some tale from a play or a book—in this case, a book that had never been written!—and create something entirely new from it. Miss Saigon from Madam Butterfly. The Hours from Mrs. Dalloway. The Lion King from Hamlet, for goodness’ sake!”

 

 

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