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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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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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Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room 100 years ago. And since then, many readers have wandered down Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, speculating about where Jacob lived and what he would have seen.

Pillar box at the corner of Lamb’s Conduit Street and Great Ormond Street, outside Ryman Stationery in London.

I, myself, have done just that, taking particular notice — and photos — of the classic red pillar box on the corner and stopping at The Lamb pub, which existed in Jacob’s time, for a meal.

Woolf puts London at the novel’s heart

In a piece posted on the London Fictions website, Robert Todd, member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, explores, in detail, the way Woolf puts London at the heart of her novel after Jacob reaches the age of 22 in 1909.

Woolf’s eight chapters that cover the years from 1909 on “display, amongst so much else, a vivid picture of London and Jacob’s relation to it,” according to Todd.

The London of Jacob’s Room was a young man’s world of hopes, dreams and pleasure, before responsibility is assumed.  It was also a young woman’s world, Virginia Woolf’s, after she moved to Bloomsbury in 1904.  – Robert Todd

Walking with Jacob Flanders

For that reason, Todd’s March 2020 article includes a Jacob’s Room walk, beginning with Jacob’s lodging-house on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury.

Persephone Books at 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, in 2019. The shop moved to Bath in 2021.

He puts the location of Jacob’s two-room first floor flat at #59, the former site of Persephone Books, known for reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-20th century (mostly) women writers.

With a sitting room that overlooked the street, Jacob had a view of a confectioner’s shop and the famous letter-box pictured above.

Todd’s journeys with Jacob take us beyond Bloomsbury, however. With him, we travel to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly, Hyde Park, and Parliament Hill Fields.

Woolf herself lived nearby

Plaque at 38 Brunswick Square

Todd goes on to share how Woolf’s experiences while living nearby at 38 Brunswick Square influenced the sights and the action in Jacob’s Room. The University of London School of Pharmacy has stood on the site of that address since around 1936, according to Jean Moorcroft Wilson in Virginia Woolf: Life and London (1987, 2011).

Todd also speculates about how Woolf’s visits to the two rooms of friend Saxon Sydney-Turner may have influenced her descriptions of Jacob’s rooms.

A protest against war in her own voice

Jacob’s Room, of course, is not just a novel about location. As Julia Briggs notes in her biography Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (2005), Woolf’s third novel was a protest against World War I and the “shocking impersonality of its killing machine” (84).

Jacob was just one of the nearly one million British and Commonwealth soldiers who perished in that conflict. But the enormity of that loss prompted Woolf to focus on the fate of just one individual in order to make some sense of the tragic conflict, according to Briggs.

Already a pacifist, in a Jan. 23, 1916, letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis, Woolf claimed she had become “steadily more feminist'” due to “the preposterous masculine fiction” of wartime propaganda in mainstream media (L2, 76).

Three months before the novel was published, Woolf wrote in a July 26, 1922, diary entry that she had “found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice” (D2, 186).

Publishing record and reviews

Jacob’s Room was published on Oct. 27, 1922, in an edition of 1,200 copies. Wrapped in a dust jacket designed by Vanessa Bell, it sold for seven shillings and sixpence.

An additional 1,000 copies were printed soon thereafter, but by the end of 1923, fewer than 1,500 copies had been sold. The novel did, however, turn a small profit.

Woolf’s novel received mixed reviews. It was described as experimental, impressionist, and adventurous. It was criticized for its form and its lack of realism. It was also compared to the work of James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson.

In a diary entry dated Nov. 12, 1922, Woolf herself described it as “the starting point for fresh adventures” (D2, 214).

In good company

It’s no wonder that the work was compared to James Joyce’s, for Woolf’s 1922 novel was in the good company of that work and others.

James Joyce’s Ulysses, was published the same year, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.

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Sigrid Nunez is most known to Woolfians for Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, her 1998 (and reissued in 2019) fictional portrait of the Woolfs’ pet monkey, inspired by Flush, Virginia Woolf’s similar treatment of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog.

Bloomsbury makes a brief appearance in her new novel, What Are You Going Through, a series of musings, meetings and memories. The nameless narrator follows some anecdotes about the divisions between women and men by reflecting that while she doesn’t like romance fiction, she’s fascinated by stories of unconventional or hopeless love. She imagines a collection of these tales, called Women in Strange Love.

She considers Dora Carrington’s unrequited love and devotion to Lytton Strachey, her marriage to Ralph Partridge and their lopsided ménage à trois to accommodate Lytton’s passion for Ralph. She recaps Carrington’s suicide two months after Lytton’s death. Virginia Woolf visited Carrington the day before and recounted that she said, “There is nothing left for me to do; I did everything for Lytton.” Woolf’s parting impression of Carrington was “Like some small animal left.”

“Women’s stories are often sad stories,” observes the narrator.

Nunez novel reflects on women’s lives—friendship, aging and death—in the context of the narrator’s response to a friend with terminal cancer. The title is a translation from Simone Weil, who said that love of one’s neighbor is being able to ask the question, Que lest ton tourment?

 

 

 

 

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Online art exhibit

Louisa Amelia Albani, whose pamphlet and companion exhibit on Virginia Woolf we featured in July, is currently holding an online art exhibition inspired by Woolf’s essay “Oxford Street Tide.” Take a look.

Online reading group

Starting Monday, Jan. 11, and running through Monday, April 12, 2021, Anne Fernald will lead a Zoom reading group dubbed “All Woolf” at the Center for Fiction, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to fiction writing. The fee is $120 for four sessions, with an additional fee charged for books. Meetings begin at 6 p.m. EST.

Online view of The Bloomsbury Look

View “The Bloomsbury Look,” Saturday, Nov. 28, at 2 p.m. via a free virtual event with author Wendy Hitchmough as she speaks live from the Charleston studio to art historian Frances Spalding. The event will include the opportunity to submit questions live, and signed copies of The Bloomsbury Look are available to purchase through the Charleston online shop. However, the link to the event is not up right now, and unfortunately the book is out of stock.

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