Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Female friends are special. I often wonder what I would do without them. So I like to take note of stories about longtime women friends.

This was particularly true during the past week. Knowing that today I was on the blog tour schedule to publish a review of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, stories of women’s friendships kept popping out at me.

I’ll share just two of them before adding the promised review.

Akron Beacon Journal article featuring the lifelong friendship of two women, now 94 and 100.

Women friends on a local level

Yesterday, the front page of my local newspaper featured such a close friendship.  It told the story of two women — one black, one white — who led a Girl Scout troop in an all-white community back in 1954 and became fast friends, as did their daughters.

Women friends on a national level

Last week, a lecture I attended by Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016) spoke of the importance of women’s friendships throughout U.S. history. She also emphasized how those intimate friendships sustained and supported women when their marriage relationships, often entered into solely for financial reasons, did not.

Women’s literary friendships

Women writers had sustaining friendships with female friends, too. But as  Margaret Atwood says in her foreward to A Secret Sisterhood, female literary friendships have often been overlooked.

Midorikawa and Sweeney bring them into the limelight in their 2017 book, A Secret Sisterhood. Now out in paperback in the UK, it explores the “secret sisterhoods” entered into by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. My focus will be on the book’s final section, whose three chapters explore the ambivalent friendship between Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

Woolf and Mansfield: friends or foes, cat or mouse?

Anyone who studies Woolf knows that there is much discussion of the love-hate relationship between Woolf and Mansfield. In Secret Sisters, Midorikawa and Sweeney bring it into clear focus.

They are careful to describe the complicated relationship between the two, showing us how and why Woolf considered Mansfield both her “bitter opponent and beloved friend — unrivaled by any other” (260). They use excerpts from letters, diaries and more to compile a detailed timeline that clarifies the relationship without oversimplifying its nuances.

The authors follow the relationship between the two writers from its spring 1917 beginnings in Mansfield’s humble Chelsea flat, where Woolf offered Mansfield the opportunity to have her work published with the newly formed Hogarth Press, to the news, delivered by Woolf’s maid Nellie Boxall in January 1923, that Mansfield had died.

In between, Midorikawa and Sweeney document the ups and downs of their professional alliance, as well as their personal relationship. Among them are Garsington gossip, the rivalry between the two to use the Garsington garden as the setting for a short story, and the ways they supported each other’s literary careers while engaging in creative competition.

We also get an inside view of Mansfield’s ill health and financial challenges, Woolf’s mixed feelings about Mansfield’s work, and the insecurities each woman had about the other as both a trusted friend and literary sounding board.

A Secret Sisterhood lays out the intimate inner workings of the friendship and competition between Woolf and Mansfield, setting theories and rumors to rest and illuminating a relationship characterized by a “rare sense of communion” (250) that has interested their readers for decades.

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A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, is out in paperback in the UK today.

In the U.S. we have to wait until Oct. 16 for the paperback version of the hardcover book that debuted last October. But that doesn’t mean we must wait to read about it.

Touring the blogs

The authors have arranged a blog tour to celebrate the paperback release as well as Women’s History Month. The tour started today, March 1, and runs through March 19, with a variety of bloggers publishing reviews of the book.

The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. Last, but not least is Blogging Woolf. If you have read the book — or read about it — you’ll know BW will focus on the three chapters and 63 pages of “Part 4: Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.” But I’m also eager to read the forward by Margaret Atwood.

Thanks to Emily and Emma for the invitation to participate in the blog tour. The hardcover version of their book has been front and center on my bookshelf for months now, so I’m glad to have a deadline to spur my reading.

Thoughts from an author

“My PhD. was on Woolf, so the Mansfield and Woolf section was a particular joy to research,” wrote Emma in an email.

“As for Margaret Atwood — what an act of literary sisterhood. We approached her after a public lecture (something we share in the book’s epilogue), and could hardly believe it when she agreed to take a look.”

Catching the eye of a 12-year-old

It’s title even caught the interest of my 12-year-old grandson, Michael, who was home sick from school with a tummy bug this week. Camped out on my home office sofa while his mom was at work, his eyes lit on the cover of Secret Sisterhood. It must have sounded mysteriously intriguing because he asked what the book was about. I gave him a two-sentence synopsis.

That may have burst the mystery bubble for a bright boy whose main interests are math, science, history, PlayStation, fishing, and baseball (not necessarily in that order). But I just might send him the link to my March 19 review anyway. After all, one is never too young to start appreciating Woolf.

Get the full tour

The full tour schedule is listed below, and was announced on the authors’ blog, Something Rhymed.

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Vara Neverow and Kristin Czarnecki at the opening night reception in the hotel's Room at the Top

Vara Neverow and Kristin Czarnecki at the conference’s opening night reception in the hotel’s Room at the Top

I am late with this. After attending Woolf in the City in 2009 and Woolf and the Natural World in 2010, I posted about the conference the very next day. But this year, I haven’t been able to pull my thoughts together. I can think of a couple of reasons why.

Tweeting the conference

Maybe tweeting the conference as woolfwriter pushed any deep thinking about it out of my head. Throughout the  23rd Annual International Conference on Virginia WoolfWoolf and the Common (Wealth) Reader in Vancouver, I posted 140-character conference updates and photos under the hashtag #vwconf23 tweets.

Now I wonder if posting these brief tweets served to empty my mind of the interesting things I was hearing. Things like “Waves are metaphor for empowerment and change. -Muscogiuri #vwconf23 pic.twitter.com/NPDSpSaB8y” and “Wonderful resource: UCL Bloomsbury Project http://ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-pro … #vwconf23

conference tweets


Or maybe the fact that I took off for another conference — this one in Toronto — a few days after arriving home from Vancouver diverted my attention.

Some scattered thoughts

Despite my scattered thoughts, some things from the conference do stand out, and here they are:

  • After listening to Kristin Czarnecki‘s paper on “Proportion, Conversion, Transition: War Trauma and Sites of Healing in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony,” I am convinced that Silko’s 1977 novel,  the story of a Native American WWII veteran, is a must-read.
  • On the same panel, Aurelea Mahood shared “A Short History of Woolf’s Literary Work as Reviewed in Time and Tide,” prompting my interest in the magazine launched in 1920 by suffragist Lady Rhonda whose life is documented in her 1933 memoir This Was My World.
  • Christine Froula‘s plenary talk on “War, Peace, Internationalism: The Legacy of Bloomsbury” was riveting and made me want to know more. It’s a topic that deserves a book-length discussion.
  • Fittingly enough, the panel on “Woolf’s Troubled and Troubling Relationship to Race: The Long Reach of the White Arm of Imperialism” sparked a lively discussion among panelists Lisa Coleman and Evan Zimroth and their audience, with Zimroth detailing Woolf’s anti-Semitism as well as the anti-foreigner sentiments sparked by ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
  • A polite difference of opinion between Patrizia Muscogiuri and Melissa Rampelli about Rhoda’s agency in The Waves also threw up some sparks, which made their papers  and the resulting discussion more interesting.
  • A brilliant plenary talk by Sonita Sarker on “Virginia Woolf in the British Commonwealth” in which she discussed ways in which Englishness and whiteness are part of the Commonwealth and how writing makes people self-conscious and class-conscious.
  • Vara Neverow‘s powerful analysis of fascism in Woolf’s Three Guineas and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in which she compared Woolf’s 65 pages of footnotes at the end of TG to the 12 pages of “historical notes” set in a post-Gilead world that accompany Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. Neverow’s passionate feminism that underlay her discussion of fascism as it relates to women’s lives in both works made her argument even more compelling.
  • And of course, there was the Saturday evening banquet, with charming readings of “A Pair of Scissors” by Sharon Thesen and “Oscar of Between” — complete with current-day references to Woolf’s Orlando — by Betsy Warland.
  • Dramatic readings of favorite Woolf quotes — and I do mean dramatic — from the International Virginia Woolf Society Players topped off the evening. And here I give a special tip of the hat to Suzanne Bellamy, Catherine Hollis and Erica Delsandro.

Facebook and the conference

Woolfians at the reception held at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver

Woolfians at the reception held at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver

I didn’t find anyone else’s tweets about the conference, but participants did share their thoughts on Facebook, and here are a few of their comments:

“Greetings from Vancouver. Bad internet connection, but now that I’m about to leave it’s working at last … better late than never, I guess. Anyway, another amazing Woolf Conference is over, great papers and keynotes, stimulating exchange of ideas but most inspiring of all was meeting my woolfians friends and colleagues. In the midst of many things not going exactly well (flights, etc., etc., etc.), you were wonderful as ever – can’t thank you enough for that.” – Patrizia Muscogiuri

“Just got back from a fabulous time at the 23rd annual Virginia Woolf conference held in Vancouver, B.C.! Many thanks to Helen Wussow and co. at Simon Fraser University for organizing a wonderful conference.” – Diana Swanson

Suzanne Bellamy posted daily accounts of the conference on her Facebook wall:

“Arrived in Vancouver for the International Virginia Woolf conference. Stunning city, we are in a

Graduate students Bureen Ruffin of Pace University and Sara Remedios of CUNY presented papers at the conference.

Graduate students Bureen Ruffin of Pace University and Sara Remedios of CUNY presented papers at the conference.

hotel with amazing views of the harbour. An always exciting few days are ahead but my presentation is this morning so I will feel better after that is done. Great to see all the marvellous friends who come annually to this special community of scholars.

“Day 2 in Vancouver. Something happens at these Woolf events that stretches time. A day is so dense with new meanings, ideas and encounters. All panels and the two keynotes were excellent, and the first big reception up on the roof of the hotel blew the air through our brains, with the harbour and snow on the mountains. What planet are we on??? Its gorgeous indeed. In particular Rosemary Ashton from Univ College London gave a wonderful keynote on old Bloomsbury before the Stephens ever moved in, a site of radical experiment and dissent that is still a model for resistance.

“Morning of day 3 Vancouver Woolf conference. I hope my second wind kicks in, already stretched out brain, feel great. Yesterday brilliant again. Several great panels extending the conf themes of common(wealth), war, internationalism, Christine Froula’s great keynote on war and Bloomsbury showed us there is still new material to discover, new mss, recombining, setting up new collages of thinking. A wonderful escape in the late afternoon, ferry across the harbour, still a working fishing and trade port, vistas of snow and intense urbanscapes, like a little HongKong but with a metal and glass coolness. A lush conf visit to the Bill Reid Gallery, First Nations treasure, indigenous food. I couldn’t eat the bison, like I can’t eat kangaroo either. But for those Australians out there, you will understand that the joyful thrill of the day for me was a stunningly good and hilarious paper (“From Bloomsbury to Fountain Lakes”) by Melinda Smith, a Tasmanian by birth but now at Univ of Hawaii, about Kath and Kim’s episode based on The Hours, when Fountain Lakes presented a musical about Virginia Woolf. I sat there in awe that she had magically brought Kimmy and her mother the foxy Kath to a Virginia Woolf conference, equipped with brilliant theoretical analysis of layers and layers of re-performing and making over taking the colonial piss out of the dominant culture but celebrating the shared creativity of brilliant women over time. I laughed and laughed. What a funny day to have. More to come. All amazing.

Patrizia Muscogiuri and Melissa Rampelli on "The Commodified, Colonized Woman"

Aurelea Mahood chaired a panel with Patrizia Muscogiuri and Melissa Rampelli on “The Commodified, Colonized Woman.”

“Vancouver last day of VW conf. Yesterday teeming with encounters, panels and keynotes, too much to write. Plans take shape for next a performance work for next year in Chicago, collaborations set up from Brazil to Italy, fusion of Woolf with Stein’s 4 Saints in 3 Acts with lots more, jazz and set work all in the planning now. The day never seemed to end, the banquet, the VW Players show, then the bar afterwards; how I love this annual fest, I have been coming every year since 1997, next year Chicago.

“Yesterday the last sessions of the Vancouver Woolf conf, great plenary about the dark side of Brooke and the war poets, their attraction to fascism, neo-paganism. I chaired the final panel with the all-time stars of experiment and innovation, Leslie Hankins, Diane Gillespie and Elisa Sparks. As always they dazzled us with new methods and ideas around type itself, money itself and the new app. The unpacking of Woolf is never-ending, for me a life time of provocative joy continues.”

Read about past Woolf conferences

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Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s terrifying picture of the future run amok, starts with an epigraph from To the Lighthouse: “Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?”

Woolf appears in two seemingly inconsequential instances of name-dropping that nevertheless help establish and substantiate Jimmy/Snowman’s literary background. Recalling great human achievements, all of which were relegated to the distant past, he recites a list to help commit them to memory: “The Divine Comedy. Greek statuary. Aqueducts. Paradise Lost. Mozart’s music. Shakespeare, complete works. The Brontes. Tolstoy. The Pearl Mosque. Chartres Cathedral. Bach. Rembrandt. Verdi. Joyce. Penicillin. Keats. Turner. Heart transplants. Polio vaccine. Berlioz. Baudelaire. Bartok. Yeats. Woolf” (79).

Recalling his university days at The Martha Graham Academy, “named after some gory old dance goddess of the twentieth century” (186), he explains that there was no longer a need for film-making and video arts, as anyone could splice together or digitally alter whatever they wanted. “Jimmy himself had put together a naked Pride and Prejudice and a naked To the Lighthouse, just for laughs” (187).

Also notable is a passage that evokes the interludes that begin each section of The Waves: “The sun is above the horizon, lifting steadily as if on a pulley; flattish clouds, pink and purple on top and golden underneath, stand still in the sky around it. The waves are waving, up down up down” (147).

In an essay written not long before Oryx and Crake, Atwood describes rereading To the Lighthouse in her early sixties, appreciating it in ways that she couldn’t when she first read it at the age of 19. She remarks on the patterns, the artistry, the resonance, “the way time passes over everything like a cloud, and solid objects flicker and dissolve” (Writing with Intent, 241-242). Little wonder that it left an impression that showed up in her next and perhaps most ambitious novel.

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