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You have nearly two weeks to get ready for Woolf Salon No. 17: Woolf, Beauvoir& Phenomenology, so check out the details below. But if your schedule doesn’t allow for any prep time, don’t worry. You can always log on to just listen.

Virginia Woolf reading at home

Details

Hosts: Marie Allègre and Luca Pinelli of The Woolf Salon Project
Day: Friday, March 25
Time: 2 p.m.–4 p.m. ET
Please note that the U.S. will have entered Daylight Saving Time by this date, so the time conversion might be a bit different for those outside the U.S.
How to join: Anyone can join the group, which meets on one Friday of each month via Zoom and focuses on a single topic or text. Just contact woolfsalonproject@gmail.com to sign up for the email list and receive the Zoom link, as well as a PDF of the second reading listed below.

What to read

Woolf’s short essay can also be found in Essays Vol. 6 (pp. 453–56). It is also included in the collection The Death of the Moth.

What to consider

The hosts advise the following in preparation for the Salon, and they assure us that no prior knowledge of either Beauvoir or phenomenology will be necessary to participate in the discussion:

  • Think about the ways in which the self is represented in all its forms in these texts
  • Feel free to refer to other texts by either Beauvoir or Woolf regarding any of the themes that emerge in” “Evening Over Sussex” or “What Can Literature Do?”

At the event, the hosts will also be drawing participants’ attention to critical texts that make connections between Woolf and Beauvoir and will share a PDF of a recent book chapter by artist and Woolf scholar Suzanne Bellamy.

Attendees have loved salons that simply focus on one or two short texts. These events provide opportunities to share ideas that emerge from discussion of old favorites and discoveries of new ones. – The Woolf Salon Project

Background on the Salon

The Salon Conspirators — Hagen, Shilo McGiff, Amy Smith, and Drew Shannon — began the Woolf Salon Project in July 2020 to provide opportunities for conversation and conviviality among Woolf-interested scholars, students, and common readers during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

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With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 13 days old, I can’t get Virginia Woolf’s August 1940 essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” out of my mind.

In it, she writes:

Unless we can think peace into existence we — not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born — will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead (173).

As I write this, the Ukrainian people are lying in that same darkness. They are hearing that same death rattle.

One Kyiv woman’s story

This week, I read of a 74-year-old woman who emerged from the basement of her home after 10 days to find everything in sight destroyed and dead bodies lying in the street.

For most of that time, Katerina Oleksiivna had survived without heat, electricity, or water. She had existed on canned vegetables and stale bread while listening to explosions overhead and feeling their reverberations beneath the ground.

A bomb drops. All the windows rattle. The anti-aircraft guns are getting active. Up there on the hill under a net tagged with strips of green and brown stuff to imitate the hues of autumn leaves guns are concealed. Now they all fire at once.

Echoes of Woolf

That could have been Katerina Oleksiivna’s description of her ordeal. But it is not.

Instead, those are some of Woolf’s words written 82 years ago in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.” They recall the fear she experienced during the Second World War as she heard German planes fly over the Sussex countryside. One plane flew so close that she and Leonard were forced to shelter under a tree in their garden at Monk’s House.

It was not Woolf’s first go-round at war. She had already lived through four years of the Great War, listening to bombing from across the English Channel and hiding under a basement kitchen table in Richmond during air raids (D1, 123-4). From 1939 until March 28, 1941, when she committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse, she lived through the trauma and deprivations of a second.

Is the war everywhere? – Katarina Oleksiivna, 74, of Kyiv, Ukraine

Repeating history

As the brave Ukrainian people defend themselves against the Russians, my heart aches. It aches at the memory of my maternal grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1923, bringing their Ukrainian culture with them and sharing it with me. It aches at the repetition of some of our modern world’s bleakest history. It aches at our failure to spend the last 82 years thinking — and acting — peace into existence, as Woolf wished. And it aches at the thought that we may never do so.

A display at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

For as Woolf says, war perpetuates itself, rippling infinitely outwards in time and space, unless we stop it by turning our minds and our energy towards creating universal peace.

Thinking peace into existence

For Woolf, that means thinking peace into existence by thinking against the current, by thinking against the nationalism that dictators and autocrats like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin promote through propaganda and force.

And in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” Woolf maintains that the primary requirement for fostering peace among all peoples of our world is the act of artistic creation. It is, she maintains, the antithesis to war’s destruction.

For her, “the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.” Artistic creation helps to make sense of the world, a world that in the midst of war makes little sense at all.

Woolf certainly did her part to think — and write — peace into existence. May each of us do ours as well. #StandWithUkraine

Post-It notes written by visitors became part of the peace symbol display pictured above at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

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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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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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Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth

When Virginia Woolf visited the Brontë home and Brontë Museum in Haworth on Nov. 24, 1904, she wrote about it.

That piece was her first accepted for publication and just the second to appear in print. The Guardian published it unsigned on Dec. 21, 1904. 

In it, Woolf wrote of Charlotte:

Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her.

Woolf describes those items as “touching” and mentions those objects, along with Emily’s “little oak stool,” as those that gave her “a thrill.”

In the Yorkshire Post, Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, describes Woolf as being “brought up short by the sight of Charlotte’s dress – because it made her realise that apart from being a great literary mind, she was a real woman.”

Defying Expectations exhibit

Dinsdale’s remark is part of a discussion of “Defying Expectations,” the museum’s current exhibit featuring Charlotte Brontë’s wardrobe. One goal of the exhibit is to show that Charlotte was interested in fashion, color, style and trends, as it highlights some of the more colorful and exotic accessories in Charlotte’s wardrobe.

Woolf herself justified her visit to the Brontë parsonage this way:

The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.

Guestbook and Giggleswick

When I toured the Brontë parsonage in 2016, I was thrilled to view — and hold in my hands — the guestbook that Woolf signed using her maiden name of Virginia Stephen, when she visited in 1904.

She was the first of only two visitors that day. The other was her companion Margaret Vaughan, wife of her cousin Will, headmaster of Giggleswick School.

Woolf stayed with the couple in the headmaster’s home when she made her 1904 trip to the Brontë Parsonage.

Page in the Brontë Parsonage and Museum guestbook signed by Virginia Woolf in 1904.

Behind-the-scenes room at the Brontë Parsonage Museum where the guestbook signed by Virginia Woolf is stored, along with other materials by and about the Brontës.

Headmaster’s home at Giggleswick School

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