Posts Tagged ‘Woolf in contemporary fiction’

In addition to our regular Woolf sightings, we offer a number of references to “Woolf in Pop Culture” shared via the VWoolf Listserv.

Contributors include Keri Barber, Vara Neverow, Helen E. Southworth, Cheryl Hindrichs and Blogging Woolf’s very own Alice Lowe, who has been collecting references to Woolf in contemporary fiction for years — and has lived to write a monograph about it. Alice’s Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction is part of Cecil Woolf Publishers’ Bloomsbury Heritage Series.

  • Jane Gardam slips Woolf into her work. In her 2008 novel Faith Fox, a major character is Thomasina Fox. A confused woman refers to her as Thomasina Woolf, remarking that “She wrote The Waves, you know.” Woolf also appears as a glimpsed character in Crusoe’s Daughter and in Gardam’s stories “The Last Reunion” and “The People on Privilege Hill.”
  • Woolf shows up in Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? Reviews of the memoir often include this fact, as mentioned in numerous Woolf sightings.
  • Woolf makes a quick appearance in Gillian Flynn‘s new novel, Gone Girl. Here is the quote: “I will drink a giant ice-wet shaker of gin, and I will swallow sleeping pills, and when no one is looking, I’ll drop silently over the side [of the Mississippi], my pockets full of Virginia Woolf rocks. It requires discipline.”

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That’s what Carol Anshaw said when I asked her about the reference to Woolf in her newest novel, Carry the One. The story weaves in and out of the lives of several people for 25 years following a momentous event that had a great and lasting impact on each of them.

I found the book to be an engrossing and rewarding read, deserving its praise in reviews, including those of the New York Times and NPR.

So, the scene in question: Alice is talking to her sister Carmen about her volatile on-and-off relationship with Maude, who also happens to be Carmen’s sister-in-law. Alice says: “‘She can try all the men she wants. She’ll come back to women. She’s a bloodhound who’s been given the scent of the glove.’”

“Carmen was always a little startled (and titillated) when Alice said things like this. She wasn’t sure if this was her sister’s way of being shocking, or if lesbians all talked this way among themselves. It always tripped her up. She used to imagine love between women as a languid extension of friendship. Something Virginia Woolf-ish involving tea and conversation and sofas and afternoon eliding into evening, a small lamp needing to be turned on, but left unlit.”

Carol Anshaw added to the above response about Woolf: “when I read her letters maybe 30 years ago, I loved seeing her get swept off her feet by Vita. Then I read Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Vita and fell in love with her big, arrogant, blundering passage through life.” So we see how fitting this particular name-dropping is.

Screen shot of Carol Anshaw’s Vita Sackville-West Project page on her website

But Carol’s fascination with Vita has taken on a life of its own in a series of paintings (she’s multi-talented), the Vita Sackville-West project. Several are posted on her website.


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One was intentional; the other was serendipity. In his review of my monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, for the Bulletin of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, Stephen Barkway noted one of my omissions, Wise Virgin by A.N. Wilson, published in 1982.

As I told Stephen, I’m the first one to acknowledge that my list is far from complete, but I’m always eager to rectify that and continue to amass Woolf references, old and new.

So I read Wise Virgin and found a fascinating story of a father and daughter, overly dependent on each other, who embark on romances that help them to separate and spread their wings. The daughter, 17-year-old Tibba, fantasizes about fictional characters and their authors, especially Woolf and the Bloomsberries. Her hero-worship comes up frequently in references to Woolf’s novels, imaginary conversations with Lytton Strachey, and the poster hanging in her room.

After she meets Piers Peverill, however, she looks back on her earlier behavior as a childish phase. “… the period, aeons since, at least three weeks before, when Virginia Woolf had been all in all to her. She had come to tire of the mannerisms of that genius, and to look about for another. Her heart was ready for a change. She now saw that even an arch-satirist could herself be satirized. One could laugh at The Waves…” Woolf as a rite of passage?

My next book was a complete departure, or so I thought, plucked off the “new fiction” shelf at my local library. Heft, a new novel by Liz Moore that I’d seen blurbed in the New York Times Book Review,  turns out to be the story of two generations as well, in the characters of Arthur Opp, an obese house-bound academic, and Kel Keller, a baseball-obsessed teenager. The quirky characters and offbeat story are reminiscent of Anne Tyler.

Early in the novel Arthur describes his best friend, Marty Stein, whom he met as a graduate student at Columbia: “She was a year ahead of me, perpetually hunched over, scurrying from place to place like a mouse in glasses. It was Marty—expert on the work of Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf; willfully and perhaps exaggeratedly ignorant about much of the rest of the canon—who got me a job at the college that became my home for nearly two decades.” Woolf as pigeonhole character marker!

Now, thanks to a VWoolf Listserv discussion of Roman à clef depictions of Bloomsbury, I’m reading David Garnett’s Aspects of Love.

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In a newsletter from Powell’s, the fabulous book emporium in Portland, I read about a first novel by one of their own former staffers, Alexis Smith.

According to the publisher’s notes: “Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf.”

I picked it up at my local library, a slim and inviting paperback with a collage-like cerulean cover. I found it charming, and the narrator, Isabel, a sympathetic character—bookish and introspective, observant, partial to thrift stores. I wasn’t expecting an actual reference to Woolf, but her ghost appeared near the end when Isabel and a group of friends are telling personal stories, their host assigning topics. Someone is asked to tell a story about regret:

“So she tells a story about visiting England when she was in college. She had a chance to visit the river in which a beloved writer drowned. She had a mousy friend with a family cottage nearby. But she wanted desperately to be fashionable. So instead she went toLondon to see a boy who later humiliated her…” (165).

This was my first Woolf sighting in fiction this year, my 24th since completing my 2010 monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, with 37 references. I don’t go looking for them, but they keep appearing; Woolf continues to hold a unique place in the hearts and minds of writers and readers: muse, model and mentor, and yes, icon.

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As Paula observed, I’m always on the lookout for references to Woolf in contemporary fiction and so honed right in on Benjamin Roesch’s story,  “Bloomsbury Heads West,” from a list of 49 sightings in one of the December Woolf sightings.

Of course it wasn’t enough for me to enjoy this provocative story; I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about the author’s interest in Woolf and why he wrote this story as well as to express my admiration. I contacted Benjamin Roesch through his blog and posed my questions; he was kind enough to respond as follows:

“Thanks so much for reaching out and I’m honored that you enjoyed the story and that it was mentioned on the Virginia Woolf blog. My interest in Virginia Woolf goes back to my mother, who was a Bloomsbury fanatic for a time and become particularly intrigued not only Woolf, but especially with Dora Carrington.

Then, in college, I encountered Mrs. Dalloway, which I adored, and later read letters and journals and developed my own fascination with Virginia Woolf, who I saw as a both triumphant and tragic figure. I can also remember seeing and loving ‘The Hours,’ which broadened my sense of her. I can also credit a colleague of mine who is a Woolf fanatic.

Benjamin Roesch

“The idea to have a rural farm wife turn into the great Victorian just came to me one day and seemed like it might make a wild premise for a story that, if executed right, might work. Initially, I saw it as a humorous conceit–the contrast between the American farmer and the proper Victorian–but in revision the story took on a life of its own and began showing me other things it wanted to say. I had a blast working on it.”

It’s always fascinating to see what draws people to Woolf, and for me, what prompts writers to use her in their fiction, whether by a single obscure allusion or, in this case, a story that draws from her life.

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