I risk making some readers jealous, but I have just returned from a 5-day summer school in Cambridge, devoted to Virginia Woolf. Not all of Virginia Woolf, but 5 specified books. And I want to share some of it.
- Mrs Dalloway
- To the Lighthouse
- A Room of One’s Own
- Between the Acts
The popular view pictures Virginia Woolf as an effete, delicate, isolated, and icy woman. One of my major strands of learning on the summer school is how connected she was to the events of her time, and to the changes that women might be able to benefit from through her social circle, her reading, her thinking and her experiences to the wider world.
So here are a few ‘orts, scraps and fragments’ (Between the Acts) to pass on.
Women in her life
My first ort, scrap and fragment is the understanding of how connected Virginia Woolf was to so many different women. The summer school was focussed on Virginia Woolf and her women, and we met many of them. She had a wide range of female friends and connections. We heard about her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, her intimate relations with Vita Sackville West (Orlando), her connection to Newnham College, in particular with the classicist Jane Harrison who was a rule-breaker and a pioneer, and Pernel Strachey, librarian and Principal. She was very fond of the wonderful, larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, whose character echoes through Between the Acts. And the struggles of the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, surely owes something to Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.
The second ort concerns her thinking about the important issues of her day, which also resonate with us today. What does it mean to be a woman? How shall we understand colonialism? How did the two great wars affect women and the well-lived life? Between the Acts was written during the initial years of the Second World War, when fear of invasion and the unknown clouded every horizon. We were reminded of Covid-19 and that first year when we knew so little and feared so much. We too looked back, made our own pageants, summoned our history to help us deal with the situation.
Women’s situation was changing fast during Virginia Woolf’s life. In particular, higher education was gradually opened up to women. Both Girton and Newnham Colleges were established and eventually accepted into the University of Cambridge. It was in these colleges that she gave the lectures that gradually evolved into A Room of One’s Own. I loved sitting in the room in Girton where she spoke at the invitation of a student. The walls are covered in amazing embroidery/tapestries.
Later we got to see the manuscript of the book in the Fitzwilliam Museum archives, seeing something of how she worked on her text – right-hand side of the page only, wide margins, left-hand side for substantial rewriting. This wasn’t simply cultural tourists admiring the very pages she had written. It was more an insight into her craft.
I love the playfulness and the in-jokes in her books. Orlando is full of unattributed quotations and references and plays with the ideas of changing gender and living for 400 years. But she is always playful for a purpose and I was appropriately challenged by these books, by the ideas and possibilities that are implied and set out for the reader. So here’s what I am going to think about.
Plans from here
I shall reread (it will be for the fourth time) Between the Acts, thinking in particular about representations of our history, and luxuriating in the possibilities that Virginia Woolf provides ways of understanding history and how we tell it. What, no armies in a pageant of British history?
I shall be reacquainting myself with the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, whose work I have rejected for reasons I can’t remember. Virginia Woolf clearly thought highly of her friend’s writing, so I would like to find out what there was to admire.
I want to look at Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse more closely. Mrs Ramsey wants Lily, and all women, to get married. She had no less than eight children. Lily wants to paint but finds it hard.
And I want to reread the second part of To the Lighthouse, called Time Passes, and to think about that passage with some new ideas in my head. And to think about female language, sentences and approaches to the novel form.
I met many wonderful people, from different parts of the world, and enjoyed their warmth and shared pleasures with them. We benefitted from some excellent lectures and supervisions. How lucky to see the splendid gardens of Newnham College.
Thank you to Literature Cambridge for the summer school, and for providing so much on-line stimulation, including when we were locked down. I have many links to previous lectures, photographs and further possibilities to explore, thanks to you. Thanks to Graham for the use of his photograph of people inspecting the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.