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Archive for June 26th, 2022


Suzanne Bellamy — she just died — the conference poster


One of Virginia Woolf’s working tables — from Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

For four days two weekends ago I spent very long days on zooms, participating as a spectator, listener and then fellow commentator on a moving brilliant series of panels and independent key-note lectures on Virginia Woolf: June 9th – 12th, 20222. Virginia Woolf and Ethics. Last year around the same time the International Virginia Woolf Society hosted a similar conference, with the theme openly the pandemic (see last year’s blog on this and other virtual conferences). So now I’ve been privileged to go to their conference for a second time – and am regularly attending the Cambridge University series of virtual lectures (though I rarely blog on these as my stenography is so poor and it is just one 2 hour lecture). I wish there were going to be a third virtual conference next year, but I suppose they must come back in person and then I will be cut off.

As I did last time, I will not attempt to summarize or evaluate any of the papers, just pick up epitomizing details. This will though be the first of two blogs — so I took down a lot more this time than last.


Dora Carrington, An Artist’s Home and Garden

The conference began at Thursday morning, 9 am, a welcome meeting. At 10:30 am, I went to a session called “Things, Objects, Forms.” Alyson Cook talked of Between the Acts as an anti-war book through its presentation of objects. She said Woolf brings the non-human world to the fore here, and Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (elsewhere too). Melancholy imagining of barrows puts before us a geological landscape. It seems the fabrication of stories is an imposition (one nature?). I agree our experience of life is limited by society. Leanna Lostocki-Ho also talked of Between the Acts as geological history. The pageant puts before us hypo-objects, which are defined as “things massively distributed across time and space.” (Stonehenge is a hypo-object). Against the vastness of time, human beings are a tiny point. Thus the pageant is “saturated with English history,” from airplanes you make out the scars of different historical eras. It seems the audience doesn’t recognize the point of Miss LaTrobe’s ethical pageant. “War is going on all around” the characters and places, “destroying everything.” Mary Wang talked about Flush.

In the talk afterwards Jed Esty’s book, A Shrinking Island, was recommended as including sections on Woolf and E.M. Forster’s pageants. At the end of the pageant in Between the Acts, a pontificating vicar has to stop as planes (with bombs?) are flying overhead. When someone said estate country houses are hypo-objects, I thought of Foyle’s War, 7:2, “The Cage,” where one such country house has been turned into a secret prison for torturing people.


Many editions of To the Lighthouse

The plenary lecture at 1:00 pm was “Virginia Woolf’s Reparative Ethics” by Elsa Hoberg. She began with Eve Kosofsky’s way of reparative reading by a “paranoid” PVL; you “write to expose cracks in the texts” that “show systematic oppression.” The question is then “how to get nourishment and pleasure” from a text not offering these. To do this you must create “conditions for sustainability of peace,” and she instanced Woolf’s short column, “Thoughts of Peace during an Air Raid” (New Republic, Oct 21, 1940) as reparative. Politics create “fear and hatred,” which “increase from the violence of military machines.” Prof Hoberg suggested Woolf “enacts a paranoid position in Three Guineas. Comments included there is “a need for a from of self repair and access to creative feelings”,” that “peace” leaves room for (“elicits”) people caring for others. In this sense To the Lighthouse can be seen as “a reparative text.” I think of the painter in the book, Lily Briscoe.

There was then a brief session on what is happening in Texas right now (Woolf’s legacy is activism on behalf of women’s rights): one of the women speakers said “basic access to health care is unobtainable.” I add the Texas gov’t and state laws are criminalizing pregnancy.


Vanessa Bell’s Leonard Woolf

From 3-4:00 pm I attended “Leonard Woolf, the man, the feminist, the socialist.” Peter Stansky, a pre-eminent biographer of Leonard who asked (rhetorically) is Leonard Woolf under-valued? He emphasized Leonard’s five terrific memoirs, and novel, The Village in the Jungle, comparable to Orwell’s Burmese Days and Forster’s Passage to India. (Jim read the memoirs and novel and told me I must, but I have not yet got round to them.) Leonard’s sad self-assessment has hurt his reputation, and Virginia’s written work overshadows his, which includes a successful civil service career in Ceylon and Burma, his writing on Maynard Keynes, the League of Nations. In life Leonard had an “austere style ” and “self-effacing” way and the assurance of an English gentleman of his class and time. Leonard is sometimes blamed as “controlling” Virginia, for not allowing her to have children;” the truth is he was “immensely supportive” and ‘crucial for enabling her to achieve so much.”

Marielle O’Neil talked about the political partnership of the Woolfs, their work with others in the Women’s Cooperative Guild,” where people worked to help reforms for the sake of working class women, where tea tables and parlors provide space for women to meet independently. Classrooms are places of education where working class women’s voices can be heard. Records in a Sheffield local library of women reading from working class women’s letters. In “The Pleasure of Letters,” Anne Byrne talked of the long extensive correspondence of Leonard Woolf with Nancy Nolan, a Dublin housewife. These are “fragments of lived experience” that “conceal” and offer “rare insights” as Woolf tells of his life, books, animals. She is unhappy because she cannot get round to writing; Woolf affirms her goals. An “integral part of [herself was] taken away when her husband died in 1966. Comments include “people who write or paint are not happy; in fact, they often suffer.” Yet they derive “immense happiness from their work,” that the Sitwells had a streak of cruelty. Woolf wrote out of affection and concern for Nancy: they are a agape set of love letters.

The talk afterwards was varied: people cited a propos books, talked of Clive Bell and Keynes (“political role of the state is to make conditions where art is more important than politics”).


Harold Nicolson’s Some People

From 5-6:30 pm I attended “The Ethics of Life Writing.” Chunhui Lu asked what genre does Orlando belong to? What is a good biography? She talked of “fantasy” and an “exemplary life” — what is a good life? Todd Avery’s context was the Bloomsbury group’s interest in inventing new kinds of biography. She discussed Woolf’s “The New Biography” (1927) written partly in response to Nicolson’s Some People, where some of the portraits are fictional and to a dull biography by Sidney Lee; and her “Art of Biography,” and Woolf’s “The Art of Biography” (1939), where the catalyst was Strachey’s biographies. Biographers are artists, imaginative writers, and must found themselves on facts: ideally the biographer writes with a “becoming brevity,” and “maintains” their own “freedom of spirit;” lays bare facts “understood impartially.” The ethical use of biography became more urgent at the time of Three Guineas: the human situation was “so dire.” Andy Koenig brought out Woolf’s intense awareness of how “empty of women’s lives” are our “archives;” that one “needs” to “write non-existent lives. She questions “the rules” for biography because Woolf wanted “to be doing something different.” This was a thought-provoking talk on A Room of One’s Own, Jacob’s Room, Orlando, Flush (thoroughly researched) and Woolf’s biography of Roger Frye.

In the talk afterwards a new bio-fiction, Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf was praised; I brought up Maurois’s Aspects of Biography, which I find to be as good (I wondered why no one mentioned it) on the genre as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I also mentioned Woolf’s brilliant historical novel, unearthing, bringing to life a 15th century young woman, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” the self-reflexive Memoirs of a Novelist where a Miss Linsett is unable to re-create and make living the life of her friend Miss Willatt because the former was too bound by inner repressions and the latter’s papers kept mostly silent about what most mattered to her (see my comment).

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I took far fewer notes, heard fewer talks on Friday — among other things, I had to go out shopping. I did go to the first session, 9-10:30 am, “Subjects of Violence.” Candis Bond talked of the graphic frank depictions of street harassment in The Years (a man exposes himself to Rose in The Pargiters; she flies for safety into a shop in The Years). Street harassment of women in later 19th century was a social problem; women were annoyed, damaged, humiliated, scared by male strangers in public spaces — lifelong trauma can be the result. In The Years Woolf breaks the silence.


Laura Knight, Logan’s Rock, Cornwall (1916)

At 11-12:30 I tried “Time and Tide, Form and Fold: Benjamin Hagen, Laci Mattison, and Shilo McGiff performed in tandem soliloquys inspired by, paraphrasing, offering insights and explications of and from The Waves. They dazzled listeners with descriptions of landscape and hypo-objects, anti-colonialist perspectives, pastoral and anti-pastoral allegories (some elegiac, some “false”), affirmations and “things hardly ever said aloud; they staged “thinking minds:” we heard voices; what do soliloquies do?; an alienation came emerge from an “over-pullulating world.” Death ends life for individuals, but Will anything survive? The Waves‘ bleak vision (“disgust used as weaponized morality”) This triple talk was inspiring and exhilarating.

The keynote speaker was Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina and her talk on “Bloomsbury and race” included discussion of black people in London from the 18th century, the Dreadnought Hoax (more in my second blog on this), the Windrush generation; recent public sculptures and new anti-immigration laws in the UK. I attended from 3:00-4:30, “Moments of Being:” Epiphany and Ethics in Virginia Woolf’s Writing,” and from 5-6:30, what can be found of Woolf’s attitude towards Shakespeare (“Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare”). The first had papers on secular spirituality (you might say); I did like a comment on Mr Ramsay’s “intense loneliness;” the second set of papers taken a whole seemed to suggest considerable ambivalence in Woolf towards Shakespeare’s plays.

I should mention the two evenings had social party zooms on offer. I’m sure all who attended would have been welcoming or at least polite. I was already very tired, and I felt that these are intended for people who truly know each other after dedicating their careers as well as personal social lives to Woolf. So abstained.

Ellen

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