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Three Guineas

“The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno

Friends,

Last term (spring), and this term (summer) I am again teaching about Virginia Woolf, and we are reading her mid- and later books, Flush; A biography; Orlando: A Biography; Three Guineas and Between the Acts (unusual historical fiction, shall we call it?). I’ve written about the first two separately; tonight I want to go on to the exhilarating and astonishing candor of Three Guineas. What I love and find exhilarating is Woolf’s words (if they were followed) would constitute a direct threat to so many values and norms thrown at us all the time, from society joining (don’t you want to identify with a group?), to ambition and competition as central to our mode of being, and to our incessant prize culture with its ribbons and awards (money) as central to why we want to achieve and how we measure our achievement.

What can I offer for thought tonight better than a (I hope) suggestive outline of this book? A poignantly still crucially needed book. Nothing more relevant tonight. I now understand Reagan’s term of benign neglect. Trump and his regime do not benignly neglect people. It’s an aggressive campaign to criminalize, imprison, impoverish, punish all those who don’t submit — new laws everywhere and now they’ll purge voters. Tax the poor, let the corporations reign and isolate us. I wish people would stop saying Trump’s picture is as if we were in a banana republic; this is as if this were a nazi state — his picture is that, this is, this is US because enough of a majority supports and is for all that is happening. I did the Three Guineas finally because each time he bombs people, the newspapers rally round him and his regime. And this week the imitation becomes more complete: Nazis told people as they entered the death-prison camps here is soap and you will take a shower; we rip their children from their hands and tell them they are going to have a bath, and then we put these children in cages and will not let reporters in to see what is happening to these children.

Three Guineas consists of three essays or letter-chapters. In all three Woolf is answering someone or more than one person. In the first, she says she has been asked by a high-ranking gentleman to join a society to prevent war. Is not this astonishing? that she should be asked to join a society to prevent war? as she writes on, we see the problem is she is not asked to figure out who is responsible for war — for to prevent something, do you not need first to discover who is going to do it? and then to stop the people, do you need not to discover why they do it? Nor is the society examined? In the second, she has received a letter begging for money to support a girls’ college – and to join them. If she doesn’t have money, any left-over object in her house, she doesn’t need would be appreciated for their bazaar. She could become one of them that way. She is stunned: Why is it that a woman’s college has so little money as to beg for cast-offs? In the third, she decides to speak to a third woman who would like her to join a society on her (this woman’s) lack of money, and professional women and discovers that the problem is the way women make money (when they do make it) to sell their brains and advocate causes and beliefs that stifle them and lead to war.

So there you have it. I have read Three Guineas numerous times. Each time I have read this book I think to myself it is one of the most important essays of the 20th century and along with Primo Levi’s If this be man, and The Truce, ought to be required reading for every adult alive who can read. I used to assign it every time I was given the second half of British literature to teach. Sometimes along with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and a couple of essays on the Spanish civil war he published elsewhere. But it hit me anew because since Trump won I have been inundated with requests to join groups, told how wonderful the society and members are, and begged to send money – not to prevent war but to stop Trump, to renew democracy and the idea is sending a check, joining this group will be doing something useful or a very good thing. I will be a member of them, and then I read an advertisement telling me of all the good the group does.

A guinea has never existed as a separate coin. It was the name of a gold coin worth one pound and one shilling. Stopped circulating as of 1813, but elite shops kept expressing the amount of an item in guineas. Medical consultation fees were often expressed in guineas. You paid actually pounds and shillings but this was how it was expressed. So it’s an allusion. The working title of these essays was Answer to Correspondents

I can give only the gist of each letter-essay. In the case of the second and third I cannot follow the lines of argument as they are too circuitous in order to be suggestive and allow for further extrapolation. I also have not cited or described most of the individuals she uses as examples and quotes from. If you want to know this level of detail, read the book. If readers ask for some, I’ll come back with select quotations tomorrow night.

**********************


Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

She begins: she has waited three years since receiving her first letter. Why? The person she must write to is a professional man high in a learned prestigious career with much power. How can she talk to him since her and his life have been so different, and why is this? For a start: Arthur’s Education Fund. Arthur and all her brothers, father, any son have been given the best and most expensive education the family can afford and the girl taught nothing but to be a wife to a husband, chaste so that she will be sure to bear only his children. He has lived out in public and she has been kept at home. What can she possibly say that he would understand?

But by 1938 the question has become so important. All around her, around him war is beginning, being fought, and i the newspapers fierce propaganda to support it. She must speak. She holds out some photos of recently dead bodies and destroyed houses. (Probably from Spain. One of the immediate promptings of this book is the killing of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War where a fascist take-over of Spain was being allowed, funded by the surrounding capitalist states.)

She says looking at these: there is nothing worse or more destructive of all people hold dear. Yes the very wealthy might make huge sums but they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people; not just those who fight, but those who acquiesce, those who support the activity. Why do people go to war? A subsidiary question for Woolf is how the subordination of women is central to this way of life — because wars fought so often become central to a way of life, always there, on the edge, waiting to be indulged in.

So why do they do it? It would be laughably simple if one did not know the results. Men are incessantly honored for it: it’s presented as a profession (soldier), a source of happiness and manliness – yes manliness. It’s better to be kill than be killed. They get to wear great uniforms, everyone bows down in parades. Lots of ribbons. They are continually trained in fiercely competitive games, modes of learning, aggressive professions, adversarial behavior.

An immense amount of money is spent on these colleges, these professions, these awards. (I’d compare these colleges Woolf describes in the UK to the immense amount of money spent in and on elite colleges in the US –- with no money in the society for the rest of to go to much less funded colleges). Right away when you go to these colleges you are confronted with hierarchy, this is prestigious and that is not. Join this one and you make the right connections. Exclusion is central to privilege.

Woolf asks if anyone asks, What kind of a human being do you want to produce? All the many things that can be taught cheaply should be taught cheaply. No barriers. And everyone including women taught how to be independent, how to earn your own living so as to not have to obey someone else’s interests, to be able to think and act independently. What are truly useful and good results for all.

Women are of course excluded. Why? Because everything a woman is taught is in service of preserving her body for a man, making it look appealing to a man. Women who wanted to go to war were escaping that loathed private house, its hypocrisies, cruelties, its immorality, its inanity ….

She goes over the dress code, the advertisements everywhere.

********************************


Isobel Bishop, Reading Together (1935)

Second letter: here we have this college and it needs money so badly the women don’t even have enough cast off clothes for a bazaar. This letter harks back to A Room of One’s Own 1929 which originated in a lecture Woolf was asked to give to Newnham college in October 1928. Julia Briggs suggests that Woolf had in mind Pernel Strachey who was a principal at Newnham: in the earlier essay we see how poor the meals, how inadequate the library and how the women are excluded from male libraries which contain all the serious research material.

Whitaker’s Almanac is called in evidence to show how little money women make; ludicrously less. They are not paid at all for all their work in the home, and to say they share their husband’s salary is absurd because we find their husband’s salary after minimal needs (rent, food) goes on all his luxuries, male sports, male cigars.

She says some pointed questions: women have the vote and yet they have not changed the terms of their existence. Why is this? why have they made so few gains after the initial ones of being permitted to own property, permitted to keep their salaries, allowed to have custody of their children, allowed to obtain a divorce (if they can pay for it) on more grounds than he came near to destroying you by beating you and was egregiously adulterous. They have failed she says because men have continued to withhold positions in universities, positions in the professions, posiitions in parliament, and through these means refused to pay them an equal wage, to promote them. Frightened and jealous of them. The way a higher job is gotten is still through influence and patronage.

To jump ahead again it is in the third letter she talks of how males – especially fathers do all they can to forbid their daughters from making money, to teach them making money is beneath them. She calls it “the infantile fixation.” She does not always define her terms. This second letter is a far more concrete practical, overtly angrier. Everything is done to teach them to want marriage and children first and only, to infantilize, not to teach them to thrive in the larger public world. In this chapter she shows that (ironically) what women have been taught is chastity, poverty, derision (of themselves), and freedom from unreal loyalties. What country when you are a woman? on the analogy of, What father when you are a slave? Freedom from unreal loyalties: one of these is the delusions of nationalism.

How is this connected to war? They cannot work against the norms of war until they can put pressure on men. They can only do that if they are equal in independence and respect, if they do jobs that are held to be so useful they are paid for to make sure they are done well.

In both letters a primary source of documents are biographies and she cites these. She finds that for most men still money-making takes over their lives and there’s no time for any thought, any protest. She finds there are hardly any professional women in the sense of holding positions of power and making money. She finds that when women do campaign for change that will improve their lives, by the time the reform is turned into law, it is set up to protect men, not women.

So since sex is so central it is no coincidence one of the earliest campaigns (beyond stopping alcoholism among men as it makes them violent and trying to secure the vote) is Josephine Butler’s campaign on behalf of prostitutes: the contagious diseases act was set up to protect men and not women and did not stop trafficking in female children. She was not able to get them to stop imprisoning women, condemning them to hard labor if they would not submit (a recent anti-abortion bill in Virginia included a requirement that demand a doctor violate a woman’s body if she sought an abortion). So Butler turns to work for public housing, and ceaselessly to abolish prostitution, to make it illegal.

*****************************


Primo Levi’s If this be man

This letter contains some of my most favorite passages. In this one in talking of what is written and published, she says before you judge it you must think of how much in that piece of writing is there for (p 115) “the money motive, the power motive, the advertisement motive, the publicity motive and the vanity motive” – let alone all the other more a particular ones depending on the local politics of those involved in the topic. I remember reading a review of a friend’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer where I was struck by how much of this review was pretense and performance, and what the reviewer cared about was how she appeared to what she took to be the hostile audience to the book –- she was writing for her own career first, her position in the organization second, fame third, showing off fourth (the style) and only after that did the quality of the book and its content concern her and she shaped what she had to say in terms of the first four goals.

She reverts to opening request from a different angle: how can professional women help to preventing war. You must not sell your brain. Margaret Oliphant is brought in as a representative of a finely gifted woman who sold her brain for money. Right now in 1938 Arthur’s education fund has been spent, war is imminent and that means that education has failed, professional women have failed — they have not even made much money.

Now she says women must have different weapons than men. They must take into consideration they have lived and continue to live differently. This is imposed on them but it is part of what they must candidly look upon. So what can they learn from their own history? How can they resist being pulled into that male procession of fancy costumes and ribbons? They must in their minds constitute themselves a society of outsiders. They have been excluded and oppressed, now they must remember what they perceived themselves for real and act on that. Here she shows how the private world of the house and women is inseparably connected with the public one; tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

Who will listen to us? what are we writing? what reading? This is where she brings in the how the money, advertisement, publicity, vanity, power motives permeates what people write. How most people don’t try to divest themselves of these motives. (This is why she and Leonard opened Hogarth Press so there might be a press apart from this mainstream — a word Woolf doesn’t use.) She had earlier pointed out how newspapers are so influential by what they leave out (that’s in chapter 2) and now shows what they put in is often rotten with distortion and self-interest. So who is in charge of the newspapers, and the institutions these newspapers support, which usually support them.

And again she makes the connection between all the dead bodies and the destroyed houses in previous wars and what we find in public writing. What are the real purposes of the various societies that produce this writing too. And they want her to send them money? Are they kidding?

There is a suggestion that in lieu of the celebratory parades let’s show the condition these men come back in. One can do small things. Increasing beauty in landscape, in places not intended to advertise a public company or body of people. She talks about the value of obscurity (as she does in Orlando). Let’s dispense with all those distinctions, these ribbons, refuse to knit socks for war.

And so she comes to the end of her work and goes for the core. At the heart of the desire for war is fear, and a male desire to control all others, all women and those men you can make into docile workers. The major support for this fear, for chaining people up in strictly controlled heterosexual marriage is found in the male priesthood (religion). And she is back to the sexual taboos central to controlling women and powerless men’s behavior. In this section she brings in Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father (Flush is not just a jeux d’esprit); how Patrick Bronte did what he could to stop Charlotte marrying, to control her for himself. It is telling which women she does cite — whose life or work or character meant most to her.

The only way to escape is to have a room of your own and income to support yourself adequately. Tonight in my house I watched Gosford Park for an umpteenth time: it is a form of cheer to see the world’s order so caught up in this ironic melancholy formula, the brilliant acting, the wonderful singing of Jeremy Northam of Ivor Novello’s songs. The land of might-have-been:

It’s not that the Republicans have taken over; it’s that the values we follow enable them. Our lives as presently lived do not have to be this way.

Ellen

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Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Six Tuesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
March 5 to May 9
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss the later Woolf: a playful satirical biography, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], by indirection of the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf herself, a feminist tale, and historical novel; and Orlando, an experimental novel, biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, time-traveling historical tale about a search for identity on the part of a woman writer; a satire on culture through free-wheeling literary history, a struggle to find and come to terms with sexual maturity and gender; and Three Guineas, a pre-World War II essay, which analyzes the origins of war and suggests how we may prevent future wars, nothing can be more relevant for us today. We will watch clips of Sally Potter’s allegorical visual fantasy of a movie Orlando. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful, original, & unusual works.

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow.
https://archive.org/details/graniterainbowes00wool
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 19: Introduction: Woolf, & animal stories, art of biography, Finish Flush if you haven’t already.

June 26: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Woolf herself. Read for next time also “The New Biography.”

July 3: Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, tranvestite tale

April 10: Orlando,” time traveling; the writer’s life’ clips from the movie. Read for next time also “The Art of Biography.”

April 17: Three Guineas: pacifist movements after WW1; the lead-up to World War II, the Woolfs position

July 24: Three Guineas. The text. Final thoughts


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Ackerley. My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marchall Thommas. New York Review of Books, 1999
Auster, Paul. Timbuktu. New York: Holt, 1999.
Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Knopp, Sherron. “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” PMLA, 103:1 (1988):24-34.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. Fictionalized biography of EBB’s lady’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West.
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush,” Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

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Grant, Duncan, Parrot Tulips

[Not long after reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial] The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night; and when they came to him for orders about the slaughtering of cattle or the harvesting of wheat, he would push away his folio and look as if he did not understand what was said to him. This was bad enough and wrung the hearts of Hall, the falconer, of Giles, the groom, of Mrs Grimsditch, the housekeeper, of Mr Dupper, the chaplain. A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing [what’s biographer to do?], Orlando Chapter 2.

Friends and readers,

I’ve finally come to a conclusion about what the book by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is: an experimental novel. I must hold to this and not let go as I’m committed to teaching it this summer.


Vanessa Bell, Design for a Screen: Figures by a Lake

This after three sessions of discussing the book with a group of retired adult learners; watching Sally Potter’s movie of Orlando (and the features on a DVD where Potter and her fellow film-makers explain what and why they are doing what they do in the film); browsing many essays and scattered statements, and finally coming upon two genuinely helpful chapters, one from Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life and Avrom Fleischman’s The English Historical Novel, not to omit a couple of perceptive blogs (one source is Sackville-West’s little girls’ book, A Note of Explanation), and emailing with friends.

I’d compare it with other experimental modernist fiction: Dorothy Richardon’s Pilgrimage; Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; Jorge Luis Borges’s novellas; Umberto Eco’s later fantasy magic realism. Think too of Elena Ferrante’s little girls’ picture book, a graphic novel of a young girl’s nightmare, The Beach at Night where the doll is thrown away. In the learned Woolf there is a sheer density of intertextuality (worn lightly): she scoops up an ever-expanding (as you tease the references out) literary imaginary, with a few specific authors and heroes from the 16th through later 19th century who appear (sometimes outside their period); much allusion, reference, parody, critical commentary: Jane Austen there, she channels Boswell on Johnson (there are references to the Hebrides and Scottish hills seen at a distance in the final peroration of the book) through Orlando’s conversations with Nick Greene: how tiresome are authors on authors.

She combines biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West (the genius loci of the book, her house, Knole, its habitas) and herself with a time-traveling historical tale (each era has high violence, imperialist events, and in the corners of life disaster goes on: “a poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire,” Chapter 5). The story line (picked out by Sally Potter) about a search for a gratifying identity by Orlando a frequently writing, brooding, thinking man-as-woman writer stymied by in impossible trammels of male and social demands, including marriage, diplomacy in world cities and withdrawn gypsy tribes.

As to the biographical sources:  Sackville-West visited Russia a number of times, loved the place apparently and enjoyed snow, so the story of the love affair of Woolf and the Russian countess is a transmutation. Her continual diary keeping and “The Oak Tree” represent two Georgic poems Sackville-West wrote: The Land and the Garden. Her husband, Harold Nicolson spent much time in Constantinople and other places as a diplomat, when the choice of Istanbul. In gay literature Constantinople, Venice and Turkey have become known tropes of homosexuality or gayness. Set a story there and you are suggesting your book is about transgressive sexuality, fluid sexuality. In her ancestry her grandmother was a gypsy, Pepita, who had a married a Spanish gentleman, Juan Antonio de Olivia; the marriage broke up and she went to live with Lionel Sackville West, the heir to Knoles, and Vita’s grandfather, Sackville II (2nd Lord Sackville). They had 5 children, all illegitimate. The youngest and a daughter, Victoria (Vita’s mother), married the nephew of the next heir-at-law or in line, Lionel 3rd Lord Sackville (the eldest son of 2nd Lord Sackville’s brother, William Edward). He was legitimate. Did Victoria marry him to secure Knoles? There were two court cases over Knoles; one for the property, and one to wrest money from an old man who lived there for decades with Victoria. The mother won both.

It’s a continual satire on culture (Boswell and Mrs Williams at worship of Johnson; Pope as tiny dwarf writing salacious poetry, deeply anti-feminist), on the rituals of life as contradictory social dysfunction or downright lies, through free-wheeling history and magic realism geography. I entertain the idea it’s book of struggle on the part of Woolf to find and come to terms with her transgender self and reach some plateau of sexually mature enjoyment — with other women, with a husband, through a child. The art of living is hard to master.


Roger Fry, Barns and Pond at Charleston

The clue seen everywhere in the labyrinth, the word tapestry of Orlando is its lack of verisimilitude. That gives Woolf the liberty to present herself as on holiday (at one point she finds herself in a modern department store, what fun for women at the turn of the 20th century), to invent grotesqueries too and senseless jokes on Orlando’s partners. Perhaps Woolf’s use of absurd and silly names and the swift changing back and forth ofgender of previous women lovers to undermine, mock heterosexual solemnness. Shes seek one authentic self so earnestly and at the close discovers there is a new self at every corner. I loved the many subversive and beautiful (with imagery) meditations, just the sudden soaring from all sorts of sudden thoughts and images pour out:

At every step she glanced nervously lest some male form should be hiding behind a furze bush or some savage cow be lowering its horns to toss her. But there were only the rooks flaunting in the sky. A steel-blue plume from one of them fell among the heather. She loved wild birds’ feathers. She had used to collect them as a boy. She picked it up and stuck it in her hat. The air blew upon her spirit somewhat and revived it. As the rooks went whirling and wheeling above her head and feather after feather fell gleaming through the purplish air, she followed them, her long cloak floating behind her, over the moor, up the hill. She had not walked so far for years. Six feathers had she picked from the grass and drawn between her fingers and pressed to her lips to feel their smooth, glinting plumage, when she saw, gleaming on the hill-side, a silver pool, mysterious as the lake into which Sir Bedivere flung the sword of Arthur. A single feather quivered in the air and fell into the middle of it. Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had of following the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spongy turf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughter sounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content. The scent of the bog myrtle and the meadow-sweet was in her nostrils. The rooks’ hoarse laughter was in her ears. ‘I have found my mate,’ she murmured. ‘It is the moor. I am nature’s bride,’ she whispered, giving herself in rapture to the cold embraces of the grass as she lay folded in her cloak in the hollow by the pool … [I could go on and on].

Our narrator tells us poetry is voice answering to voice in secret transactions. There’s even a Tristram Shandy turn as the book ends on the day the author is writing it presumably on the last page.


Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf

I’m not sure which costumes and colors in Potter’s movie are my favorites; perhaps the Victorian outfit Tilda Swindon emerges from the hedge maze in. What Sally Potter does bring out the latent story: in the movie Tilda Swinden as Orlando is seeking to find her identity, to create a space or way of life for herself that she can be herself in, she seeks liberty from stifling conventions at the same time as she finds it impossible to escape them altogether.

Side details: throughout Woolf’s books old poverty stricken women are seen, lonely, looking out windows. Sally Potter includes these, e.g., [except for] an old woman hobbling over the ice as in Woolf’s book: some old country woman hacking at the ice in a vain attempt to draw a pail full of water or gathering what sticks or dead leaves she could find for firing, not a living soul came their way.


Marianne Werefkin, Winterland

The book has parades of terrifying cruelty at its close (glimpsed now and again in the book’s anecdotes), but it ends in semi-celebratory mood, a vision of pageantry. Sally Potter ends her sweet and upbeat movie with the wildly caricatured angel returning to Orlando once again sitting against a tree, this time with a young daughter nearby, singing this hopeful vision:


Orlando


her daughter


Jimmy Somerville as the counter-tenor angel:

… I am coming.
I am coming. …
… Here I am. …
… Neither a woman,
nor a man …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… At last I am free. …
… At last I am free. …

NB:  The images from all the paintings on this blog but the one by Werefkin came from the Net, but I learned of their existence and titles from a superbly insightful and informative book: The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone, mostly on and filled with pictures by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant.

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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Photo of Virginia Woolf by Barbara Strachey (1938)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eight Mondays, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 9
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a biography cum novel, which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time just before and as World War Two began: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. We will see clips of the film adaptation, Orlando, in class. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these original, delightful and serious books.


Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow. I will send this by attachment.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. ed. introd Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978015603473

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 5: 1st session: Introduction: Woolf, & the art of biography, Begin Flush

March 12: 2nd session: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning

March 19 & 26: Class cancelled: Read essays, “The New Biography” and “The Art of Biography” on your own.

April 2: 3rd session: begin Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, as and about biography

April 9: 4th session Orlando: history, time-traveling novel, tranvestite tale;

April 16: 5th session Orlando, we’ll see & discuss clips from the movie; begin Three Guineas

April 23: 6th session Three Guineas: political context, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial

April 30: 7th session Between the Acts as historical pageant, as history

May 7: 8th session Between the Acts: as a novel with story & characters. Last thoughts.


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Fleishman, Avrom. On “Between the Acts,” “Experiment and Renewal,” The English Historical Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971.
Karlin, Daniel. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. A novel from EBB’s maid’s point of view.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. (Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West).
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. NY: Oxford, 1978.
Rosenbaum. S. P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary, rev. edition. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 1975.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes, and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush, Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.
Trombley, Stephen. All that Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine. NY: Continuum, 1982.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

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A portrait of Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage


Photo of Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry

“Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper excitement ….” Woolf, “The Art of Biography”

Bayle’s Dictionary is a very useful work for those to consult who love the biographical part of literature, which is what I love most … Johnson, quoted by Boswell

Friends,

This past Thursday after reading away for weeks and weeks, I gave a working name for a paper for a volume of essays on Johnson: “Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.” Here is what I then came up with for tentative theses, plan or lines of argument. It’s a document to work from:

“Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.”

In histories, theoretical works on, and close readings of the art of biography, Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf have been credited with themselves writing, and having stirred others to write significant and transformative essays on and works of autobiographical and biographical art. The reactions of people who knew Johnson or Woolf or the circles of people in which they throve, or who read them early on, have been so strong that it has been a source of distress to scholars and fans alike that many readers’ perceptions of Johnson derive from Boswell’s Life of Johnson and not Johnson’s writing; or of Woolf from misogynist, politicized and ignorant distortions of Bloomsbury and not Woolf’s writing. As a presence among us, like many women and 19th century writers, Woolf has further suffered from the family biography and control (e..g., Quentin Bell’s biography), and films ranging from ambivalent to hostile towards a woman intellectual who killed herself (e.g., The Hours). The mission of this volume is to refute through his own writing the apparent misfit and caricatures of Johnson to post-modern, post-colonial minds.

Woolf’s biographies fall into the specifically modernist type of biography beginning most notably with Lytton Strachey’s ironic Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria: a socio-psychoanalytic portrait written in aesthetically appropriate ethically invigorating forms true to the human experience of time. It need not follow the conventions for verisimilitude or literal documented supposed evidence, and her Flush and Orlando do not. The crucial feature of modernist biography is the recreation of convincingly particularized felt life in a documentable individual. Woolf was influenced by her father, Leslie Stephen’s interest in, writing about Johnson and the 18th century, and work as the editor and writer for the British Dictionary of National Biography. But in what Woolf writes in her life-writing and her journalism, it seems impossible to distinguish a sense of Johnson as a man apart from Boswell’s biography (especially “The Genius of Boswell,” “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street”). In his literary biographies, Johnson imagines their subjects through his encounter with his subject’s texts where time is irrelevant or timeless, while he takes what he can find out from others, from documents about their lived lives, and from specific political and cultural pressures, all to help account for the form these texts take. For Woolf also the life and personality of her subject is brought forth from their papers and environment, but she goes well beyond this consciously to take on board fictionalizing techniques and fantasy. Beyond this alignment and difference with and from Johnson, Woolf seems to have been influenced by Boswell and Johnson’s twin-tours to the Hebrides in her fiction; in To the Lighthouse Cornwall becomes the Hebrides.

Texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from Johnson’s lives of Dryden, Pope, Milton, then for specific close reading The Life of Savage and the lesser known texts lives of Prior, Gray, and maybe Swift because there exist good modernist and portrait biographies for comparison; ending on how the lives as a whole cannot be regarded as literary history (too many important people left out), but can be seen as projecting the interconnection of politics in the era with poetry; maybe bring in fictional types in Johnson’s journalism in order to include women.

Turn to Woolf: texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from her biography, Roger Fry, her Orlando (highly problematic as a literary life of Vita Sackville-West), then for specific close reading from Flush, her “Lives of the Obscure,” her Memoirs of Novelist (“Miss Joan Martyn,” “Mysterious Case of Miss V”). She argues fictional characters are more real and remembered more than non-fictional except in rare cases (like Boswell’s Life of Johnson) even if fiction is de-centered (Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room). We should read her fiction as autobiographical despite all the prejudice again this

[I’m not sure of the above: Maybe I’d do better in the central section just to analyze Life of Savage first and then her Roger Fry.]

Conclusion: Johnson alive, relevant to our age: his work can function as a good antidote against hagiography prevalent today despite all the supposed “interrogation:” he idolizes no one. He takes an ethical stand so often avoided in today’s academic literary study (candid talk about why this is so). Johnson keeps to strong standards of truth and is against acceptance of delusions & corruption (found in post-modern discussions of literary works, misled scholars, and fan groups). Woolf is crucial today, for she anticipates experiments in getting beyond impasses in biographical art: e.g., the aftermath life (Janet Malcolm on Sylvia Plath); the life made up of fragments; the quest biography; where the subject’s family or friends are obstacles and have held back letters. She is intensely aware how biography is a form of autobiography;he may be. Both respect serious literature of the past as a journey, an adventure, lending identity and meaning and distinguish it from trash, junk, and the mediocre.

Closure: She does seem very fond of him, and politically she is deeply of the left liberal anti-war anti-hierarchical, anti-colonial persuasion. A married lesbian. He seems to have great compassion for the marginalized, from a young boy who would have been a slave (whom he leaves his property to) and cats (much abused in the era), to at least an awareness (as a disabled person) of the place of disability in people’s lives, with affection for a number of women, e.g., Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Hill Boothby, Catherine Desmoulins (the latter two less well-known). He is fiercely anti-war (one of his Ramblers has a vulture teaching her young how to live by watching men slaughter one another), loathes debt-collectors and the unjust prison system of his age.

Why did I agree to do this? A friend asked me and for me this is not an unlikely pairing. I’ve loved both authors’ books and have been absorbed reading about them, their lives and work for many years now; like Johnson, the biographical part of literature is often what I love best.


Cover of the book I read in 2000s

First Johnson: as a graduate student I fell in love with Johnson as he presents himself in his writing. I took a course with Frank Brady (well-known scholar of Boswell, pupil of a once better-known scholar, Frederick Pottle), which turned out to be 3/4s Johnson and Boswell. My trip this past summer to the Scottish Highlands was partly prompted by reading more than 40 years ago now Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, together with its twin book, Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides. In my later 20s I used to solace myself reading to myself one a night of Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers. They inspirited, strengthened, helped me to accept life because after seeing it fully, Johnson did — ironically.


Reynolds’s famous portrait of Johnson supposedly devouring a book — he seems to have become blind in one eye when a toddler

Jim liked Johnson too and when he took an undergraduate course in 18th century literature to finish his B.A. here in the states in the 1970s (in order to go to graduate school in math), he wrote a paper he called “The War of Johnson’s Ear.” He tried to demonstrate Johnson had a good ear for poetical rhythm. The professor was not impressed and gave him a B :(. Jim hadn’t like the course: he had looked forward to reading Johnson and Boswell (as I had), Burke, Paine, Reynolds, great poetry (Goldsmith but also women poets) and novels and memoirs. Maybe a couple originally in French (Voltaire). Admittedly his view of the great works were shaped by an old canon. He was appalled to be given the marginalia of Blake in Blake’s edition of Reynolds’s treatise on art. He found himself reading Eliza Fenwick whose texts Jim found beneath contempt. There was Goldsmith, Christopher Smart and early Wordsworth. Maybe Burns and Cowper. No Crabbe. And he probably let the professor know what he had felt. In the mid-1990s I taught a selection of Johnson in a Penguin book (edited by Patrick Cruttwell) for a literary survey course at George Mason university (British Literature first half): my representatives of the era were Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and this volume of Johnson. I didn’t use an anthology. I said we were reading intensively not extensively.

Then in the early 2000’s I and a friend opened a list for Eighteenth Century Worlds @Yahoo, and among the books that sustained it through the life it had, were Boswell’s Life of Johnson (there is apparently a fan group for Johnson as he appears in or with Boswell), the twin-tour books, then Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers, and a single volume selection of Fanny Burney’s diary and journals (part of their circle). On my own, I turned to Hester Thrale Piozzi then, her travel book, Clifford’s biography of her, then just immersed myself in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters and poems — a member of a tangential world. I love to read and to write life-writing, letters, biographies. I would always go to the sessions on Johnson at ASECS and EC/ASECS. I’ve blogged on Johnson too.


The cover of the book I first read her in

That’s but one half of the diptych. My love for Virginia Woolf goes back to when Jim and I were first married and we used to take turns reading her letters and diaries aloud to one another in the evening (in Leeds where we didn’t even have a radio). Her Common Reader I read and remembered before that — in college. And before that for me in my later teens, The Voyage Out. He liked her too, and bought her essays and diaries — all the volumes, which I now possess in my library house. But even better or as much he read Leonard Woolf, the many volumed biography and novel — I read Glendinning’s magnificent biography on Leonard aloud to Jim on a long train trip. Teaching her brilliant anti-war, anti-patriarchal treatise, Three Guineas, in those same mid-1990s classes (the second half of British Literature where I also taught Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day) taught me so much.


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway

It had been Woolf’s essays and life-writing that entranced me; but again in the 2000s, on another Yahoo list (Women Writers through the Ages) we had a Virginia Woolf summer and I listened to and read The Years and read her essays on early modern and 17th century people. Hooked once again. I went to Woolf sessions at all the MLAs I attended, even, with Jim by my side, a Virginia Woolf Society party — how daring of me. Since then I’ve belonged to the International Society, and get the yearly rich newsletter. For three years now I’ve been reading her on and off, begun again with on Wwtta, through Hermione Lee’s biography, posted about mostly on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two. I’d go off and read the shorter of the works she analyzed. A year and a half ago, an OLLI course at AU took me through Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, books, and wonderful films & YouTube (Eileen Atkins). I just joined a Virginia Woolf list.

I love the short and long works, and this summer listened to, skim-read Between the Acts, just now finishing the deeply life-filled Jacob’s Room. I listen as well as read, and find Wanda McCadden’s cadences (her other name, Nadia May) emphasizes the more outward or dramatic aspects of the work: she does lose its peculiar combination of poignancy and comedy. It ought to be read as often as Mrs Dalloway. Jacob is a lover of the Greek classics: they are what he escapes from the modern world to, what paradoxically help him to understand at least one skein of the complicated life all around him. The feel of the text is captured in the lines of Patricia Fargnoli in one of her poems: “Life moves on like shadows of the windblown willows/to other lives …” Jacob keeps these beloved books in his room.

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident years ago, leaving her with three children, one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

She continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as decentered as unheroic as Roger Fry as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meet while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

I even managed The Waves (just) using a reading aloud on CDs (I couldn’t have managed without Frances Geater). This morning I began a second reading of her biography of Roger Fry, this time in the superlative edition by Diane Gillespie.


Fry’s portrait of Virginia Woolf — they were at times very close

I’ve lots of wonderful reading ahead: other “modern biographies,” more on visual art, portraiture. I use the titles Dr and Mrs for fun — that’s how he is known popularly and what she was called, how addressed in her lifetime.

So now I will listen to Boswell’s Johnson read aloud (unabridged), from Librivox, which I have put here, with a hope of reading/listening to it late at night — if the MP3 of the same work there called The life of Samuel Johnson (unabridged) read by Bernard Mayes doestn’t work well in my car.

Ellen

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Caroline Hershel (1750-1848)

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Capital letter from place setting of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

It is not true that in time you get used to it. Far from healing wounds, time can on the contrary,only make wounds worse — Simone de Beauvoir

We have to look beyond the officially honored, recognized and enshrined — Martin Scorses

Dear friends and readers,

You need not have read it here to know that an image of Jane Austen and associated images & words are due to appear on British £10 notes, nor that the image chosen, the line from Pride and Prejudice & choice of house misrepresent the one image we have of her, ignore the ironic context of the remark, take the story of her writing secretly on the tiny table as gospel, & has the wrong house: she lived in Chawton cottage, very much not a grand house (see Janine Barchas on bad execution). Many probably have heard of the demoralizingly hideous attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez for her leadership in achieving this tribute to Austen’s fame and literary achievement.

I admit my first response was not to rejoice. I too noted the usual falsifying image, misquoted line, and framing of her as both firmly in the elite world of the UK at the time and enacting repression even as she wrote her extraordinary novels — all of it suggested to me she was chosen without regard to the real content of her novels, her actual life, what she was, but as an icon to uphold conservative myths. This is how she has often been used.

Since her image was replacing Charles Darwin’s why not an important woman scientist? (there are many beyond Caroline Herschel) or active politicians who did women much good: I cited Eleanor Rathbone’s life as an effective labor politician and The Disinherited Family, but and I suppose Eleanor Roosevelt is American (Chicago does not have her at the table either — too dowdy ?). I thought of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), and it bothered me she’d never have been placed there.

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

And why not George or Virginia?

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Virginia Woolf (1881-1941)

and it came to me I had named 4 of the 39 women given places at Judy Chicago’s famous dinner party (no George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans was not give a seat, but another famous writer, Emily Dickinson was).

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So, my initial rejection functioned to teach me why Judy Chicago did not provide a place setting for Jane Austen at her famous dinner party. It’s not only that Austen is an icon for the heritage industry, counter-part in literature to the over-emphasis on the birth of a son to the Duchess of Cambridge the other day; that Chicago did not want literary or European women to predominate: she said this, and thus George Sand, Germaine de Stael were out (though I note Sappho, Christine de Pizan are in). Ironically, had Chicago included Austen she might not have had quite as hard a time gaining recognition & a permanent place; for Austen is regarded blindly, has passionate adherents (put her with Zombies, trivialize her if you like, just spell her name right) is a mass cult figure.

Chicago might have worried that Austen’s place setting would be so over-cited and reprinted as to blot out other women; become someone used to erase rather than legimitize others. A recent exhibit at the New York Public Library sought to re-place her back among her peers one of a group of women writers of domestic romance and the irritating critique included complaints she had not been properly singled out. Chicago wanted women who exercised power (Isabella d’Este & Elizabeth I) as women who were hurt had in ways that expose how women are mistreated

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Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) — that she was raped was central to her later life

There is an important criticism to make of Chicago’s work. One full arm of the table is devoted to goddesses and figments of people’s imagination of the ancient and classical ages: there were no such women; what’s said about these figures comes out of irrational religious ideas, encourages belief in what never was (a matriarchy), obfuscations (like awkward references to spirituality); Susan Brownmiller devotes a section of her Against Our Will eloquently to debunk this kind of worship of (frequent rape) stories. So many more women could have made the cut. She also does not always ask what did the woman use her power for?

But there are many more important aspects of the installation to remember & celebrate. Originally it consisted of a heritage floor of some 900 women of achievement (where Jane Austen is found near Emily Dickinson and a group of unmarried early 19th century writers, e.g., Joanna Baillie, Emily Bronte; women who questioned marriage, Charlotte Bronte, Bettina Von Armin), the high point of which was a table on which 39 place settings were put, each for a particular well-known woman, whether through the arts, through war, or though having a great deal of public power. The plates are all beautifully, strikingly designed, and they are, sometimes strongly and graphically and sometimes more subtly, all also vaginas. You can see the structure of parts of the vagina through the design in some way or other. She celebrates women: their power, their achievements, their pleasures; and just as important, she tells of abused women and how and why they were hurt, of women killed young, of how class and physical looks were central to their fates. She remembers proportionately accurately.

The women on the floor are interesting too: there are so many and they are varied, well chosen, again from very early times up to the present. Aphra Behn is there; Marie Gournay (Montaigne’s literary daughter), Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Bodichon are the names that I come across.

What’s been added is a third room with paragraphs describing their lives and what they are remembered for. These are reprinted in recent books of the exhibit and I copy a few totally at random:

Angele de la Barthe d. 1275; France.

De La Barthe was found guilty and executed in the first witchcraft trial in France in 1275. She was accused of copulating with the devil. The basis for this accusation may have been a misinterpretation of certain fertility rituals where were related to the ancient practice of the sacred marriage. These rituals intrigued the Christian judges, who totally misunderstood them but examined them with a perverse fascination.

Most of the stories of medieval women I see are of non-noble non-famous women and they are litany of accusation, early death, misery, of which Joan of Arc (on the floor) is typical. Here’s one more medieval one:

Catherine Deshayes. d. 1679; France

Deshayes, a fortune teller, was charged with witchcraft, tortured and executed for her alleged involvement in a scandal involving the nobility. Supposedly, members of the ruling classes went to sorcerers for the purpose of obtaining poison and spells to kill their spouses. The practice was exposed but only Deshayes was arrested. She was accused of killing two thousand infants with her potions [this probably is a reflection of high infant mortality and the practice of infanticide by many people, of which putting a child out to wet nurse is the most well known type]. The fact that she was of the peasant class was factor in her accusation.

So it may be the beautiful place is for the lucky and strong Eleanor of Acquitaine but her arranged marriages, numerous children, what she was used for is in the plate setting:

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Eleanor of Acquitaine (1122-1204)

The 17th century group includes Anne Hutchinson and

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Anna Von Schurman (1607-78), a learned lady whose runner is sewn letters of something she wrote:

Woman has the same wish for self-development as man, the same ideals, yet she is to be imprisoned in an empty soul of which the very windows are shuttered

I move swiftly to a women in the 18th and 19th century about whom many more documents exist and are comparable in time to Austen:

Emilie du Chatelet 1706-1749; France

Primarily a mathematician, Du Chatelet was also an astronomer, a philosopher, and a scientific writer. Her most noted achievement was the first translation into French of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which was published after her death. Her philosophical and scientific views opposed those of Descartes, but were also in accord with scientific thought of the twentieth century. Sleeping only three hours a night, Du Chatelet used her time to work, study, and correspond with the other major philosophers of the eighteenth century and give dinner parties [a form of networking women have often done] at her chateau. Despite her accomplishments, she is remembered as the companion of Voltaire with whom she lived for fifteen years. [In fact the story
most often told of her is a ultimately spiteful one which blames her for frivolous conduct which led to her early death in childbed.]

Emily Faithful 1835-1985; England

In 1863, Faithful founded The Victoria Magazine, which explored the problems of the working woman and demanded ‘equal pay for equal work.’ The periodical was printed by Faithful’s Victoria press, established in 1860, and employing only women compositors. Although initially criticized, her publishing house soon acquired a reputation for excellent work.

Nearby Emily Faithful are Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Charlotte
Guest, Jane Harrison, Sofia Kovalervskaya, Belve Lockwood (the
first woman to plead a case before the US supreme court), Margaret
Murray (the first women to conduct her own archeaological digs).

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Ethyl Smith (1858-1945) — just the plate itself

The contemporary end’s plate settings include Georgia O’Keefe, Natalie Barney, lesbian pianist, Ethyl Smith (I like the piano), and of course Margaret Sanger — no movement is more important for women’s liberation than contraception.

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Margaret Sanger (1789-1966)

Here is Judy Chicago’s retelling of Sanger’s life:

“WHO CARES whether a woman keeps her Christian name?” Sanger demanded as she lectured around the country “Who cares whether she wears a wedding ring? Who cares about her right to work. For without the right to control their own bodies. other rights are meaningless.”

Born into an Irish-American working-class family, Sanger saw
firsthand the ravages caused by lack of reproductive rights, first in the experience of her mother — worn out after eighteen pregnancies and eleven live births — and then in her work as a nurse in the slums, where she was confronted by countless requests from women for some birth control. Determined to “do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries are as vast as the sky,” she went to Europe and investigated the contraceptive research being done there. Upon her return to America, Sanger forced the taboo subjects of sexuality and birth control into the public forum through her nagazine The Woman Rebel (founded 1914), completely ignoring the laws of the time prohibited the dissemination of any information about sex and contraception.

From the time she opened her first birth-control clinic in 1918,
Sanger was repeatedly arrested for her actions. Convinced that the
birth-control movement had to be worldwide, she convened the
International Birth Control Congress in 1925. The organization she
formed was a a forerunner of the Planned Parenthood Federation, of
which she became president in 1953. Sanger believed passionately
that, once women were freed of involuntary childbeearing, they would change the world; that an “unchained motherhood” would “in its freedom … opens its heart in fruitful affection for humanity.”

Although Sanger’s dream of a more humane world order forged by women has not been realized, her contributions as a social reformer were vast — despite the fact that she erred in judgment when she supported the eugenics movement (which embraced the theory that one could improve hereditary qualities by socially controlling human reproduction; in practice, this has often led to disastrous policies). Her life was a testament to her conviction that women should “look the world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; have an idea; speak and act in defiance of convention.”

Chicago’s description of the artwork:

The brilliant red image on the Margaret Sanger plate is based upon the sangaris, a blood-red butterfly, which seemed a perfect metaphor for Sanger’s lifelong commitment to women’s reproductive freedom. The plate is presented on an embroidered rendition of a medical drawing of the female reproductive system, transformed into a celebration of the miracle of the female body The carefully stitched capital letter is inspired by Sanger’s passionate belief that, once women gained control over their reproductive capacities the world would become free of poverty and war. She argued that “his is the miracle of free womanhood, that in its freedom it opens its heart in fruitful affection on for humanity. How narrow, how pitifully puny has become motherhood in chains.”

Chicago does stop before the mid-20th century, so her last figures on the floor include Edith Wharton, Rebecca West, Simone Weil, Adelia Zamudio-Ribero (1854-1928, Bolivian, worked for better education, jobs, the right to vote).

My book of the exhibit tells of a whole team of people which installed the first display of the exhibit, men and women with difficult sharp electrical instruments. They remind me of crews setting up a theater stage set.

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What an accomplishment. What a feat. How ambitious. And in a sense it’s in a tradition Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) started with books about famous women, written in response to the mocking hard misogyny of her era:

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Christine’s capital letter

not much different or less repressive than our own — as the savage attacks on Criado-Perez (not stopped by the people running Twitter or Facebook).

If I thought that putting this doctored image of Austen with her paraphernalia on the £10 note would do women’s history, the memory of other women’s contributions, their present lives any good I’d of course celebrate too. But the imagery put on the bill does not augur well; does not anticipate lives told truly. To those who come to this blog to read of Austen, the 18th century and women artists and women’s lives, if what I’ve put on from Chicago’s dinner party displeases you, you have misunderstood my blog’s aims. I would fear the hagiography, the insistence that Austen was special, different, an exception to “the rule” (of women’s dispensability) would mean that putting her on a note of money would not help other women. But the vicious attacks on her as a woman show that in fact her gender (her vagina) is never forgotten.

It is frustrating that Chicago refuses to indulge the voyeuristic aspect of studying women’s lives by giving us images of their bodies; but it’s deliberate; she is making the point that what is looked at slyly and subtextually from commercial to high culture play is woman as vagina. Myself I’m not as rigorous and wish she had included actresses who have had an important hard role to play in the growing estimation of women. So I’ll end on an image of Bette Davis (1908-99), many of whose roles studied together reveal also about women what many people never want to acknowledge, talk about, and calls for change:

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as the betrayed Eve in All About Eve (1951)

Ellen

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