The Flu at Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West to Leonard Woolf, January, 1940: 
“Dear Leonard, I ought to have answered your letter long ago, but both the boys came home fro 24 hours leave and immediately took to their beds with ‘flu. You may imagine that Sissinghurst is at no time an ideal place for invalids, but when it means carrying trays, hot water bottles and other requirements through snowdrifts some sixteen times a day it is really hell….Pipes froze; lavatories ceased to function; snow came through the roof and dripped on to my bed. So perhaps you will forgive the delay.”
From Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst.


I am still occasionally reluctant to admit I’m a Woolf scholar, but I’ve never been a Bloomsbury person. I drew the line there.

Nonetheless, I loved my visit to Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens, a ruined castle which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson made into one of the most celebrated gardens in England. What makes Sissinghurst special is that it represents the best of an English garden: lush, overplanted, and making subtle use of architectural elements to better show off the plants. This is not Versailles. Instead, there’ll be a low brick wall, then a high one, each sized to best show off the clematis and roses growing before it. An arbor frames a view of the farm in the distance. The white garden, with every kind of white flower, is like a canyon between high walls, flowers on left and right, with a wide lawn between. It’s not hard to envision oneself in a moonlit scene in such a spot.

Even on a dreary day, with a damp ticket entitling me to the buffet lunch in my pocket, and with the diesel engines of the tour bus idling in the background, in my Barbour raincoat, pretending not to see all the middle-aged Americans who’d come on this pilgrimage with me, it was a romantic sight.

If you’ve been there or not, you’ll find it’s worth a click over to the lovely personal essay in today’s Times by their grandson, Adam Nicolson, who lives there now.

Photo of The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst Castle; Jonathan Buckley/National Trust Photo Library

Transatlantic Women Modernists

Since I wrote such a massive list of all the writers who might make it in my class, I’ve been feeling bad about the writers who made the cut but whose work didn’t come up to the River. Is that crazy? They’re all dead. They can’t care. But I care.

So, here is what I know, so far. There are fourteen classes, but one needs to be an introduction. We meet for two hours each week. At the moment, I know I’ll be teaching the following:
  1. Woolf (some have already requested The Waves, but I’m not sure which I’ll teach),
  2. Gertrude Stein 1
  3. Stein 2: I’m giving her two weeks because I think she’s out of favor, challenging, amazing and worth more attention
  4. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes and More
  5. another Harlem Renaissance woman--perhaps not Nella Larsen—that’s the slot that Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset are “competing” for (I mean that with heavy irony—see below)
  6. Marianne Moore
  7. Jean Rhys, not Wide Sargasso Sea, probably not Good Morning, Midnight (since my colleague often teaches it)
  8. Katherine Mansfield, a generous selection of stories
  9. Elizabeth Bowen
  10. Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper & poetry
  11. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood & more
  12. a Persephone book (perhaps Betty Miller's Farewell Leicester Square)
  13. and then, I think I need another avant garde woman.
That leaves Rebecca West off the syllabus, I see, though that could change.

When you see how little room there is in a syllabus, you see literary turf wars in a different light. You see, in the end, how very little room there is for a “new” writer to make it onto the list. I write that Fauset and Dunbar-Nelson are up against each other with a bitter irony: I know almost nothing about either; both seem worthy, important writers; both could make it onto the syllabus in the end. They are just one example of a whole range of such mini-competitions between less well-known writers as I shape the course. It’s a class on American and British women, poetry and prose; I want a balance of styles and political outlooks, urban and rural themes, gay and straight writers … and so I keep looking at the list and asking myself if it’s fair. But fair to whom?

Here are some other ways of thinking about the list:

Moore and Smith are poets. Stein is nearly one: that’s just 4 weeks on poetry and poetic prose (excepting Woolf)—and we’ll likely focus more on Smith’s novel than her poems.

Because my specialty is modern British, I tend to favor that side of the Atlantic, but the list so far has only 6 weeks of Brits: Woolf, Rhys, Mansfield, Bowen, Smith, and Miller. I’m pleased that the list is as cosmopolitan as the first half of the 20th century in England can be: Miller (who is Jonathan Miller’s mother) was Jewish (among many other things) and Rhys (who was probably of mixed race) and Mansfield are both colonial.

Among Americans, I’ll do Stein, Hurston, Moore, and Barnes for sure.

I watch contemporary writers bicker and battle over prizes and reputations knowing that part of what is at stake is a legacy they will never see. That there will come a day when some future professor sits staring at her bookshelves, asking herself if she’s really going to ask a dozen young people to read a mostly-forgotten novel about the career and romantic struggles of a young black woman or a selection of short stories by a New Zealander who died young or a lesbian novel full of antiquated ideas about homosexuality or something else entirely.


Once again, we are up at the River for the month of July, in the very same house we rented last year. My books and papers are unpacked. I have to return to the long-neglected edition of Mrs. Dalloway, cast to the side in the fall when I had to take over a colleague’s course, and again in spring because of the Woolf Conference. I also want to do some reading around in lesser-known modernist women writers for a graduate course in the spring. When I left New Jersey, I was still a-jangle, still exhausted from the conference and jet-lagged from a whirlwind week in Seattle visiting my family with my daughters.

It made packing hard, so I just threw everything in.

I see now that I have brought fifty books with me.

5-0. 50.

Half of them are books for work on the Dalloway edition:
  1. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 3 (1919-1924)
  2. The Letters of VW, vol. 1,
  3. vol. 2,
  4. vol. 3. It was the letters that undid me last summer: so much more sad (so many deaths, in such quick succession, and then pretending for weeks that her brother Thoby was not dead so as not to upset her friend Violet until Violet herself had recovered) and show-offy (just the worst of Woolf: brittle, “brilliant,” too clever, snobby) than the diaries which I find deeply moving. Still, I need to read through them and make my notes.
  5. The Diary, vol. 3 (1925-1930): I don’t need to read much of that.
  6. the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  7. the Uniform Hogarth edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  8. the Oxford paperback edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  9. the newly annotated Harcourt edition of Mrs. Dalloway not mentioning my electronic copy of the first English and American editions, that’s a lot of copies of one book, though I’m mad at myself for forgetting the Penguin…
  10. Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, the only short story sequence associated with a novel in Woolf’s whole oeuvre
  11. Night and Day Woolf’s second novel, which I don’t know well, but to write the footnotes for Dalloway, I need to know any prior appearances of characters, placenames, even metaphors, just to be able to refer readers back
  12. Woolf Studies Annual volume 8 for David Bradshaw’s essay on Septimus and the war
  13. The Years
  14. A Room of One’s Own
  15. The Oxford Book of English Verse, the edition that Woolf herself read so that I can refamiliarize myself with the poetry she loved best in case that helps me catch an allusion
  16. The Metamorphoses because Jane DeGay had an intriguing argument about Ovidian metaphors in Woolf that I’d like to follow up on, though it’s a challenge for me
  17. Palgrave Advances in Virginia Woolf Studies
  18. The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf because I promised, over a year ago, to review these books
  19. Clarissa Dalloway Harold Bloom’s collection of the classic essays on her: I’m still amazed at how little I know given how much I know…
  20. Virginia Woolf’s Novels and the Literary Past Jane deGay’s monograph on Woolf’s allusions
  21. Continuing Presences almost a reference book of all the literature Woolf alluded to
  22. Virginia Woolf and London an older monograph by Susan Squier which I’ll return to with new interest after my crash course in urban theory surrounding the Woolf Conference, hoping to catch a footnote or two to the placenames in Dalloway
  23. Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks, Brenda Silver’s transcription of Woolf’s notebooks provides clues to what Woolf was reading when and thus, clues to where to look for possible allusions
  24. Then, there are the books that I’m considering for my fall grad class on Transatlantic Modern Women Farewell Leicester Square Betty Miller’s novel of a Jewish film director in London in the twenties, which I began last night and am already sure I’ll teach
  25. The Desert and the Sown about the explorer Gertrude Bell: I wonder about including one of these non-fiction explorers on the syllabus and this one is about Iraq, so it’s of special interest
  26. Jean Rhys: the Complete Novels: I hate The Wide Sargasso Sea and a colleague often teaches Good Morning, Midnight, so I’m wondering if there is another Rhys to teach—and I’ve downloaded Maud’s Granta conversation with Alexander Chee to teach me more about the Rhys/Ford affair
  27. The Montana Stories by the great and neglected Katherine Mansfield: these masters of the short story so often get short shrift, but I will be giving Mansfield a week without doubt and am excited to dip into her again
  28. The Well of Loneliness: Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian classic, as yet unread by me. The Unlit Lamp, also by Hall, shook me to my core as a girl
  29. Seven for a Secret because my friend Jane Garrity is interested in Mary Webb and other neglected rural and/or conservative women of the period
  30. and then a trio of novels to read (or re-read) by my beloved Elizabeth Bowen to see if I want to do The Death of the Heart again—I love it but never teach it well—or something else: The Hotel
  31. The House in Paris
  32. The Last September
  33. Tayari suggested Alice Dunbar-Nelson, so I brought along The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson , vol. 2, because that volume (of 3) had the most exciting-sounding titles in it
  34. Not sure if I’m up to Mina Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, but I’ll give it an hour or two and see
  35. Testament of Youth because I’ve never read Vera Brittain
  36. Complete Poems by Marianne Moore, who has already made the cut
  37. We’ll do two weeks on Stein, whom I love but have mostly forgotten so I’m refreshing my memory with The Yale Gertrude Stein
  38. and Ida
  39. sad to say, I’ve also never read Sylvia Townend Warner. My friend Jay raves about Summer Will Show, a lesbian historical novel about the 1848 revolutions (hard to wrap my mind around that), but the NYRB reissue isn’t quite out, so I’ve brought alone a collection of stories called One Thing Leading to Another
  40. I am tired of Nella Larsen and the theme of passing, but Jessie Fauset’s first novel sounds interestingly Jamesian, about an educated, ambitious black woman: There is Confusion
  41. tons of people have told me over the years that I’ll love Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer: I’ll let you know
  42. I will certainly teach my beloved Stevie Smith, but I know less about her than I’d like, so I’ve brought along Frances Spalding’s biography, Stevie Smith
  43. Even the reading for pleasure this summer is work-like: Manhattan Transfer
  44. in the afterglow of the Woolf Conference, Vanessa & Virginia came along
  45. as did Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows
  46. I read and loved my former professor’s memoir Meatless Days and had so much to say about it that my mom urged me to write an essay—we’ll see if that happens
  47. and Lizzie brought over an advanced copy of her new book, Shelf Discovery, before she left, which is like dessert, so I dip in and out in the margins
  48. Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge as Darwin’s granddaughter,Period Piece, is meant to be fantastic and has lots of Bloomsbury resonances
  49. my grandmother went to high school in Shanghai, so I was already excited about Lisa See’s new novel Shanghai Girls before I read praise for it in the NYT. When I admired my mom’s copy, she gave it to me (thanks, mom!) and I’m already enjoying the atmosphere. Besides, it’s all about sisters!
  50. With fifty books, I’ll have to read one a day to merit the lugging, but I’ve already read one: What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell’s NBA winner—I’ll blog about that soon, no doubt.
And this doesn’t include On the Banks of Plum Creek which I’m almost done reading aloud the big girl and By the Shore of Silver Lake because I couldn’t stand to leave Mary blind for the whole summer, not to mention a handful of board books for the toddler (no longer a babe at 3, and full of mangled Mother Goose, recited inaccurately but with great enthusiasm), story books, chapter books for the big girl to read on her own (Junie B. Jones, Roald Dahl’s the BFG, etc.)

Woolf 09

I'll try to write up some text of Woolf 09 for you soon--the conference was incredible--but for now, how about a few images:
Here, you see Woolf Conference publicist, and Fordham student extraordinaire, Megan Branch posing with the fabulous Cecil and Jean Woolf. Megan and I paused a moment at the pre-banquet reception, and here I am posing with our plenary panel, Inspired by Woolf. The inimitable Katherine Lanpher interviewed three fabulous women inspired by Virginia Woolf: Dr. Ruth Gruber (she wrote a dissertation on Woolf at age 20 and went on to be a journalist and activist), Susan Sellers (who was launching her new novel, Vanessa and Virginia), and Kris Lundberg, actress and founder of the Shakespeare's Sister Theater company.

You can read Paula's account here.

it was this : it was this:

Even if you're not coming to the Woolf Conference, you should make time for June 5th's one night only music and dance performance, "it was this : it was this : "

it was this: it was this:
songs and dances inspired by the life and work of
Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group
with Princeton & Stephen Pelton Dance Theater
at the 19th Annual Virginia Woolf Conference
Friday June 5th, 2009 8pm
Pope Auditorium, Fordham University
113 W 60th St, New York, NY 10023

Tickets $20. Available online today & tomorrow only & then at at the door.

But don't take it from me. Here's what the collaborators say:
Southern California frolic meets Northern California serious in a one-night only collaboration of song and dance.

Princeton, the Los Angeles-based trio, join forces with San Francisco’s Stephen Pelton Dance Theater in it was this: it was this: an evening of songs and dances inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.

Princeton will perform all of the songs from their recent EP Bloomsbury, each lyrically focused upon a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Portraits of Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes are each presented in a different musical framework with lush orchestral arrangements. The band is comprised of twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel and Ben Usen. The band will be joined by 8 additional musicians in recreating their frolicsome, exuberant take on the cast of Bloomsbury characters.

Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, known for known its intimate theatricality and emotional intensity, may be familiar to audiences from previous Woolf conferences. This year the company will perform several new works including the premiere of it was this: it was this: a choreographic study of Woolf’s punctuation. Using a single paragraph from To the Lighthouse, the company dances their way from the first word to the last, pausing briefly for every comma, parentheses and semicolon in-between. The company also performs a revised version of The Death of the Moth, first seen at the Plymouth State Conference in 1997.

The artists will combine forces for the premiere of Lytton/Carrington, a portrait-in-miniature of this most original of love stories.

Pelton writes, “What is most interesting to me in this collaboration with Princeton, is how remarkably different our approaches to Woolf are. I suspect that some of this may be attributable to the fact that we are from completely different generations—I am in my mid-forties, they in their early twenties. Their sweet, light-hearted and, at times, irreverent response to the material would have been unthinkable to me twenty years ago when I started to read Woolf and make dances inspired by her. Though they are always respectful, their songs embrace the playful spirit in Woolf’s work and in the lives of her colleagues; whereas I have tended to focus my response on the gravity of Woolf’s concerns. This contrast should make for a very fascinating evening in the theater.”
Tickets are selling fast, so hop online & buy one: no need to register for the conference, just get a ticket (or four or five). And big, big, big thanks to Paula Maggio of Blogging Woolf for turning me on to Princeton in the first place!

Woolf and the City at the Merc

I'll be leading a Reading Group at the Mercantile Library in New York leading up to the Woolf Conference in June. We'll read four Woolf novels and talk about Woolf & the city:
Mondays: April 6, April 20, May 4 and May 18

Led by Anne Fernald
$50 for members; $65 for nonmembers
Virginia Woolf made a permanent mark on London when she left the staid neighborhood of her birth and moved to Bloomsbury in 1904. This group will focus on Woolf as a city writer: how the city inspired her imagination and how she chronicled its many aspects. This focus allows us to celebrate Woolf’s London, to explore how she turned her daily walks into adventures, and to discuss the place of the city in our imagination. For April 6, please read Mrs. Dalloway. We will read Orlando, Flush, and The Years in subsequent weeks.
Click here to sign up!

Woolf's Birthday Celebration in New York

Last week, I got an email from Kris Lundberg, the founder of a new nonprofit women's theater, Shakespeare's Sister. She wanted to know if a talk by her would be the kind of thing that would interest people at the Woolf conference (of course) and, by the way, did I know anyone who could give a 20-minute talk to open her celebration of Woolf's life? (but of course!) So, here it is, a staged reading of "Virginia" with a short talk by me to start it off! Please come & please do open your wallets w/the small $10 donation to help this exciting new company!

Here's the press release:
in association with the
a staged reading of
Edna O'Brien's award-winning stageplay
in honor of Mrs. Woolf's 127th birthday
Sunday, January 25th at 12:30pm

Arthur Seelen Theater
Edna O'Brien's spectacular play encompasses Virginia Woolf's mercurial inner life, as well as the relationships of her three great loves: her husband, Leonard; her lover, Vita and her greatest writings. Ms. O'Brien touches the heart and captures the essence of Virginia's character and brilliant mind.

Running time is ninety minutes plus a post-performance Q&A with author, Anne Fernald; director, Joannie Mackenzie and SSC Artistic Director, Kris Lundberg. Directed by Joannie Mackenzie. Starring Kris Lundberg* as Virginia, David McCamish* as Leonard and Shelley Ray* as Vita *All performers appear courtesy of the Actors' Equity Association.

The Arthur Seelen Theater is located on the Ground Floor of the Drama Book Shop at 250 west 40th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue.

Event is free to the public with a suggested $10 donation
in support of the Shakespeare's Sister Company.

ISO: Writers Who Read Woolf

At the 19th Annual International Virginia Woolf Conference (June 4-7, 2009, Fordham University, Lincoln Center), I want to feature some creative writers who will talk about Woolf's influence, for good and ill, on their work. I especially want those writers to not be all nice white women. If you or someone you know has an interest in participating, please be in touch with me and my graduate assistant at our conference address,

We are already planning a plenary panel, hosted by Katherine Lanpher, host of Barnes & Noble’s “Upstairs at the Square” featuring three artists and activists influenced by Woolf.

The conference will have about 225 attendees, Woolf scholars and English professors, mostly, but also students and common readers. We will have about 30 90-minute concurrent sessions (about 5 per session; about 6 sessions over the 4 days). Most of these will be reserved for academic papers, but everyone really enjoys the option to attend a reading and discussion in lieu of another panel on theory and Woolf.

Several creative writers have already submitted proposals to read but I am actively seeking more. I am especially interested in hearing proposals from men, from writers of color, and from anyone who reads Woolf but does not simply worship at her shrine.

So, if you’re a creative writer and would like to give a brief (15-20 minute) reading on a panel with other writers, please do consider submitting a proposal. You can find the Call for papers here. You can read anything you like, but your proposal should articulate how your work connects to Woolf and you should be prepared to discuss that in the Q & A.

The conference will have a book exhibit, staffed by Bluestockings Bookstore. We will be happy to have them stock your book.

Bad Reviews

Have I lost my edge?

I mean, have I fallen prey to the habit of only praising books? Of only writing good things about them?

I don't think so. In my review of Jean Thompson, I raved about the book but I did say that bits were too easy: that's not totally gutless. And in a review I just turned in of two scholarly books on modernism, I had some rather strong things to say about the weaker book and didn't really mince words about the better one, either. But then, that review is 16 months late (academia allows such appalling behavior though it shames me) in part because I've been dreading finding the right way to finesse my wording.

Still, I'm surprised to see that my very brief account of Glendinning's biography of Leonard leads one to think that I liked the book. I think the same is true of the forthcoming short review for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

I did not like it.

But, somehow, I found that hard to say.

Knowing I was going to review this book, I read Glendinning's biography of Bowen early in the year. I'm thinking about spy fiction for my project after the Dalloway one, and Bowen will certainly be a centerpiece. I know that she knew some of the Cambridge spies and I was hoping to figure out some leads there. Instead, I came away depressed and discouraged. Glendinning made Bowen seem dull and ordinary, not an author one would want to pursue study of.

This was discouraging--about Bowen and about Glendinning. How could I get through the Leonard biography? I was not hopeful, but then, once begun, I loved the first two or three chapters about his life before marriage. And then, we got to the part where he meets and falls in love with Virginia Stephen. It was a complicated courtship, over-determined by their mutual love of Lytton Strachey, who loved both but would marry neither. (Which makes sense, given that nagging problem of sexuality: hard for Leonard, who was straight, to be with Lytton; hard for Lytton, who was gay, to be with Virginia--to whom he proposed in a moment of panic.) There were other factors as well. When are there not?

But in Glendinning's account, the 30 years of their marriage were, for Leonard, a long and stressful exercise in postponing the inevitable suicide of Virginia.

It's clear that Glendinning finds Virginia weird.

I suppose she was.

But that seems an unfortunate attitude in a biographer.

And some of this I said, I think, in my review. But I cordoned off my frustration--my anger, at times--because I could see that were I to write a review that really argued what I sketch above, I would simply come off as one of those disgruntled Woolfians, too in love with Virginia to see what a burden, what a sick weirdo, she truly was…

Perhaps it's not so much a question of whether or not I've lost my edge as it is testament to the difficulty of tone in prose. Things that one can say aloud to a friend, things that one can write in a blog such as this, even, don't always translate into the measured prose of a review--even for so tiny a print publication as the Virginia Woolf Miscellany which is, after all, stapled, for goodness sakes…

Cecil Woolf and Memory

Post-BEA life has been a whirlwind. I flew into Dayton on Thursday for the 17th annual Virginia Woolf Conference. As I’ve written here before, I’ve attended most of these--12 of the 17 (although two of those I only attended briefly).

One of the highlights this year was a pre-banquet speech by Cecil Woolf, the 80 year-old nephew of Leonard. He would have been 13 or 14 when Virginia Woolf died, so most of his talk was not so much about her as about his uncle. It was moving and charming and very long. Slated to talk for twenty minutes before dinner, he charmed us for nearly an hour. We were hungry and a little soused by the time the little paillettes of banquet chicken emerged. And those undergraduates at the Miami U. pour a generous glass…

I had heard a version of this talk three years ago in London but it was still a treat. He remembered Woolf as always being in hat and gloves (!); the Woolves as the only aunt and uncle whom he was allowed to call simply Leonard and Virginia, no uncle or aunt. (That made me, Auntie Anne to three boys, feel a little stiff.) He remembered showing Virginia Woolf an ancient ruin near his Lincolnshire home, holding her hand down to the spot, and demonstrating the echo with her by calling out each others’ names.

His resemblance to Leonard Woolf is so uncanny and that makes the experience of listening all the more riveting. I referred to him as Leonard throughout the weekend.

He told me, when I spoke to him one on one, that he was particularly delighted at this invitation because, though he’d been to the States many times, he’d never been to the country and he was “a countryman.”

But he didn’t tell my favorite story from London. Hearing him, and hearing him talk about his uncle’s “overdeveloped sense of economy” (Leonard discovered a London shop that sold pajama bottoms and tops separately so that if one wore out, you could simply replace it.) reminded me.

When Cecil was in the army, he went to visit his Uncle Lenny (Little Uncle Lenny was the family name, apparently) on a leave. Leonard had a housekeeper who, at the end of the day, left dinner for him to warm. When Cecil arrived, Leonard generously divided his very small, old-man’s dinner in two. Starving, Cecil crept to the pub in Rodmell for sustenance afterwards. He asked the publican if the kitchen was still open.

“Staying with Mr. Woolf, are you?”

Those Dry & Witty Stracheys

One of the great, great pleasures of editing--gleaning great quotations from the reviews one edits. My favorite in a long time is this, from my friend Jay's review of a biography of the Strachey family (Lytton was the most famous brother, a great friend of Woolf and author of the terrific Eminent Victorians). Lytton's sister Pernel describes to her elder sister Pippa of a typical Newnham College nightly ritual:
I have got to go to a hideous entertainment called a cocoa; you are given one spoonful of powdery cocoa and one spoonful of ‘cow’ that is condensed milk. These you mix together in a cup of milk till they look like mud; boiling water is then poured on, the next process being to try and drink it. Weird cakes are also passed around. At 10 o’clock at night this depresses me somewhat.