Seven questions on Virginia Woolf
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This week marks the 127th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s birth, which made me think of Anne Fernald. It’s not that much of a stretch; Anne, a thoughtful and engaged litblogger, is a Woolf scholar and author of ‘Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader’ and is working on the Cambridge University Press edition of ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ She teaches at Fordham University in New York, which will hold a conference on Viriginia Woolf -- ‘Woolf and the City’ -- in June. She kindly agreed to answer seven questions -- from a Woolf novice.
Jacket Copy: I’ve never read any Virginia Woolf. Where should I start?
Anne Fernald: There are a lot of ways to start Woolf. If you are interested in experimental fiction, then ‘The Waves,’ her most experimental (and perhaps her most difficult) text, can be a good starting place. It follows six friends from childhood through middle age, all in interior monologues -- you flow, like waves, in and out of the thoughts of Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Louis (based on T.S. Eliot, from St. *Louis*! ha), and Bernard.
But, if you prefer your novels more autobiographical, then ‘To the Lighthouse’ is a lovely entry point. Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, it depicts a large Victorian family on summer vacation and then charts the impact of WWI and other life events over the years. It’s got Woolf’s best artist-figure in it: Lily Briscoe, a frustrated painter.
For sheer perfection of prose, I love ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ her 1929 feminist masterpiece. It’s a great manifesto for all writers: the need for both privacy and the ability to roam about unmolested in the world. But I love it for its gorgeous sentences, its glorious metaphors, the amazing way that its pieces all fit together into a symphony.
Overall, for me, her masterpiece is ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ There is a lot not to like about the main character, a hostess throwing a party (snore), but Woolf knows that and teaches you to care about her in spite of Clarissa’s flaws. It’s an amazing book and one of the best treatments of shellshock I know. A great version of the novel set in a single day, too.
JC: Which authors would you compare her work to -- James Joyce? William Burroughs? Someone entirely different?
AF: Joyce is right in many ways as ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (1925) is her answer to ‘Ulysses’ (1922), a novel she didn’t fully appreciate but was jealous of. But reading Woolf doesn’t feel like reading Joyce. Woolf’s allusions aren’t sparkling on the surface, they are buried, echoing and resonating much more deeply. She shares E.M. Forster’s sensibility: keenly aware of class issues that she would like to escape. She shares Shakespeare’s ability to give you the impression that her fictional world is the whole world: that is, you can study Woolf for many years and not feel like you’re missing vast avenues of human experience. Her feminism is like Katherine Mansfield’s, in that it’s not overt (as Rebecca West’s often is), but manifest in the quiet frustration and desperation of women characters whose lives don’t have enough choices. She’s not good at writing sex, but she’s wonderful at eros; it’s easy to mistake the lack of sex for coldness, but it would be inaccurate to link her too closely to a chilly successor like Bowen. There is a lot of warmth in Woolf, but it emerges in friendships, in unspoken connections.
JC: It’s 127 years since Woolf’s birth; what place do you think she has in taken in the history of literature?
The answer ... after the jump.
3. recap: What do you think Woolf’s place is in the history of literature?
AF: Woolf is one of the most important feminist theorists of the 20th century -- in a class with Beauvoir and, really, probably no one else. Woolf is probably the greatest woman novelist writing in English in the 20th century. She is one of the great writers of English literature, period. Her position is really pretty unparalleled and I don’t see her stock dropping anytime soon. Two anecdotes to whet the palate: at Cambridge University Press a few years back, I was told that scholarly studies of a single author are pretty much a no-go for sales unless that author is Shakespeare or Woolf. More substantively, in the 50th & 100th anniversary celebratory issues of the TLS, Woolf is the ONLY female reviewer mentioned among the list of early contributors. During her years writing reviews for the TLS (which were all anonymous), she was paid DOUBLE the going rate. She was the only reviewer accorded that privilege.
To me, there is just no denying her stature. This is sometimes not a good thing, but it’s true.
4. What first drew you to Virginia Woolf’s work?
AF: The gorgeousness of her sentences. Her sentences are so beautiful. Like poetry. That and the clarity of her judgments about literature.
I avoided her for years. My (very mean) grandmother loved her: that was a good reason not to read her. I went to a women’s college which had overdosed on Woolf in the ‘70s, so my professors didn’t teach her at all and thought of her as tired. When I read her for the first time, I fell in love.
JC: Do you think that Woolf’s appeal is gendered -- do women tend to respond to her work more than men?
AF:I think that people who haven’t read Woolf imagine her as a women’s writer and that men don’t read her because they think it’s going to be soft, lesbian, flow-y stuff, or hysterical feminist screeching. It’s not any of those things. The gendering of Woolf has everything to do with those who haven’t read her making ill-informed guesses.
JC: Fordham has a big Woolf conference coming up later this year. What’s some of the most interesting Woolf scholarship today?
AF: The theme of our conference is ‘Woolf and the City,’ and there is some really interesting work going on situating Woolf in the geographical and political climate of her day. We will have plenary talks on the ‘soundscape’ of her ‘30s novel, ‘The Years,’ and on the connection between her second feminist pamphlet, ‘Three Guineas,’ to the Spanish Civil War. Recent studies have also looked at the role Woolf played in critiquing (and occasionally helping build) the heritage industry. For example, Andrea Zemgulys has a new book that examines Woolf among other participants in the whole ‘blue plaque’ heritage-making, and Joshua Esty wrote, a few years back, about Woolf’s critique of the patriotic village pageant in her last novel, ‘Between the Acts.’
Elsewhere, there is ongoing work on Woolf and trauma -- war trauma as well as trauma more generally. And I have some friends, Alice Staveley and Pat Collier in particular, who are doing archival work on the history of the book and women in publishing.
JC. Did you see ‘The Hours,’ with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf? What did you think?AF: I’m a fan of the book and the movie. Not such a fan of Kidman et al.’s perpetuation of the mad, delicate Virginia. But I LOVE Julianne Moore and that depiction of the ‘50s housewife reading is deeply moving and resonant for me. I think, overall, it’s a lovely film, and I’m glad that it brings so many readers to Woolf and to ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’
-- Carolyn Kellogg