Virginia Woolf: writing death and illness into the national story of post-first world war Britain


Spanish Flu spread around the world in 1918 and 1919. At least 20 million died.
Vintage_Space/Alamy

Jess Cotton, Cardiff University

Illness, unlike war, as English academic and writer Elizabeth Outka brilliantly demonstrates in her book Viral Modernism (2019), is a story that easily slips out of cultural and historical memory.

In illness, the modernist writer Virginia Woolf observed, “We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.” Woolf, writing in the wake of the first world war, saw the threat that the Spanish flu of 1919 posed to the stories of national triumph. Influenza moves in invisible and unpredictable ways. It renders everyone potentially vulnerable.

This interest in illness was personal. Woolf came down with several bouts of influenza between 1916 and 1925 and needed to confine herself to bed for stretches of time.

She documents the experience of the Spanish flu in her diary in 1918, noting, as an aside, how “we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since The Black Death, according to the Times, who seem to tremble lest it may seize upon Lord Northcliffe and thus precipitate us into peace.”

Her tone is mocking. She would later appreciate the seriousness the threat of influenza posed. But here she suggests that what illness promises to bring is the end of the profit of war that fuels the nationalist sentiments churned out by the newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe’s vast empire of popular journalism.

Reading Woolf’s work, particularly her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, on the 80th anniversary of her death and in the midst of our own pandemic, we see how she tried to rewrite death and illness back into the national story of post-first world war glory and strength.

Sidelining death

I’m a lecturer in English at Cardiff University, and teaching literature in a sparsely filled lecture theatre during the pandemic has been a discombobulating experience. Mrs Dalloway provided an entry point to make sense of the business of studying and thinking while a new national emergency unfolded around us. The protagonist of Mrs Dalloway is a survivor of the Spanish flu of 1919 and the sense of life that permeates the text emerges from her experience of rediscovering the pleasures of life. We meet Mrs Dalloway as she weaves her way through London, experiencing the quiet intensity of life one morning in June.




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The novel’s famous opening line – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – has taken on new resonance this year as the pandemic has made all our worlds much smaller. Clarissa wants to buy the flowers herself because she is delighted to go out – as we might appreciate – having spent so long indoors.

In class, the students and I thought about what it meant to see Clarissa as a character who has lived through a pandemic and come out the other side. Clarissa’s commitment to life, after a long confinement, is hopeful, though it comes at a cost.

At the centre of Clarissa’s party, which the novel builds to, comes the news that Septimus Smith, a young war veteran, has killed himself. In Woolf’s original plans for her novel, Septimus did not appear and Clarissa was to kill herself during the party. In creating Septimus as Clarissa’s double, Woolf is able to move death to the sidelines – as we all would like to.

Woolf revolutionises character by radically tunnelling inwards – giving us not a description of a character, but a map of their psychic life. We experience the protagonist intimately from within – through their stream of consciousness – but peripheral characters also proliferate in the modernist novel.

Woolf recognises how easy it is to cast characters to the sidelines of life. This is, after all, how national fictions work, by making space for protagonists at the expense of those who are pushed further out of view. In the case of post-war Britain, space was made for the glory of war but not for the the Spanish flu.

Collective memory

Painting of Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf painted by Roger Eliot Fry.
Leeds Museums and Galleries, CC BY-NC

Mrs Dalloway is a text that shows how memory and mourning work to uphold the values of the British Empire. Its attention on how emotions circulate between people allows us to understand how national structures of feeling are created through newspapers and through the orchestration of symbolic identifications.

“In all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other,” Woolf writes, “and thought of the dead; of the flag of Empire.” Woolf is interested in showing something that is hard to pinpoint: how national communities are created and sustained; how the war’s dead continue to underpin an inexorable sense of Britishness.

Woolf saw that a subjective perspective was required to make sense of how death continues to inflect the mood of a generation. Mourning, as Sigmund Freud also realised at a similar point, is ongoing, illusory work. What is remarkable about her writing is that Woolf draws our attention to how death pushes us beyond what we can know. In this unknowing, we are forced to admit that our lives are more fragile and dependent on the lives of others.

As one of her characters articulates in The Voyage Out (1915):

“It seems so inexplicable,” Evelyn continued. “Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I? It was only a fortnight ago that she was here with the rest of us?”

Woolf’s ability to show how hard it is to explain death helps us understand the difficulty of living with its presence. In the face of the loneliness of death, the growing demise of its communal forms, the diminished structures of public mourning, she provides us with a language for death outside of national structures of commemoration.The Conversation

Jess Cotton, Lecturer at School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Virginia Woolf’s work was shaped by music


Virginia Woolf listened to a wide variety of music, including Russian ballet music which she heard when the Ballets Russes visited London in 1912.
Wikimedia

Emma Sutton, University of St Andrews

Many of Virginia Woolf’s early reviewers noted parallels between her literary innovations and those of contemporary composers, such as Claude Debussy. Woolf’s interest in music was overlooked after her death. However, 80 years on, we are now beginning to explore how her extraordinary experimental uses of narrative perspective, repetition and variation derive from her close study of particular musical works and specific musical forms.

Music provided Woolf (and other modernists including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield) with a vocabulary to imagine and describe their creative practice and formal innovations. Woolf, for instance, compares her diary writing to a pianist practising their scales. She describes her reading as a process of “tuning up” for her writing. And in 1940 she famously observed:

It’s odd, for I’m not regularly musical but I always think of my books as music before I write them.

Music in Woolf’s life

Woolf grew up immersed in music. As a young woman, she attended operas and concerts at the Royal Opera House three or four times a week – sometimes, every night. Like most women of her age and social class, she had received basic music education in singing and piano. But her passion as a listener far outstripped her abilities as a performer.

Her letters and diaries repeatedly convey her love of classical repertoire – particularly the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. But she heard a wide variety of music in varied settings. She heard folk music as she travelled in England, Scotland and continental Europe. Took in comic and patriotic songs in music halls. Delighted in the work of Arnold Schoenberg and another avant-garde repertoire through her subscription membership of the National Gramophonic Society, and Russian ballet music when the Ballets Russes visited London in 1912.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf painted by Roger Eliot Fry.
Leeds Museums and Galleries, CC BY-NC

Woolf’s Hogarth Press also published studies of contemporary music, composers and popular books of music appreciation. Her understanding of – and in some cases intimate friendships with – leading composers, music critics, conductors and other musicians of her time gave her an insight into professional musical life, too. Friends included the composers and critics Eddy Sackville-West and Gerald Berners, the conductor and educator Nadia Boulanger, and the composer and feminist Ethel Smyth.

Music in Woolf’s writing

Woolf’s feminism, pacificism and cosmopolitanism were significantly shaped by her enduring, passionate love of music. The social conventions surrounding music education, performance and composition catalyse some of her wittiest and most acerbic social comedy but also inform her critiques of, for example, women’s unequal access to music education.

In her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Woolf references specific musical works to challenge the established expectation that men and women should play different repertoire. The novel’s female protagonist, who is an accomplished amateur pianist, plays Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. These works were frequently characterised as too technically and intellectually demanding for women performers. Essays addressed to amateur female pianists characterised the works as “simply unattainable”.

Music also influences Woolf’s creative innovations. The double narrative structure of Mrs Dalloway, for example, which contrasts and entwines the lives of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and traumatised veteran Septimus Warren Smith, may well be modelled on the double form of musical fugues (“fugue” was a contemporary term for shell shock).

Woolf observed in 1909 that, “We are miserably aware how little words can do to render music.” But this difficulty frequently catalyses and becomes a subject of her writing.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that her prose has been a rich source of creative inspiration for composers. For instance, her work inspired Dominick Argento’s 1974 song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and more oblique responses, such as Max Richter’s music for the 2015 ballet Woolf Works.

In the last 15 years, musical responses to Woolf’s writing have proliferated, from the string quartet and songs premiered by the Virginia Woolf and Music project, to the recent announcement that composer Thea Musgrave is writing an opera inspired by Orlando.

In a 1905 essay, Woolf invited contemporary writers to remember words’ allegiance to music and take inspiration from that. Scholars of Woolf’s work and composers are now, it seems, doing just that.The Conversation

Emma Sutton, Professor of English, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Virginia Woolf on the magic of going to the cinema


Still from the German silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr Calgari (1920).
Wikimedia

Lucy Bolton, Queen Mary University of London

These cinema-starved times have made me pine for the magic of the movies on the big screen. The convenience and comfort of watching DVDs and streamed films at home are, of course, wonderful. Lockdown is inconceivable without them. But the experience of being in the cinema is not possible to replicate from your sofa. The sensory overwhelm and immersion is what makes a trip to the cinema a truly particular experience, and I’ve been contemplating what it is that makes it so special.

The writer Virginia Woolf wondered the same thing after a trip to the cinema in 1926. How might watching a film be so different from reading a novel or attending a concert? For Woolf, the cinema was a new art form, technically advanced but, as yet, not able to show its potential in how it might depict our lives to us.

On the 80th anniversary of her death, her prescient thoughts in the essay, The Cinema, have gained new resonance as we all pine to see film the way it is supposed to be seen, up on the silver screen.

Movie magic

Philosophers who pronounce that we are “at the fag-end of civilisation” and who believe everything has already been said, have, Woolf declares, “presumably forgotten the movies”. By this, she means that film presents, at that time, a brand new way to “see life as it is when we have no part of it” – to watch, in other words, love, hate, fear and anger all play out on the screen in a form that transfixes us through images.

Photograph of Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf.
National Portrait Gallery, London., CC BY-NC

Woolf sees the wonderment on the faces of the moviegoers, that takes people back to their primitive pleasures. The riches on offer in the cinema make it seem as if “we are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments seem to simmer, and now and again some vast form heaves and seems about to haul itself up out of chaos.”

What is so interesting about Woolf’s perceptive assessment of the potential of the cinema is that she sees its possibilities for enlarging and surprising our consciousness and imagination. She is not simply referring to newsreel footage of the King, or the Grand National, although she considers that even with these images our eyes are being tricked into seeing such things as being more real or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life.




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Virginia Woolf: writing death and illness into the national story of post-first world war Britain


When we are watching these occurrences without actually being there, she observes that:

We have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

An art of its own

But what mainly occupies Woolf is how filmmakers are going to make an art of their own. While she recognises that there are novels to be adapted, focusing on Anna Karenina, she is adamant that film can do something very different from just telling a story that has already been told.

She also identities the difficulties film might encounter when creating images of characters of whom who we already have our own mental images from reading. No, she says, it is when we give up trying to match pictures with a book, that we see the possibility for what cinema might create “if left to its own devices”.

Woolf writes about seeing the hugely influential German Expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and how a shadow shaped like a tadpole appeared quivering in the corner of the screen: “It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity”.

She describes how this image seemed like something monstrous from within the killer’s brain – but in fact, was a flaw in the film! However, it led Woolf to this fabulous insight: “The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’”.

The realisation that an image on the cinema screen, even just a shadow, at a certain moment, can create an emotion, a mood, and an experience, without words, shows prescient insight into the power of cinema.

She wonders whether there is a secret language, of forms and symbols, that cinema can make visible. A language unlike anything before that can express emotion in hitherto unseen ways. To unlock this, Woolf insists that cinema must find its own images and symbols, and these will be quite unlike the objects in real life: “of such movements and abstractions the films may in time come to be composed”. She sees that film could then present us with clashing emotions – happiness and sadness at once, for instance – that a writer can only toil in vain to convey, more akin to dreams, in colour, sounds and movements.

For Woolf, cinema’s “immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency” does not quite know what to do with itself yet. And that is its task: to find what it can do specifically more than the novel, the poem, or the piece of music. I find it inspirational and moving to read what Woolf had in mind for the cinema’s future when she wrote this in the mid-1920s. And what she identified – the unique and ineffable power of images on screen – is still what makes me desperate to get back to the cinema as soon as possible.The Conversation

Lucy Bolton, Reader in Film Studies, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s feminist call to arms



A young Virginia Woolf photographed in 1902.
Wikimedia Commons

Jessica Gildersleeve, University of Southern Queensland

I sit at my kitchen table to write this essay, as hundreds of thousands of women have done before me. It is not my own room, but such things are still a luxury for most women today. The table will do. I am fortunate I can make a living “by my wits,” as Virginia Woolf puts it in her famous feminist treatise, A Room of One’s Own (1929).

That living enabled me to buy not only the room, but the house in which I sit at this table. It also enables me to pay for safe, reliable childcare so I can have time to write.

It is as true today, therefore, as it was almost a century ago when Woolf wrote it, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” — indeed, write anything at all.

Still, Woolf’s argument, as powerful and influential as it was then — and continues to be — is limited by certain assumptions when considered from a contemporary feminist perspective.

Woolf’s book-length essay began as a series of lectures delivered to female students at the University of Cambridge in 1928. Its central feminist premise — that women writer’s voices have been silenced through history and they need to fight for economic equality to be fully heard — has become so culturally pervasive as to enter the popular lexicon.

Julia Gillard’s A Podcast of One’s Own, takes its lead from the essay, as does Anonymous Was a Woman, a prominent arts funding body based in New York.

Julia Gillard: the title of her new podcast references Woolf’s book.
Brendan Esposito

Even the Bechdel-Wallace test, measuring the success of a narrative according to whether it features at least two named women conversing about something other than a man, can be seen to descend from the “Chloe liked Olivia” section of Woolf’s book. In this section, the hypothetical characters of Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory, care for their children, and have conversations about their work, rather than about a man.

Woolf’s identification of women as a poorly paid underclass still holds relevance today, given the gender pay gap. As does her emphasis on the hierarchy of value placed on men’s writing compared to women’s (which has led to the establishment of awards such as the Stella Prize).




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Invisible women

In her book, Woolf surveys the history of literature, identifying a range of important and forgotten women writers, including novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, and playwright Aphra Behn.

In doing so, she establishes a new model of literary heritage that acknowledges not only those women who succeeded, but those who were made invisible: either prevented from working due to their sex, or simply cast aside by the value systems of patriarchal culture.




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To illustrate her point, she creates Judith, an imaginary sister of the playwright Shakespeare.

What if such a woman had shared her brother’s talents and was as adventurous, “as agog to see the world” as he was? Would she have had the freedom, support and confidence to write plays? Tragically, she argues, such a woman would likely have been silenced — ultimately choosing suicide over an unfulfilled life of domestic servitude and abuse.

In her short, passionate book, Woolf examines women’s letter writing, showing how it can illustrate women’s aptitude for writing, yet also the way in which women were cramped and suppressed by social expectations.

She also makes clear that the lack of an identifiable matrilineal literary heritage works to impede women’s ability to write.

Indeed, the establishment of those major women writers in the 18th and 19th centuries (George Eliot, the Brontes et al), when “the middle-class woman began to write” is, Woolf argues, a moment in history “of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses”.

Male critics such as T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom have identified a (male) writer’s relation to his precursors as necessary for his own literary production. But how, Woolf asks, is a woman to write if she has no model to look back on or respond to?
If we are women, she wrote, “we think back through our mothers”.

A vintage snapshot of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf taken in 1924.
Wikimedia Commons



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Her argument inspired later feminist revisionist work of literary critics like Elaine Showalter, Sandra K. Gilbert and Susan Gubar who sought to restore the reputation of forgotten women writers and turn critical attention to women’s writing as a field worthy of dedicated study.

All too often in history, Woolf asserts, “Woman” is simply the object of the literary text — either the adored, voiceless beauty to whom the sonnet is dedicated or reflecting back the glow of man himself.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

A Room of One’s Own returns that authority to both the woman writer and the imagined female reader whom she addresses.

Stream of consciousness

Virginia Woolf in 1927.
Wikimedia Commons

A Room of One’s Own also demonstrates several aspects of Woolf’s modernism. The early sections demonstrate her virtuoso stream of consciousness technique. She ruminates on women’s position in, and relation to, fiction while wandering through the university campus, driving through country lanes, and dawdling over a leisurely, solo lunch.

Critically, she employs telling patriarchal interruptions to that flow of thought.

A beadle waves his arms in exasperation as she walks on a private patch of grass. A less-than-satisfactory dinner is served to the women’s college. A “deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman” turns her away from the library. These interruptions show the frequent disruption to the work of a woman without a room.

This is the lesson also imparted in Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse where artist Lily Briscoe must shed the overbearing influence of Mr and Mrs Ramsay, a couple who symbolise Victorian culture, if she is to “have her vision”. The flights and flow of modernist technique are not possible without the time and space to write and think for herself.

A Room of One’s Own has been crucial to the feminist movement and women’s literary studies. But it is not without problems. Woolf admits her good fortune in inheriting £500 a year from an aunt.

Indeed her purse now “breed(s) ten-shilling notes automatically”.

Woolf was lucky enough to possess a purse that bred ten-shilling notes.
Wikimedia Commons

Part of the purpose of the essay is to encourage women to make their living through writing.

But Woolf seems to lack an awareness of her own privilege and how much harder it is for most women to fund their own artistic freedom. It is easy for her to advise against “doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning”.

In her book, Woolf also criticises the “awkward break” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which Bronte’s own voice interrupts the narrator’s in a passionate protest against the treatment of women.

Here, Woolf shows little tolerance for emotion, which has historically often been dismissed as hysteria when it comes to women discussing politics.

A Room of One’s Own ends with an injunction to work for the coming of Shakespeare’s sister, that woman forgotten by history. “So to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile”.

Such a woman author must have her vision, even if her work will be “stored in attics” rather than publicly exhibited.

The room and the money are the ideal, we come to see, but even without them the woman writer must write, must think, in anticipation of a future for her daughter-artists to come.

An adaptation of A Room of One’s Own is currently at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre.The Conversation

Jessica Gildersleeve, Associate Professor of English Literature, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.