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Archive for October, 2009

mrs dalloway's partyIf you live in the Bay Area, you can go to Mrs. Dalloway’s party. It’s an evening of short stories written by Virginia Woolf and performed by an ensemble of actors at St. Mary’s College of California.

According to the school’s Web site, “Wry observations and elegant prose come to life onstage through some of Woolf’s most amusing characters-ordinary women and men whose anxious thoughts and social predicaments make this party a night to remember.”

The production is directed by guest artist Delia MacDougall, a founding member of Word for Word Performing Arts Company in San Francisco.

Performances are scheduled on:

  • Thursday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Nov.15 & 22, at 2 p.m.

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A single manJames Joyce detailed Leopold Bloom’s day in Dublin. Virginia Woolf followed Clarissa Dalloway through London on a fine day in June. Ian McEwan told Henry Perowne’s tale on a post-Sept. 11 Saturday in February. And Christopher Isherwood described one day in the life of an ageing professor named George in his 1964 novel A Single Man.

That novel has now been made into a film produced and directed by Tom Ford, who also co-authored the screenplay. And when I read his comments about the impact A Single Man had on him, I saw another similarity to Mrs. Dalloway.

Ford said he first read Isherwood’s novel when he was in his twenties, and the book stuck with him. But it wasn’t until he read it again years later, when he was in his late forties, that he says he found “the book resonated with me in an entirely different way.” Ford called it “a deeply spiritual story.”

That’s how I felt about Mrs. Dalloway. I was 20 when I first read it and was duly impressed by Woolf’s thinking and her magical way with words. But I didn’t really get Clarissa Dalloway.

When I reread the novel 20 years later, I did. After marriage and children and the winding ways of life, I could understand much more about Clarissa.

But not everything. Each time I reread the novel, I get to know her better. 

That’s why I think these instructions should be on each of Woolf’s novels: Read. Think. Repeat.

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white gardenMany people consider mystery novels the perfect escape. Whether you dip into the genre regularly or infrequently, Woolfians may find it hard to resist a literary “whodunit” with Virginia Woolf at its center.

Stephanie Barron preceded this novel with a series of Jane Austen mysteries; she professes to enjoy making things up about real people, knowing they might not approve of her embellishments on their lives.

The White Garden revolves around the discovery of a new diary, believed to be in Woolf’s hand, but started the day after she was supposed to have drowned herself in the River Ouse. Intending to commit suicide that day, she goes instead to Sissinghurst, where she is comforted and cared for by Vita Sackville-West.

And there’s more, much more, including Woolf’s discovery of some nefarious wartime activities involving Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle, but it’s all too convoluted, and I wouldn’t want to give anything away.

And of course there’s the contemporary angle. The diary is found by an American garden designer, who is at Sissinghurst in order to duplicate the White Garden for her wealthy New York employer, while at the same time trying to uncover a hidden secret in her own family. A number of people become involved in the intrigue and with each other, including the Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, manuscript specialists at Sotheby’s, and a Woolf scholar at Oxford.

Barron reminds her readers that this is fiction, hoping that they will enjoy exploring the possibilities and forgive the license that she takes. There’s plenty of that, from the bald facts of Woolf’s death and the implausibility of the plot to some manipulation of the topography, so one has to suspend disbelief and just go with it. And in the process, you can soak up the atmosphere of Sissinghurst, Monks House and Charleston Farmhouse along with Oxford and Cambridge. You could do worse!

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A Room of One's OwnA one-woman show about Virginia Woolf is on the St. Mane Theatre stage in Lanesboro, Minn., starting Saturday.

Kristen Underwood developed her play, “Women and Fiction: Virginia Woolf Speaks,” in the early 1990s. It is based on Woolf’s 1928 lecture to women undergraduates later adapted into the influential A Room of One’s Own.

Read more about the play. For reservations, call 507-467-2446.

To find out more about stage productions based on Woolf’s work or life, go here.

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bloomsbury catalogEditor’s Note: Benjamin Harvey, the author of this piece, is an associate professor of art history at Mississippi State University. He is currently editing an edition of Virginia Woolf’s essays on art criticism and visual culture.

A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is the largest collection of Bloomsbury art to have been shown in the states for almost a decade.  I strongly suggest you make every effort to see it.  It will probably be more than ten years before a comparable opportunity presents itself again.  If you can’t see the show, which is now at Cornell University, but will shortly move on to other colleges, consider buying the handsome catalog, to which (full disclosure!) I contributed an essay.

Largely created by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, or products of the Omega Workshops, the show’s works provide a vivid sense of the kind of art Woolf surrounded herself with, supported financially, and occasionally wrote about.   Though portraits of Woolf are included, most strikingly one by her sister, now in Smith College, these are not the only objects connected to her.

At Cornell (but not, alas, other locations) it’s a delight to find a writing desk she owned.  Around 1929, Quentin Bell decorated the desk, painting a female figure on its work surface.  There she reclines, wearing sandals and a leafy crown: trumpet in one hand, quill in the other.  Was, one wonders, Woolf’s nephew alluding to the recently published Orlando and the mock pageantry of its famous transformation scene?

Woolf’s books, the product of her desk, suit a gallery space almost as much as a study.  Vanessa Bell dust jackets and woodcuts are included in the show but, more interestingly, so is a selection of seldom seen preparatory works.  Providing insights into how Bell arrived at her final designs, we see studies for Flush’s illustrations and for the covers of A Room of One’s Own, Mrs Dalloway, and The Common Reader.

The exhibition also includes works that relate to Woolf’s broader interests and imagery.  With its array of eclectic objects, Roger Fry’s still life of Paper Flowers on a Mantelpiece (1919) speaks of the impulse to collect, display, and share objects—a theme memorably explored in Woolf’s contemporaneous story “Solid Objects.”  Woolf’s main character, John, will also place his strange collectables on a mantelpiece, and vivid descriptions of objects on a mantle appear in “Blue and Green,” a short, imagistic work found in Monday or Tuesday.

Finally, another favorite Woolfian subject appears in a Grant study.  His 1933 watercolor portrait of Elizabeth Tudor was destined to end up on a plate, part of a large dinner service designed by Grant and Bell for Kenneth Clark.  The service’s coordinating concept was “famous women” and Woolf’s likeness was included in it, too.

Grant’s study indirectly reminds us that Woolf and Elizabeth can, in fact, already be found together on American soil, where they are again associated with appetite.  Both are among the guests of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, now permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Thus long after the current show ends, Woolf will still have a place, or place setting, reserved for her in America.

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Woolf used words to get her digs in

41vmdFU0e4L._SL500_AA240_Among those who plow through Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters, it is common knowledge that she used her pen to wittily criticize  members of her set as well as other writers of her time.

She was not alone in this practice. And now a new book, edited by Gary Dexter and just out this month, documents what she and other famous writers said about each other’s work.

Poison Pens, Literary Invective from Amis to Zola  is the book, and it is garnering positive reviews.

Woolf’s words about D.H.  Lawrence are one of the featured criticisms. In the book, the following remark about Lawrence is featured: “English has one million words: Why confine yourself to six?”

Dexter is the writer of a long-running column for the Sunday Telegraph.

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white gardenAmy, a blogger at On Size Fits All, e-mailed me to recommend the Stephanie Barron mystery novel just out last month titled The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf.

I have to thank her — and Google news — for the reminder. The novel had slipped from my mind after I posted about it in August. Now it’s out in print and back at the top of my must-read list.

I only found two reviews of the novel, and those were mixed.

The L.A. Times called it “intriguing” and said it “highlights not only Barron’s ability to alchemize historical fact into fiction but also her ability to present absorbing details of Sissinghurst’s gardens, history and the surrounding Kentish countryside. But reviewer Paula A. Woods also complained that the plot and characters are formulaic.

January magazine’s mini-review  says the novel is “a clever tapestry of past and present.”

I am anxious to read it and decide for myself.

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