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Archive for August, 2010

I was delighted to see Paula’s post with Woolf sightings in cookbooks. Many people would think it unlikely to find Woolf associated with cooking and the enjoyment of food, recalling her as an anorexic who took little pleasure from eating.

But in fact, just as she was lively and outgoing when she was well compared to the depression and anxiety that accompanied her sporadic mental illness, so too, she had a vivid appreciation for food, in both her personal enjoyment and appreciation of it and her use of it in her novels and essays, letters and diaries.

This was the premise of my paper at the 2010 International Conference on Virginia Woolf , “’A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage’: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.” In my research, I waded through several volumes on the psychological analyses that attributed her eating disorders to mental illness and/or childhood trauma and found them narrowly focused on her dysfunction at the expense of her artistry.

I chose to focus on Woolf’s own words instead, and there are so many to choose from. In 1907, she wrote to her friend Nelly Cecil, “Why is there nothing written about food—only so much thought? I think a new school might arise, with new adjectives and new epithets, and a strange beautiful sensation, all new to print.” She proceeded to do that throughout her life.

The reason bouef en daube has been immortalized in literary cookbooks is because it is one of the most sumptuous and sensuous dishes described in literature, and the meal at which it was served is the pivotal point in the connections among the Ramsey family and their circle of guests. E. M. Forster said of this scene that, “Such a dinner cannot be built on a statement beneath a dish-cover which the novelist is too indifferent or incompetent to remove. Real food is necessary, and this, in fiction as in her home, she knew how to provide. She put it in because she tasted it.…”

Food descriptions in The Waves are mouth-watering. Consider Neville’s “delicious mouthfuls of roast duck, fitley piled with vegetables…,” the butter oozing through Bernard’s crumpet, and Susan plunging her hands into the bread dough. And in Orlando, the phrase “good to eat” is used because there isn’t a word for “beautiful.”

Someone commented that if only there had been an Alice B. Toklas to chronicle Woolf’s feasts and private pleasures; well, Woolf was the consummate artist, and she brilliantly recorded them herself. I haven’t even touched on her own cooking and eating, which I believe to be the “proof of the pudding” about Virginia Woolf ‘s love of food, but I’ll cook something up for next time.

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Comic Dan Wilbur says he is sick of reading. To remedy that, he has come up with a blog called Better Book Titles, which proposes titles that he claims makes some books less intimidating and more appealing.

For example, he has renamed Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway — A Quaint Midafternoon Panic Attack. That title prompted a tiny brief smile on my part. Others, however, caused me to laugh out loud in shock. You’ll see what I mean when you take a look at his outrageous revision of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

You can watch a slide show of the other titles he proposes.

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Virginia Woolf and Edward Gorey. I know something about both. But I did not know there was a connection between them until now.

It turns out that Gorey, known for his charmingly off-kilter stories and illustrations, created illustrations for the 1985 edition of Virginia Woolf’s play Freshwater: A Comedy. Woolf’s farce about her famous great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was her only work for the stage.

First performed in 1935 for one of the Bloomsbury Group’s theatrical evenings, Woolf’s lone play was later produced in New York. It is still being staged today, although not everyone appreciates its wit and humor.

Gorey, of course, is still popular, perhaps thanks to his animated credits for the PBS show “Mystery.” An exhibit of his work, “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” opens today at the Orlando Museum of Art in Orlando, Fla., and will run through Oct. 31.

A catalog of the exhibit, which contains 175 reproductions, is also available. And you can shop for all sorts of thrilling items at the Edward Gorey House Store in Yarmouthport, Mass. One of my favorites is a set of note cards titled “Neglected Murderesses.”

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A year or so after the war…it cannot be said that it is war…it cannot be said that it is war, it cannot be said that it is peace, it can be said it is postwar.

 Stevie Smith
The Holiday

While I was working on my master’s degree at Monmouth University, my favorite course was Dr. Kristin Bluemel’s seminar on intermodernism. Not surprisingly, intermodernism is a term coined by Dr. Bluemel for the, arguably, pretty neglected years between between the two world wars (although Intermodernism cannot only be defined by time).

During this time, novels, memoirs, and essays are being written by writers as varied as George Orwell, Storm Jameson, Dorothy Richardson, Stevie Smith, and Stella Gibbons. Virginia Woolf certainly could, and I would argue, be claimed as an intermodernist writer (we read Three Guineas, and I used it to write my seminar paper, working towards defining an intermodern sex-gender system using Woolf alongside Phyllis Bottome’s anti-fascist, feminist, novel The Mortal Storm).

Bluemel began writing about and attempting to define what Intermodernism is in her 2004 book George Orwell & the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London. She also edits The Space Between, an academic journal dedicated to the literature and culture of the years between the wars.

In her book, and during our seminars, she argued the writers of this time period fashioned their work and reflected on the emotions of a nation in the aftermath of World War I. Readers of Woolf certainly see this influence in Three Guineas and, especially, Mrs. Dalloway.

Intermodernist writing was often focused on the working and middle classes, socialist and/or “radical” political leanings, and a more “middlebrow” writing style. Often, these writers are somehow “othered” based on their sexuality, ethnicity, or lack of class privilege.

In George Orwell & The Radical Eccentrics, Bluemel argues that these writers are “grounded in the experiences of England’s working-class and ‘working middle-class’ cultures” which do not fit into the same categories that popularized, privileged writers like W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce do (Bluemel 2). Their writing attends to politics, whether the domestic life in Woolf or Bottome’s novels, the working class of Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, or the caste system of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable.

Critics have struggled to place many of these writers within the canon. Many, like Woolf, share some aspects of the modernist aesthetic, but cannot truly be prescribed to that label. Intermodernism isn’t quite just a time period that begins and ends between the wars, but more a style of socially conscious writing and discourse shared amongst writers of varying ethnicities, genders, levels of privilege, and politics. Many of these writers, Woolf included, have drifted in and out of the canon, fates after their death attached to those outside of academia.

Bluemel continues the discussion of this fascinating literary period in the new anthology she edited Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain, which brings together leading scholars on the period to further discuss the merits of the period. If the Blogging Woolf community is interested, I have plenty more to say about Intermodernism.

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Here’s a real find: On the Providence Journal website, I discovered a link to photojournalist Gisèle Freund’s photo set on Flickr.

The set includes the German-born French photographer’s portraits of  noted authors, including Virginia Woolf. Among the photos is one said to picture Woolf’s writing desk. This is not the same desk photo posted on Flikr by Renaud Camus that I wrote about two years ago.

Freund‘s book Gisele Freund, Photographer, published in the United States in 1985, includes 205 black and white and color photographs that document her 50-year career. Now out of print, it includes photo documentation of the popularity of Hitler among German students in the 1930s and the Depression in England.

It also includes portraits of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Paul Valery, Colette, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, , Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy.  Many photos are accompanied by Freund’s personal notes and reminiscences.

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Conneaut lighthouse

I made a sad little trip to our small town library today. After an hour of searching the shelves, I could find just one book by Virginia Woolf.

To the Lighthouse was on the shelf, as it always is when I look. We have a charming little lighthouse here in this small city on the shores of Lake Erie, but it doesn’t seem to inspire anyone to read Woolf’s story.

Next I prowled for some non-fiction related to Woolf. There were shelves and shelves full of Harold Bloom’s literary criticism, but not a single volume devoted to Woolf. Nor were there any Woolf letters, diaries or biographies.

Feeling a bit desperate, I paused in front of the cookbooks. And for a moment, I got excited. I thought I had a Woolf sighting in my grip.

The Book Lover’s Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature, and the Passages That Feature Them was in front of me. It must include Boeuf en Daube, I thought.

With much anticipation, I flipped to the index. Again, I was disappointed. Woolf, Virginia was not listed.

In an attempt at recovery from my dismay, I turned to Amazon. Here are the cookbooks I found that include dear Virginia in one way or another:

  • Literary Feasts: Recipes from the Classics of Literature by Barbara Scrafford includes a section on To the Lighthouse.
  • The Book Club Cookbook by Judy Gelman, Vicki Levy Krupp includes a recipe for Britta’s Crab Casserole from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
  • Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes by Mark Crick, and you can read what he has Virginia cooking.

On a more somber note, I also found this: Ravenous Identity: Eating and Eating Distress in the Life and Work of Virginia Woolf by Allie Glenny.

But I shall go no further down this path. Woolf and food is Alice Lowe‘s new territory.

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It’s no surprise that Virginia Woolf would be mentioned in three books reviewed in the July 25 issue of The New York Times Book Review—all are about Woolf’s contemporaries and the milieu of her times. What it does,  however, is reinforce how ubiquitous Woolf continues to be, a benchmark, if you will, of her times.

 The front page has side by side reviews of new biographies of Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster. In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings, Maugham comes across as a despicable character, cheering his ex-wife’s death and sacrificing friends and foes alike to his fiction according to the review.

Woolf noted Maugham’s pillorying of his supposedly close friend Hugh Walpole in his novel Cakes and Ale, “palpably exposed as the hypocritical booming thick-skinned popular novelist.” Woolf once described Maugham as having “a look of suffering & malignity & meanness & suspicion;” it would appear that Maugham’s life, according to this biography, gives credence to Woolf’s unsparing but often insightful observations.

Colm Toibin calls Wendy Moffatt’s work, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster, “a well-written, intelligent and perceptive biography ” that portrays the writer as “sensitive, sensuous and kind, an artist who possessed a keen, plain sort of wisdom and lightness of touch that make him, to this day, an immensely influential novelist, almost a prophet.”

The biography dispels the idea said to have been held by some of Forster’s friends, including Virginia Woolf, that his life was drab and unhappy because of his closeted sexuality and his mother’s domination. Woolf and Forster had their differences, but they admired and respected each other’s work.

Finally, The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson is praised for its rich detail and Nicolson’s exceptional research. Noting Nicolson’s aristocratic origins as the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, the reviewer finds too much emphasis on the trivial sufferings of a privileged class as compared to the rank and file who were the real victims of the war.

“Reading of how that most high-minded of couples, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, celebrated the end of wartime deprivation by munching three bars of chocolate apiece doesn’t quite bring home the mass suffering caused by the rationing laws.”

Perhaps not, but having presented at the recent Woolf Conference a paper on Virginia Woolf’s enjoyment of food and citing those very chocolate bars, I think that it does add a dimension to this portrait of an era.

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