Scholars and readers shared reminiscences of their first encounter with Virginia Woolf via the VWoolf Listserv recently.
The discussion thread was started by J.J. Wilson, one of the founding members of the International Virginia Woolf Society. She is represented on the oral history preserved at the IVWS Collection at the University of Toronto.
Their memories, as sent to the list, are copied below. Blogging Woolf adds recollections as they come in.
Feel free, dear reader, to share yours in the Comments section below this post. Scroll to the bottom of the comments to type in your first encounter of a Woolf kind.
“I was aware of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and during my freshman year in college I decided on a rainy afternoon to check her out in the library. I pulled To the Lighthouse off the shelf, sank down on the floor and began reading. Before I knew it the bell for the library closing was going off. My roommate was sure that something dire had happened to me, not just because I barely made curfew, but because I returned in a slightly dazed condition. I did my honors thesis in Woolf and Joyce, a combination I’ve never turned from.”
– Bonnie Kime Scott
“Time to weigh in on behalf of the diaries. I knew Woolf’s work only slightly when I went to England on a 6-month exchange in 1990. There I was in a Devon village, free of all responsibility, between careers, seeking new direction, open & curious. My host’s bookshelves were dominated by economic history (his specialization), and old seafaring tales (his passion), but there among them was A Writer’s Diary. I took it off the shelf & sat down with it — that was the start of everything. I went from there to the novels, diaries & letters & more, but to this day I always come back to A Writer’s Diary for inspiration and renewed energy – the language, the observations, the insights, oh my! I wrote about my experience, “Discovering England – Discovering Virginia Woolf,” for the first encounters feature in the VW Bulletin mentioned earlier in this exchange. I’ve enjoyed all of the accounts about how people came to Woolf.”
– Alice Lowe
“I’ve been reading these responses with interest as I think they would be great to share with students we’re currently teaching. I honestly can’t recall the first work by Woolf that I read, but I do remember that I decided not to take a course on the Bloomsbury Group my first year in college in 1969 because I had never heard of that group! I know I began teaching Woolf first in the 1970s, specifically To the Lighthouse, because I took high school students on a literary tour of the U.K., and we spent two nights in St. Ives. The characters in that novel and in her other works have remained with me for decades as I’ve aged and gained new perspectives on them. That E.M. Forster questioned her ability to create truly vital characters has always puzzled me.”
– Eleanor McNees
“To the Lighthouse was also my first introduction to Virginia Woolf, and I think it’s a good place for people to start. I wanted to say on Forster, though, and his view of Woolf, that he was in the position of a competitor, and that might have influenced his assessment. And they of course wrote different types of novels. It might be that he didn’t understand the changes that were coming about, or simply disliked them.”
– William Bains
“As a non-academic Common Reader, my path to Woolf has been somewhat more circuitous than the many venerable scholars on this listserv … When I read Mrs. Dalloway I had never read anything quite like it before. I was never a good student. I loved to read, but I am not a fast reader and I almost never read books that were assigned reading throughout my years of schooling. Being from a conventional, working-class family, I also had a prejudice against literature or movies or theatre or art of any kind that didn’t tell a straight-forward story in a conventional form … For some reason I remember seeming to fly through the pages of Mrs. Dalloway. There seemed to be a rhythm to the prose and I had learned enough by this time to recognize the grace and elegance of the writing. Beautifully composed sentences with marvelous imagery and the narrative passed from one character’s point of view to another’s and then to another’s and then back again.
– Mark Scott
“The summer of 1969, I was assigned to read To the Lighthouse for my freshman comp class at Bryn Mawr. Looking back at the history of Woolf studies, that was really quite advanced since in ’69, not many people were teaching her. Recently I gave a “last lecture” on the occasion of my retirement. Here’s an excerpt on my relationship with Woolf:
‘So how did I come to Virginia Woolf? I started writing down quotes from To The Lighthouse in volume two of my Black Books, in May of 1969. I had been assigned to read Woolf for my freshman seminar. The quotations I wrote down all had to do with states of consciousness, with Mrs. Ramsey being alone. (I was very intense and introspective at the time) I remember that Quentin Bell’s biography came out near the end of my time in college, and I have a very early edition, so I must have bought it then. But in those days women writers weren’t read much. As far as I can remember, Virginia Woolf was the only woman writer I studied in undergraduate school (at a women’s university where?unknown to me? Kate Millet was teaching? in the Sociology department!!) My next encounter with Woolf was ten years later, in the summer of 1979, which I was spending in Athens, Greece with my friend Alice Donohue, a classical archeologist finishing up the research for her dissertation. For some reason, I was moved to buy Woolf’s Moments of Being in an English language bookstore. I remember reading her at the same time as I was reading Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational. An odd but serendipitous mix. I fell in love then with “Sketch of the Past” in particular. Woolf floated back into my consciousness again in the summer of in 1982 in a post-dic NEH at Stanford where I read Room of One’s Own along with Cixous and again in 1984 when I took a post-doctoral seminar on `Tradition and the Female Talent’ at the School of Criticism and Theory with Sandra Gilbert. The essay I contributed to the volume we edited from that seminar was Old Father Nile: T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom on the Creative Process as Spontaneous Generation,’ and Woolf peremptorily interrupted that essays as an expression of the female presence missing from both critics? masculinized metaphors for creativity. My full re-discovery of Woolf came in 1992. I was going through a very hard time emotionally. My best friend was up for tenure. I was on the Personnel Committee and in the end, in all good conscience, I had to vote against him. None of had realized how far he’d fallen into alcoholism. I had turned, as I often did, to reading Art History for therapy. For some reason I was devouring a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. I think there was some kind of health and wholeness in her use of color and flower imagery that I found healing. (I have done some research on this and she did in fact ascribe to certain aspects of color therapy). As I looked at images of her work, I kept remembering passages from Woolf’s autobiographical writings, especially “A Sketch of the Past.” And then I saw for a call for Papers for the Third Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf. SO I sent in a proposal for a paper on Woolf and O’Keeffe. They accepted it, and then I had to write it. Well to make a long story short. I fell in love. With an academic community. I had never met such a vital, quirky, friendly, supportive, passionate group of people. On the three-hour bus ride out to Jefferson City, Missouri, I watched Bonnie Kime Scott take four grad students (all total strangers to her) meticulously though their dissertation projects and provide them with detailed lists of which special collections they needed to access at which libraries, complete with names of librarians. Barbara Christian decided she’d known me in a previous life, and we spent lots of the conference crouched outside under overhangs, smoking illicit cigarettes. Throughout the conference I saw people treat each other humanely, differentiate easily between undergraduates, graduate students, new and experienced scholars, and question and advise each at the appropriate level. I met people whose books I’d read, and they were just as nice as people who were only starting out. I remember Mark’s speech about the call for papers when he said we should not quote extensively from Woolf because everyone at the conference had everything she’d ever said memorized, which made me ambitious to read everything. And I remember standing in the back of the auditorium during Barbra Christian’s keynote speech about Woolf and Toni Morrison, tearing up over the brilliance, joy, and love in that talk and thinking about what Virginia would have made of it all. The more Woolf I read, the more she opened up to my interests: in consciousness, in visual arts, in color, in gardens, in flowers. And so, I’ve never looked back.'”
– Elisa Kay Sparks
“I have so enjoyed reading of all these first encounters. I think mine was in 1988, when I took a class called Images of Women as an undergrad. We read A Room of One’s Own. I cannot recall what exactly caught me, but I do know that after the class was over, I asked the professor for names of writers that influenced Woolf or that she may have influenced. I don’t know if my list was accurate when I left that day, but it was full of wonderful and diverse women writers whose work I went on to read. In 1989, I read Mrs. Dalloway in a 20th-cenntury Brit lit class, and I knew then that I would probably go on to study Woolf more, even though I had no idea at that time that I’d pursue doctoral work. That summer, while traveling, I finally read To the Lighthouse. It was the loveliest thing I had ever read and may still be.”
– Andrea Adolph
“I first read Virginia Woolf in my first year English class, called `Reading,’ at Amherst College in the fall of 1978. We were assigned A Room of One’s Own. It was the first time I read something and thought `I want to write like that.’ Of course, I could never “write like that” but my professor did say that my short essay on A Room was `Woolfesque’ or something to that effect. I loved the combination of humor, sarcasm, lyricism, intensity–and of course was electrified by the subject matter. I think Woolf’s is probably still the most enlivening prose I’ve ever read. I have a feeling, but don’t know for sure, that A Room was put on the common reading list for all the first year English class sections by one of the new, young, women faculty, at least one of whom was denied tenure later and the other went on to someplace else at some point. In my junior year, I got permission to write about Mrs. Dalloway in one of my English courses even though it was not on the syllabus. After college, reading Three Guineas helped me decide whether and how to go to graduate school, to join that “procession of educated men.”
– Diana Swanson
“OK, I’ll jump in! Although my house was full of Virginia Woolf’s works as I was growing up (many of my paperback copies are inscribed with my mother’s or sister’s name), I never read her until I was nearly one year out of college, living in Mannheim, Germany, for the year. I joined the library there and checked out To the Lighthouse one day, along with a stack of other things. In my tiny one-room `apartment,’ I read the entire book from start to finish in one sitting–mesmerized, intrigued, confused; I had never read anything like it before. When I finished, I turned it over and began again and was hooked from then on. As Diana says, thank you, Virginia.”
– Kristen Czarnecki
“Having read most classic novels in English, German, and French as part of my secondary school education I found myself on my own in 1966, i.e., no teachers who tell you what to read. My English teacher had instilled in me the love of the English language – from then on it was only English literature I read. The Bronte sisters, George Elliot were my favorites, their work limited.
Then in 1970 The Voyage Out crossed my path, a book by Virginia Woolf who meant nothing to me. I liked it, in a way it reminded me of the more old-fashioned style novels of her predecessors. What a pleasure to find out she wrote another novel, Night and Day which I liked even better. She had written yet another book Jacob’s Room which I totally fell in love with. Forget everything you have read before. This is the way I like a novel to be. I found it breathtaking, inspiring and fascinating. The book hit something inside me which has stayed with me ever since. Mrs. Dalloway, equally, almost painfully, beautiful. What that is? Dare I say, a recognition? A soul mate? What? So, eventually I read all the books and other works and every single one of them I love. I always think myself lucky that I read her novels in the `right order,’ which I think is a bonus. The publication of her Letters, Diaries and eventually the biographies deepened my affection. The work of all the academics out there gave her work background. The different layers exposed, each decade opened up another angle.
It is so easy to write this all down, what it doesn’t say how much trouble it took to find her work and later everything about the Bloomsbury before the Internet age. To figure out what was published and by whom. Where to order, how to pay? First thing I usually turned to was the bibliography of a book to see which titles I didn’t have yet. We travelled to London a lot which helped me build up my library which is rather extensive.
Still, I was on my own with my `hobby.’ The arrival of the first Miscellany was an indescribable pleasure and helped me extend my VW world. Of course I was aware of the conferences of which I faithfully bought and devoured the proceedings, but I felt there was no room for me there. Was there a place for a common reader among all those academics?
It was Natalya Reinhold who got me out of my room and into her symposium in Moscow. (2003) There I met some VW persons who were all so kind and friendly and encouraging and helpful. That gave me the confidence to attend the London conference where the same thing happened. I?m tempted to drop some names here but I won’t. (* I do have to mention two more i.e. Vara Neverow who together with Susan Wegener helped me prepare a special Miscellany on Leonard Woolf! ) Everybody was very, very kind. There were neither ranks, nor hierarchy. From then on I was hooked. It is such a pleasure and so rewarding to be in touch not only during the conferences but all year long with people who
share your enthusiasm.
It has been a long and rewarding road since 1970. I’ve learnt so much, all thanks to the hard and loving work of you all out there! Thank you. And Jacob who will stay with me always as he does for others.”
– AnneMarie Bantzinger, Bilthoven, The Netherlands
“You know, I must say that so many of the first encounters ring a bell with me. And, in some ways, with the recollections of the founding members of the Virginia Woolf Society who participated in an oral history with Merry Pawlowski and Eileen Barrett in 1993 (now in the IVWS Archive).
But, I have yet to hear any mention of Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf, which was my first actual encounter with Virginia Woolf, though I remember seeing her books on the shelf at the public library (in the adult section) for years. Even after getting my adult card, I never took out a book written by her. It was her extraordinary life that led me to read her–though not immediately after reading the biography because I was doing a master’s degree in a different century, master’s thesis on Shakespeare, first publication on Paradise Lost (though not in that order).It was only after beginning doctoral work at Cornell that I did an independent readings on Woolf–and read her from beginning to end. And, like the rest of you, I never did stop–and not only taught classes on Woolf, but saw my husband through his own independent readings of Woolf–from beginning to end. Aren’t we lucky–those who discovered her independently–and those who discovered her in class. Aren’t we lucky that we are thus united and thus privileged to share her bounty. Cheers to us all.
– Karen Levenback
“Thanks, Karen and Vara, but if I am going to `get credit’ I should have some skin in the game (gee, am I mixing metaphors here?) and tell my little (but of course earthshaking to me) story: growing up in the horrible l950s, I had never heard of V. Woolf until, seeking relief from my secretarial job at the Bank of America by taking a creative writing course at night, I got a note on the bottom of one of my leaden Dickensian short stories from Professor Foff: `You might want to read some Virginia Woolf so that you can see that prose can be winged too.’ (Alas, he committed suicide so I could never thank him for his advice.) It was difficult in those benighted days even to find her books, but at the Discovery Bookstore in North Beach I did find a used copy of the paperback containing both Jacob’s Room and The Waves, a perfect pairing for me. As one consequence, I left the secretarial position (paying `pin money’ of $350 a month!) and entered graduate school in literature (my undergraduate degree had been in political science). As another, I never tried to write another short story!”
– J.J. Wilson
“Like many of you, I never encountered Woolf’s writings in a college English literature course; she simply wasn’t widely taught. Rather, midway through my senior year in college, in 1969-1970, two housemates–one a psychology major, the other studying philosophy–were suddenly raving about a novel they’d just read for a philosophy course (I don’t recall which philosophy course). Since I was the English major in the house, they insisted I drop everything and read this novel too. It was To the Lighthouse. So, like many of you, I read it all in one day, in pretty much a single sitting, swept up and along by the powerful rhythms of Woolf’s prose. What I recall about finishing the book is a shiver, then tears, then a strong impression of a blur of green and blue, like moving water. I’m not sure I could have said then and there what the book was about; I only knew that I had had an extraordinary life-experience through written words.
I next read Woolf the following year as a graduate student in literature, but she was assigned only in a course on comparative fiction, as an English writer whose stylistic experiments influenced twentieth-century Continental novelists. I recall the professor almost apologizing for making us read Mrs. Dalloway, as, in his view, Woolf was `a second-rate novelist.’ Compared to giants like Joyce and Tolstoy and Balzac, he maintained, Woolf was rather a poor hand at representing “the stuff of real life,” like war and its aftermath, politics, urban life, and human relationships. (Oh.) How good that we now see it otherwise. Thanks, Virginia!
– Marcia Day Childress
“This makes me realize how fortunate I was. I did a bachelor’s and a master’s at Leeds University in England, and encountered quite a lot of Woolf on the way. One of my teachers was Arnold Kettle, who has a chapter on To the Lighthouse in his book on the novel, so that may have helped to get it on the syllabus. We were also advised to look at the chapter on the same novel in Auerbach’s Mimesis, a chapter (and a book) that has more than stood the test of time. By the time I had finished my master’s I had read Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves as well. I suppose that the down side of starting in this way was that going on to Night and Day and The Years once I started teaching was something of an anti-climax. But Between the Acts I found wonderful. I think that some neglect of Woolf in the UK at this time may be related to Leavis’s lack of enthusiasm for her, but that can hardly explain the neglect in the US. It may be that a comparable lack of enthusiasm on E M Forster’s part (aimed especially at Woolf’s feminism) also deterred some readers and teachers.
– Jeremy Hawthorn
“These memories of encountering Woolf are fascinating. For some time now, The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain have published such memories in each Bulletin as ‘Discovering Virginia’. It would be good to submit to the Bulletin. The editors were very kind to publish my memory in Issue 13, May 2003:
‘It was, unjustly, a very hot summer the year my mother died, that summer when I first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Sunbathing with my friends, my mother got in everywhere. My every word and movement was either a guilty pleasure, wrong to enjoy so soon after the funeral, or else carried a stinging similarity to my mother?s daily gestures. My mother also got into To the Lighthouse. Mrs.
Ramsay had a bodily presence, a voice, and a face like my mother’s. My mother died aged forty-nine when I was thirteen, the same ages as Julia Stephen and Virginia at Julia’s death. Scenes from To the Lighthouse and `A Sketch of the Past’ have an incredible resonance for me. But where, with my friends, I was haunted and depressed by my mother, when she turned into Mrs. Ramsay there was warmth and love and peace.
As Mary Jacobus argues, a mother’s early death means that she becomes the phantasmatic mother, that is a mother who exists only as an image in identificatory significations. The figuration of the dead is a crucial trope in Woolf’s novels, most famously in the `Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse in which Woolf’s technique of prosopopoeia, or personification of the dead, keeps Mrs. Ramsay alive in the thoughts of others.
At age eighteen, Virginia’s Mrs. Ramsay, my mother’s image, helped me through `A’ levels. English Literature `A’ level examination papers used to contain unseen passages for comment and analysis. With amazing serendipity Mrs. Ramsay appeared again. The passage that year was from `Time Passes’. While `Time Passes’ is frequently praised as a masterpiece of description, for working class Newcastle secondary school pupils it was not an easy read. But for me the time of my mother?s death had never passed. `A’ level certificate in hand, I left Newcastle for university, the world of books and the chance to read even more Virginia Woolf’. – Maggie Humm
“I’ve been swept up in everyone’s reminiscences…. here is yet another. I first encountered Woolf in a 20th c British women writers course taught by Margaret M Rowe as a sophomore at Purdue: To the Lighthouse was part of the mix with Margaret Drabble, Olive Schreiner, Iris Murdoch, and many others I’d never heard of. I was transfixed by Woolf’s novel. In a women’s studies intro course, I read AROO which together with the activism of the campus women’s group, revealed how literature and politics connected. It led me to a chapter on Mrs Dalloway in grad school (with another on Beauvoir) and that brought me to this incredible group of scholars and friends, and a future career path I never could have imagined for myself back then. Teaching Woolf and Winterson this past spring and especially doing a unit on The Wavestransformed me yet again, watching my 20-something students find resonant connections so different from but deeply connected to what I was experiencing as their 50-something teacher. Felt like a bit of a circle closing, and reopening. To echo Diana, thank you Virginia.” – Jeanette E McVicker
“As an English major at the University of Colorado during the 1960s, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school but hadn’t been able to decide on which period to focus. The first novel I read by Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, assigned in a course on modern fiction, not only galvanized me but immediately answered my question about literary concentration: it had to be modernism, with an emphasis on Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway was by far the most illuminating and stylistically unique novel I had ever encountered. As a twenty-year-old with limited literary or worldly experience, I couldn’t yet understand Septimus Warren Smith’s self-judged inability to feel as a painful manifestation of his feeling too much, but I knew that I wanted to better understand him, and Clarissa, and Peter, and that day in June, and Woolf’s method of expressing consciousness and time, and her lyrical language. I too, like several others who have offered their recollections here, was puzzled to discover that most people outside of my literature courses (and even some within them) had only heard of Virginia Woolf in connection with Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” No one, including me, seemed to be able to explain the obscure connection between the two writers.
Subsequently, I was fortunate enough to study Virginia Woolf, with a focus on her response to the Russian writers, at Birkbeck College, University of London. It was truly thrilling to read all of her fiction while living in Bloomsbury. I’ll never forget my first reading of The Waves, with its tantalizingly-abstract characters and poetic language. Woolf’s expression of the arc of human experience over time struck me to my depths in a way no other novel had ever done. Yet the novel by Woolf to which I repeatedly return is To the Lighthouse, which I love for its profound representations of life and time and loss as well as its sublime poetic language. Every reading delivers something new.
While pursuing my doctoral degree on Woolf, I also had the good fortune to meet Leonard Woolf. The circumstance of conversing with him about Virginia Woolf’s life and fiction while sitting in the living room of Monk’s house left me, a very green graduate student, practically tongue-tied in awe. However, Leonard, who was 87 when I met him at the age of 23, was accessible and kind. Over the course of the year and a half that I knew him before he died, he was exceptionally generous to me and to other scholars with an interest in his wife’s work.
I’ve remained enthralled with Virginia Woolf for my entire academic career. Her stream of consciousness has changed my consciousness. In the process of re-reading, teaching, writing, and thinking about her novels and essays over the course of more than four decades, I have come to know not only Woolf but myself. Thank you, Virginia Woolf, for what you have meant not only for my scholarly life but for my inner life. – Roberta Rubenstein
“It looks like Roberta and I were relatively unusual as students in the 1960s who first encountered Virginia Woolf in a college classroom; there I, too, met Mrs. Dalloway and wrote my first paper on
Woolf. I can’t quite say it was love at first sight, as it apparently was for so many among us, but I was decidedly intrigued by the complexity of structure, the rendering of intersecting consciousnesses, the beautiful language. Knowing that I wanted to continue to study modernist fiction, I went on to graduate school, took a seminar focused on Woolf, and wrote my dissertation on her novels, trying to rise to the difficult task of `analyzing’ the ineffable. By then it was love, and Woolf has continued to haunt my consciousness for the 39 years since I completed that dissertation.
The classroom I most yearn to return to since retirement is the Woolf course that I taught every two or three years throughout my 33 years of teaching. No matter how often I read, reread, and taught Woolf’s amazing novels, I felt a new excitement each time I entered that classroom. Students tell me that they hear her words in my voice (which both pleases and horrifies me) but I could never resist reading those beautiful flowing passages aloud, especially the endlessly resonant To the Lighthouse. And I loved seeing the novels in their ever-new complexities as students read them through their own lives and experiences, through loves of their own. I also took real pleasure in teaching Three Guineas in an upper level interdisciplinary seminar in Women’s Studies–probing the complex insights into the intersections of masculine power structures and a culture of war, hoping that students would join me in resisting the power structures in which we are all immersed.Most recently, when I wrote and published my memoir of those years ( Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood), I continued to hear Woolf’s voice, echo her words, celebrate her luminous prose as best I could in my own struggles to find words for difficult meanings. And I returned to the ongoing insight: throughout my life as student and as teacher, I have learned to see the world and to hear language in ever-new ways through my reading of Woolf. I join the chorus: thank you, Virginia. And thanks to the Woolf list for prompting so many wonderful reflections.”
– Joanne Frye
“Finally reading these! What a wonderful thread… thanks to whoever started it. Mrs. Dalloway was my first. I found her at St. Mark’s Books in NYC during the fall of 1985. Who was she? Why was she buying flowers? I began to buy myself flowers at the local Korean grocery to keep in my dorm room. I wrote a mash note to an indie rock guy making him guess who wrote “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” He couldn’t. Then I wrote on the walls of my room in magic marker: “Pity, for the loss of roses.” I walked down 10th street in Greenwich Village looking up at the French windows, wishing I could burst them open and take the plunge myself into the early morning air (I had an 8:30 class). I was so disappointed to learn that Clarissa wasn’t me. But what a lark to read her as a girl of 18!”
– Catherine Hollis
“Oh, this is fun! I first encountered Woolf when I was a young kid; I found a box of 30 copies of A Room Of One’s Own and another 30 of `A Haunted House’ (and other stories) in our basement. I asked my dad, the English teacher, how this came to be, and was told that the high school had stopped teaching the books. He was hoping to bring at least one of them back into the curriculum. Well, he was the only “honors” English teacher for twelfth graders, so when I took his class, A Room of One’s Own did make it back into the syllabus! For a girl growing up in a rural small town, preparing to head to Barnard College in a year, it was a very big deal not only to read it, but to show my peers that my `crazy’ plan to go to this strange thing called a women’s college had, in fact, been quite unremarkable, for quite a long time. They still thought it was a crazy plan, but *in school* completely renewed my excitement about moving to a place where such conversations would be common place.” – Anne-Marie Lindsey
“This is the writing prompt I’ve been waiting for! After having studied German literature and somehow passed out of English course work at the College of William and Mary, I found myself working at a Catholic boys’ military school in Richmond, VA, teaching not only German but also American literature. Before my third year there, I was supposed to place a book on the summer reading list for the 11th graders. Not being all too familiar with Anglo-American teen-friendly literature, I asked my girlfriend for a recommendation. She thought Mrs. Dalloway might be a good choice. I had heard of Virginia Woolf (only from having heard the title of Albee’s play) and, having two Aunt Virginias myself, I figured she must also be American, if not also southern, as I was. So I put Mrs. Dalloway on the reading list.
Boy, was I surprised when I picked up a used copy to read a week before school was to begin! I read and re-read the first five pages of the book several times before giving up and calling my girlfriend for help. Being a bright Bryn Mawr graduate who loved the book and having friends from Brown and Swarthmore who were also more than willing to introduce me to the insights to be gained from the novel, she sat me down and, with her friends, taught me everything I needed to know about tunnel and phallic symbolism to get the boys interested in the big, bad Woolf. Or so we thought.
Just to be on the safe side, though, I read all the secondary literature on Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway to be found in the Richmond Public Library (this was 1988) and became enthralled by the many levels on which one could examine the novel. I had dealt with literature for many years and begun writing poetry and stories of my own, thus becoming aware of writing from the inside out. Teaching this book would be a challenge, but I thought I was up to it.
Unfortunately, 17-year-old boys are interested in only one thing, so I found myself dragging into the classroom a 6-foot grandfather’s clock which I found in the neighbor’s garbage. That phallic symbol, a constant reminder of Big Ben’s leaden circles, remained in the classroom — and in the boys’ memories — long after I stopped teaching there.That was my first experience reading and teaching the book.
The following year I moved to Germany and began studying English, where I took a course at the university on Woolf’s early novels. When we got to Mrs. Dalloway, I got to teach the class because I had taught it before and the professor hadn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse as well as our discussions about life in London during the teens and twenties.
Soon after that seminar I taught it to three classes of elder German women in adult education classes. A few years later, after The Hours had just been published, I taught the two together in an Introduction to Literature course at the University of Education. I had hoped to be able to explore Cunningham’s work on a literary level as well but was disappointed to find out how lacking it was in the kind of depth and texture that I appreciated so much in Woolf’s work.
In the meantime, I had made the acquaintance of Isota Tucker Epps, who was a friend of my mother’s in Richmond. She was 80 and had just learned to paint because she wanted to do a series of paintings representing her visions of Virginia Woolf’s works. Her painting teacher was the father of one of the students from that high school in Richmond where I first taught Woolf. I gave her a paper I had written about impressionism in Woolf’s early works and she commented on it in her very thorough manner. She showed me her paintings and her first editions and we had a lovely talk about Woolf’s opus. Years later I would discover that there was an International Virginia Woolf Society and that she had once been the president of it.
I have since taught Mrs. Dalloway a few more times at various universities and studied it with small reading groups and several friends. Delving into it again is something I can always count on to spark my intellectual curiosity and put me in awe. I have just splurged for my own copy of Helen Wussow’s British Library Manuscript of The Hours and am working my way through it. It is like listening to early bootlegs of my favorite band, discovering ur-variations of future well-wrought melodies.
On a side note, last semester I visited a university seminar during which Mrs. Dalloway was being taught. I realized it was the first time I had ever heard it being taught at that level. The focus was on the novel’s narrative style, which bored and confused both the students and me. During the tutorial, I tried to encourage the students to pay attention to the lively prose and emotional situations within and among the characters so that they could enjoy the text as much as I did. I am very much looking forward to Anne Fernald’s annotated edition of Mrs. Dalloway, something I had always wanted to work on!”
– Jim Martin
“Michael Cunningham tends to get knocked around a lot on this list, but that’s where the interest in Woolf started for me. While in college, I’d read bits of A Room of One’s Own in a literary theory anthology (where it was helpfully listed under “Feminism”), but very little else — no one else taught. In 1998, I read a rave review of The Hours in the gay magazine The Advocate a few months before it won the Pulitzer Prize, and I thought, “That sounds interesting.” I went straight to the bookstore, bought it, and read it in one sitting. I knew at that instant that my life was now different. I walked over to my bookshelves — about a year earlier, I’d bought a book-club four-pack paperback set of the Bell biography, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas which I’d not touched since. I picked up the Bell biography, began reading, and have not stopped with Woolf since that moment. As fortune would have it, I was beginning graduate school around that time, so I was free to make her the focus of my work and my writing. So yes, all because of Cunningham. I recognize his flaws, but it’s not all bad, folks. I’ve had plenty of students over the years begin reading Woolf after reading The Hours, which I think was Cunningham’s point all along.” – Drew Shannon
- Have You Read…? Virginia Woolf (wendyhouseblog.wordpress.com)