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Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

Ane Thon Knutsen in her home printshop

Editor’s Note: Today marks the 79th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, and as this post shows, she and her work continue to inspire artists and writers across the globe.

Virginia Woolf’s numerous experiences with illness led her to write the essay On Being Ill, published in 1930 by the Hogarth Press. Inspired by this work and the current coronavirus, Norwegian typesetter Ane Thon Knutsen, who has two projects focused on Woolf under her belt — A Printing Press of One’s Own and The Mark on the Wall — has now begun a third.

Woolf’s exploration of the consequences of illness

“Due to Covid-19 I have cast my eyes upon On Being Ill,” Knutsen explained. “This felt like something to get me through.

“The essay is about the consequence of illness; loneliness, isolation and vulnerability. But when we are forced to stop and slow down, we may notice the beauty in the small details of the world around us, and that our everyday, ordinary life is what we miss the most,” she said.

Working from home under quarantine in a printshop of her own

Ane Thon Knutsen’s letterpress

Knutsen, mother of a four-year-old, says her project allows her to combine motherhood with work under Norway’s self-imposed quarantine. The country made the move, which is in place at least until Easter, to stop the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

“I like being alone working, and I am blessed with a workshop at home. So I contemplated a Quarantine project that works with the circumstances,” she said.

Her project: using her printing press to print one sentence on one sheet of paper every day from On Being Ill “until we can go back to normal. I hope I will not make it through, as we’re counting about 140 sentences, and the paper is restricted to leftovers from my stock,” Knutsen explained.

Published on Instagram

Five days ago, she began posting a photo of each page on her Instagram account, @anethonknutsen. As of today, she is on sentence number six. The project, she says, “will present a very slow reading of the story.

“In the end (when that will be, who knows), I will make a box with all the sheets — like a calendar of sorts. Hopefully I will exhibit it as a wall piece in the future,” she said.

The project is set in 10-point Goudy Old Style. For the ink, Knutsen has “mixed a rich gray ink… inspired by the dust jacket by Vanessa Bell, and the colour of the lead type. It softens the appearance of the words on the page,” she explained on Instagram.

She hopes to print 20 copies, in a 208 mm x 135 mm format, the same as Woolf’s 1930 edition.

Sentence two from Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”

Sentence one from Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”

A tray filled with type set for Ane Thon Knutsen’s letterpress

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Today, no matter where we live in the world, we are feeling the effects of the coronavirus Viral Modernismpandemic. Events are cancelled or postponed and travel is curtailed. We are told to stay home and only go out when necessary, maintaining physical distancing when we venture outside to buy groceries or medicine or get some much-needed exercise.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived through the pandemic of their time, the Spanish flu, which raged worldwide from 1918-1919, while the couple were living in Richmond.

Estimated to have killed 100 million people around the globe and more than 250,000 in Britain alone, the Spanish flu also affected people close to the Woolfs. In July 1918 diary entries, Virginia notes that their London neighbor has influenza, later reporting that she has succumbed to the disease.

Virginia and influenza

Virginia herself contracted influenza at the end of 1919, confining her to her bed, and that episode is thought to be part of the pandemic strain. It was not her first bout with the flu; nor would it be her last. She suffered from it in 1916, in the early months of 1918 before the Spanish flu had reached Britain, and again in 1922, 1923, and 1925.

On Oct. 20 of 1918, Woolf’s diary entry includes this report:

Pain is abhorrent to all Stracheys, but making all allowances for the exaggerations and terrors of the poor creature, Lytton has had a sufficient dose of horror, I imagine, and the doctor privately warns Carrington that shingles may last months. However, Lytton, is probably… avoiding London, because of the influenza (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 & thus precipitate us into peace.)

Illness in the essay

Virginia’s experiences with illness led her to write the essay On Being Ill, published in 1930 by the Hogarth Press. And now that our own pandemic has taken center stage worldwide, some scholars are writing about how past epidemics have been described in literature, film, and the arts.

One such piece by Laura Cernat centers on Woolf’s essay. And Ane Thon Knutsen, a Norwegian typesetter and Woolf scholar, is in the midst of an art project focused on the work. But more on that later.

Illness in the novel

The 1918 pandemic also made its way into one of Virginia’s most famous novels — Mrs. Dalloway (1925) — but that fact often attracts minimal notice. When it comes to debilitating health conditions in that novel, the shell shock of Septimus Smith gets most of the attention from critics and readers. However, in Viral Modernism, the Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature, Elizabeth Outka argues that Woolf has centered the novel on influenza and presents Clarissa Dalloway as a pandemic survivor.

A post on the British Library website takes a similar tack and includes a quote from the novel.

“Clarissa is almost certainly a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918–20, but she is also to be one of the novel’s lingering wraiths: ‘Since her illness she had turned almost white’ (31).

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“Thinking is my fighting,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1940 essay “Thoughts On Peace in an Air Raid.” That still holds true today, International Women’s Day, and every day.

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“Shakespeare’s Sisters” is an essay in Rachel Cusk’s 2019 collection, Coventry (and the first one I turned to, for obvious reasons). She begins by asking, “Can we, in the twenty-first century, identify something that could be called ‘women’s writing’?”

In that context she discusses The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. “Between them,” she says, “they shaped the discourse of twentieth-century women’s writing,”

War vs. feelings

Eighty years later, as Cusk sees it, “a book about war is still judged more important than a book about ‘the feelings of women.’ Most significantly, when a woman writes a book about war she is lauded: she has eschewed the vast unlit chamber and the serpentine caves; there is the sense that she has made proper use of her room and her money, her new rights of property.

The woman writer who confines herself to her female ‘reality’ is by the same token often criticized. She appears to have squandered her room, her money.”

Just another women’s novel

Men have always written about the female experience–Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina come immediately to mind, as well as a number of novels by contemporary authors. I’ve seen some of these works praised to the skies, touted as the latest incarnation of the great American novel. Yet, still, too frequently, the women creating these novels are dismissed as writing just another woman’s novel.

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I often begin an essay without any thought of Virginia Woolf. I have an idea I want to explore—from personal experience, perhaps, a time or episode or person in my life, or something that’s caught my attention. I do research, both online and in the library, before I start writing, and map out my thoughts, how I want to proceed, what I want to say.

And then, out of the blue, she pops up. Threads I’m pursuing—about punctuation, baseball, and food, to name a few—evoke some connection to Woolf. I recall a passage, an incident, something from her life or work that relates to what I’m writing. Now it’s practically second nature to stop and think, what has Woolf said about this?

Two essays published last year—one about science, the other about maps and flanerie—wouldn’t have been complete without recourse to Woolf’s wit and wisdom:

More of my essays, including a trilogy about my Woolf pilgrimage, are on my blog.

 

 

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