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Dr. Trudi Tate of the University of Cambridge has shared a review of Jane de Gay’s new book, Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture (2018). Jane is professor of English literature at Leeds Trinity University.

Read the review on the Literature Cambridge website.

Woolf and Christian Culture (2018). Read it here.

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Vanessa & Her SisterNearly everyone has reviewed Priya Parmar’s novel, Vanessa and Her Sister. But I haven’t read much about Lea Rachel’s The Other Shakespeare.

Together, they make up a tale of two sisters–Virginia Woolf’s and William Shakespeare’s.

Parmar’s novel drops us down into the middle of the Bloomsbury Group, as seen by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s fictional work creates a life for Judith Shakespeare, the character Woolf imagined for us in A Room of One’s Own (1929).

I read both novels recently. And while I would not want to miss Parmar’s, I enjoyed Rachel’s more. The reason? It was easier for me to suspend my disbelief about the life of a young woman in the sixteenth century who is Shakespeare’s sister than it was for me to do the same for Woolf, Vanessa and their friends.

Vanessa and Her Sister

Because I know a bit more about the Bloomsberries than I do about Shakespeare and his family, I felt uncomfortable while I read Vanessa and Her Sister. At first, I read with a hyper-critical eye, trying to separate truth from fiction, on the alert for any misstep, any word or phrase, action or tone that didn’t ring true. I wondered whether the telegrams and letters Parmar includes in the novel were copies of actual documents. Then, when I did some online research, I wondered why they weren’t.

By the middle of the novel, I relaxed a bit, enjoying the story Parmar spins so expertly — and happy to feel as though I was privy to the inner workings of this famous group of friends, thanks to Parmar’s thorough research. The diary entries from Vanessa and the letters and telegrams from other Bloomsbury Group members — all created by Parmar — made Vanessa’s perspective on this group of friends within which she played a central role seem mostly believable to me.

But my anxiety returned when the author covers the twisted relationship between Virginia and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell and delves into Vanessa’s tortured reaction to it. It was just too difficult for me to focus that much of my attention on such a one-sided view of Virginia’s very bad behavior as she woos Clive’s affection and attention away from Vanessa, who has so recently given birth to the couple’s first child, Julian. After that, I couldn’t wait for the book to end.

Critical reaction

Lesley McDowell, the author of The Independent’s review of Vanessa and Her Sister, had the opposite reaction. She wished the book “would never end” and praised its delicious gossip, beautiful writing and the near-perfect portrayal of the sibling rivalry between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Other reviews of the book and interviews with the author include an NPR interview, reviews in the New York Times and Wilton Bulletin, and mentions in USA Today, the New York Daily News, The Missoulian, and on the Glamour blog

The Other Shakespeare

The Other Shakespeare, which I read next, is much lighter fare, despite its tragic ending. Rachel’s tale of Judith, The Other Shakespearethe imagined elder sister of William Shakespeare who creates little dramas and organizes her siblings to stage them in the woods near their family home, was entertaining.

Rachel’s novel kept my interest and attention as it follows Judith from her small village to London, exploring her life as well as the gender politics that her role as daughter, sister, servant, lover and writer entail. The author does a nice job of detailing the ways Judith is denied opportunity and fulfillment simply because she is female. She works them into the story quite neatly, thus developing Woolf’s original premise about Judith in A Room of One’s Own.

And the novel includes references to Woolf and her writing, the identification of which entitle the reader to enter a contest for an Amazon.com gift card giveaway. You can even try out the first chapter of the novel for free by downloading the first chapter as a PDF.

Both books are worth a read. Read Vanessa and Her Sister if you are a true Woolf devotee and don’t want to be left out of the discussion about the novel. And read The Other Shakespeare for fun as well as insights into a woman’s life in 16th-century England.

Then stay tuned for Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent.

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With the exception of Virginia and Leonard Woolf themselves, Caroline Zoob and her husband Jonathan are thevw garden only two people who have had access to the garden at Monk’s House year in and year out. But we can all get a glimpse of the year-round beauty of that special place through Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House

As Zoob puts it in her Introduction, the couple “opened the curtains each day to see the garden spread out below, still shaped according to Leonard’s inspiration” during their decade-long tenancy of Monk’s House, from 2000-2011.

And in his Foreward to the volume, Cecil Woolf, Leonard’s nephew, offers recollections that go back even farther. He writes about his visits, beginning in 1936, to “that charming house and garden” where he pushed open “the creaking wooden gate” to what he remembers as a “little Eden.” The book, he writes, “brings back memories of long-ago visits before and after the war.”

Story of a home and garden’s evolution

Zoob’s 192-page book is divided into seven chapters that tell the story of the home and the garden’s evolution since 1919, when the Woolfs discovered the home in Rodmell, Sussex and were immediately enamored of the garden. The hefty book gives us a tour of that garden and fills in the background as well. And at the end of each chapter, a different garden “room” is described in detail.

Featured throughout are full-color photographs by Caroline Arber, who was a frequent visitor to Monk’s House during the Zoob’s tenure at the home. The photos include wide views of garden elements such as The Flower Walk — the borders running from the lawn steps to the Orchard — and crisp close-ups of individual flowers, such as Leonard’s beloved roses. They show Monk’s House and its garden transformed by the seasons — with the bursting bulbs of spring, the vibrantly colorful blooms of summer and the snow-capped garden sculptures of winter.

Old alongside the new

Archival photos of the Woolfs and their friends at Monk’s House are juxtaposed alongside photos of Monk’s House in the present day. An old photo that I had never before seen pictures Virginia standing outside her first writing lodge, which was converted from a toolshed. Zoob found the photo at Sissinghurst, and although a cropped version was printed in Volume 3 of Woolf’s Letters, the untrimmed new version includes the loft ladder.

Leonard's desk, as pictured on Pages 122-123.

Leonard’s desk, as pictured on Pages 122-123.

Interior close-ups of such things as both Virginia’s and Leonard’s writing desks are a special treat. Others show intimate views of details not available to visitors to the house. One includes an oak step leading toward the kitchen that is visibly work with use. Another is a 1970 photo showing the kitchen before the National Trust remodeled it for tenants.

Charming garden layouts in textiles

Another charming element of the book are the garden layouts. At first glance, they all look like watercolor sketches — and some of them are — but upon closer inspection it is clear others are textile art — a combination of embroidery and appliqué with inserted text.

Treasure available Oct. 14

The Italian Garden, picture in fabric art at left and in a photograph at right.

The Italian Garden, pictured in fabric art at left and in a photograph at right.

The book, an indispensable treasure for any Woolf fan, Anglophile, or gardener, will be available in hardback from from Jacqui Small Publishing Oct. 14.

Zoob, an embroiderer and textile artist, is the author of The Hand-Stitched Home and Childhood Treasures.

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It’s over now, but if you had the opportunity to see A Good Day: Love, Death and Virginia Woolf on stage at the Royal Northern College of Music Studio Theater in Manchester, England, it seems likely you would have given it a good rating.

Remotegoat did. The UK site gave the play four stars.

Reviewer Frank Hill’s overwhelmingly positive response can be summed up by this statement: “A Good Day tackles a difficult subject, but with a strong cast and sensitive direction from Helen Perry this proved to be a reflective and thoughtful evening at the theatre, which, like the author’s work itself, raises as many questions as it answers.”

Stuart N. Clarke, regular poster to the VW Listserv, keeper of an extensive Woolf and Bloomsbury bibliography, and editor of volumes five and six of The Essays of Virginia Woolf, was in the audience. In an early morning message to the list, he complimented the poetic quality of the script and the fact that it presented Woolf as a great writer.

The new play, described as a dramatic love story that gives a mesmerising and compelling view of Woolf’s final hours, according to producers Brian M Clarke and Tom Elliott, was produced in honor of the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death.

The play had a short run, April 14-16, and was promoted by Beat Productions.

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Editor’s Note: Patricia Laurence, Woolf scholar and professor of English at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, attended the March 16 performance of Room and wrote this review.

Lauren "projecting a stillness of mind"

Imagine a string of pearls–“moments of being”–from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and A Sketch of the Past strung together in a dramatic adaptation. This is the experience of attending Room, an admirable production mounted by the New York Women’s Project, under the direction of Ann Bogart, and adapted from Woolf’s works by Jocelyn Clarke.

These “moments” are a part of Woolf’s philosophy that a great part of our everyday life is lived as “non-being,” or what she calls the “cotton wool” of ordinary experience. But “one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does,” asserts Woolf, and behind “the cotton wool” of the every day is a hidden pattern. This pattern is revealed in exceptional and infrequent “illuminations, matches struck in the dark,” moments of being.

It is these moments that are revisited in Room a praiseworthy effort to bring Virginia Woolf’s words and advice about writing and reading to broader audiences–though the night I attended, the words were addressed  to, mostl,y a room of women.

Though imaginatively choreographed by Ellen Lauren and Ann Bogart—at times, almost a dance of the body to accompany the dance of Woolf’s mind–this production misses the mark. In transforming Woolf’s writing into a dramatic production, it ignores her philosophy and her own pattern of narration—that moments of being are embedded in the ordinary cotton wool of experience and, therefore, shine all the brighter when they occur.

In this production, moments and polemics combine and are too densely packed to have their effect. Where, one wonders, is the cotton wool, the ordinary stuff of life, to buffer and frame these moments in the experience of the theatergoer? This is not just Woolf’s philosophy but also a principle of drama.

The production begins with Virginia Woolf among us: “Good Evening,” says the cool voice of Ellen Lauren, as she makes her way down the aisle to the stage, tall and lean as Woolf. She asks us to “Imagine a room, your own….” and the stage for the next ninety minutes becomes that material and inner room of the mind so important to women and fiction. It is a room with a closed door that invites women to write.

Originally A Room of One’s Own was a lecture delivered to the women of Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge University, in 1928– the year full equal voting rights would be extended to women in England—and then published in written form, 1929. Given the times, Woolf is always self-conscious about tone as she weaves her arguments against the exclusion of women from education, jobs and the material conditions necessary to the writing of fiction. Sensitive always to how the male audience would “hear” and be persuaded by her lecture—Woolf works by stealth and indirection in arguing and avoids stridency of tone. At times, in Bogart’s production this tone is violated, absorbing didacticism and assertiveness from another time and place.

Nevertheless, we listen attentively to the flight of Woolf’s mind, and her reflections on “what is meant by reality”; how the writer has “a shock-receiving capacity”; the “moments of being” of appreciating a flower “that is the whole” or experiencing revulsion at violence. And, importantly, in portraying Woolf in this production, how memoirs too often are failures because they say, “this is what happened” but “they leave out the person to whom things happened.” In finale, it is asserted that “you cannot write without a room of your own,” and money, a material condition that Woolf would have added to this production.

There were some wonderful moments in this production where Ellen Lauren captured the rapture and the waves in the synchrony of Woolf’s words and her body. What is intriguing about this production is that the actress, and Ann Bogart, the director and founder of the SITI theater company with Tadashi Suzuki, studied photographs of Woolf and created a lexicon of physical structures, what they term “a sort of alphabet.”

As the words of Woolf unfolded during the production, there was a physical score, so that at one moment, we observe Lauren bent sideward over a chair, magically not touching it, and projecting a stillness of mind. At another time, she dances the rapture of Woolf’s words. It is this–the choreography of words, mind and body that speaks to a new kind of acting and direction in Woolf productions (and, hopefully, productions that will involve astute Woolf critics and scholars in the process).

For those living in NYC, there are two more days–through Sunday, March 27—to see this production.

Blogging Woolf readers can save on tickets to Room

 

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Laurence is the author of Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes

After she attends tonight’s performance of Room, Woolf scholar Patricia Laurence will write a review of the play based on Virginia Woolf’s writing. 

Laurence is is a writer, critic and professor of English at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York.

The play is on stage through March 27 at the  Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th St., and Blogging Woolf readers can get half-price tickets by using the code you will find at this link.

Read more about Woolf’s Room on stage in NY March 12-27.

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You may be way ahead of me—I know I’m not the first on my block to read Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, newly released in paperback and in the top ratings on IndieBound.org and the New York Times Book Review.

A bit of a book snob, I suppose, I tend to shy away from the bestsellers, but a novel about a Sussex village—how could I resist? I put it on reserve at the public library some months ago and forgot about it until last week when I was notified that it was being held for me at my local branch.

I read it in a couple of sittings, charmed from beginning to end. Delightful and well written, it’s a contemporary novel of manners, an adult romance founded on a love of literature, a morality tale against racism and greed, all set in the East Sussex countryside, Virginia Woolf’s beloved landscape.

And of course, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking about Woolf and her life in Rodmell, about my own times there, brief tastes of village life, walks on the downs and to the coast, lunches at charming country pubs.

Like Woolf, Major Pettigrew is a walker who observes the colors and the smells around him, even on frequently traveled terrain. He loves the stroll down the hill from his house to the village center of Edgecombe St. Mary: “Behind him, the hills swelled upward into the rabbit-cropped grass of the chalk downs. Below him the Weald of Sussex cradled fields full of late rye and the acid yellow of mustard.”

While Edgecombe St. Mary and its neighboring villages are fictional, a reference to the Romney Marsh was a clue that it was set in the area around Rye (known as Tilling to all of us Mapp and Lucia fans). Simonson indeed grew up in that region, which she describes, on her website, as “literary country.” She credits the heritage of Henry James at Lamb House in Rye, Kipling’s Bateman’s at Burwash, and Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House in Rodmell as a great inspiration.

Woolf doesn’t make an appearance in the novel by name, but she’s there in spirit. While the Major and Mrs. Ali bond over Kipling, I can imagine them reading and exchanging impressions about To the Lighthouse.

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