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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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Vanessa and VirginiaAuthors of novels about real people have great freedom, in the name of fiction, to carve out their territory. Virginia Woolf and her coterie seem to be frequent subjects of these bold interpretations, and Woolfians are irresistibly drawn to them, myself included.

In recent years I have added to my shelves Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez, But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury by Gillian Freeman, and of course Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The latest is Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers.

An accomplished Woolf scholar, Sellers makes few departures from the lives of the sisters. At the recent Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, she confessed that she chose the form of a first-person monologue by Vanessa as she would have been terrified to try to speak in Woolf’s voice. Yet one can appreciate her creativity and the risk involved in this undertaking as she presents a provocative perspective.

Sellers conveys a forceful immediacy with Vanessa’s present tense narrative directed at Virginia, who is “you” throughout. The four shattering family deaths are related in the first three chapters, resounding, one after the other, with startling violence. Vanessa observes that, “If this were a work of fiction, instead of an attempt to discern the truth, then Stella’s death, coming so soon after Mother’s, would seem like malicious overload on the writer’s part” (35).

Susan Sellers

Susan Sellers

Her story is one of bitterness and relentless envy from the start, as she perceives Virginia usurping Thoby, Mother, and then Clive. She resents Virginia’s relationship with Leonard and Duncan’s with Bunny—someone else is always taking her place, and she has to care for everyone while no one takes care of her. Even Virginia’s illness becomes an accusation: “There was manipulation as well as helplessness in your loss of control. By relinquishing the burden to me, you ensured I remained in Mother’s place, parenting you, indulging you” (51).

Vanessa’s language is lyrical and painterly when speaking of the colors, textures and shapes in her paintings, but there’s little joy, and her art often seems like a sedative. Drawing classes in her youth enabled her to “forget your pain and Father’s misery and Stella’s cares” (27); she paints to avoid feeling. Self-disparaging comparisons to Virginia and a lack of confidence in her work lead to her cloying subservience to Duncan, in both art and life, and seem to diminish her as an artist and professional.

While Sellers skillfully and sensitively conveys the complexity and pathos of Vanessa’s life, she makes a few unnecessary forays. A few instances of foreshadowing seem gratuitous, but this is, after all, fiction.

Overall, I found it satisfying and compelling, and I read it from cover to cover on the day I departed New York following the Woolf Conference. It gave me food for thought as I descended from conference immersion and a long flight into daily life, and now, more than a month later, I find I’m still swishing it around, enjoying the flavor.

Vanessa and Virginia, by Susan Sellers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York, 2009.

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mrs-woof-and-servants-american-editionCUNY law professor Ruthann Robson has published an extensive essay on Alison Light’s book Mrs Woolf and the Servants in the Berkeley Journal of  Gender, Law and Justice, and you can read it online. 

“A Servant of One’s Own: The Continuing Class Struggle in Feminist Legal Theories and Practices” looks at Woolf, Light’s book, and contemporary “servant” problems in United States law and culture. The essay considers the role of feminist legal theories in confronting the continuing issue of domestic service, according to Robson.

You can read the essay on Robson’s Web site. You can also read about the critical response to the American edition here.

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