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Posts Tagged ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Share a photo of your room of your own with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Monks House.

The National Trust property in Rodmell, East Sussex, is creating a Woolf installation in her writing lodge, and there are two ways you can get involved:

  • Send an image of “A Room of Your Own” and briefly describe what you do in the space.
  • Donate your copy of the book, highlighting your favorite word, lines, or passage. Doodles, highlights and margin notes are welcome!

All images used will be added to a database and combined with other images to create an audio-visual installation. Books will not be returned.

Find out more about the A Room of One’s Own project.

This project explores the significance of the room in Virginia Woolf’s text as a creative space, be it real or psychological. – National Trust website

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What Would Virginia Woolf Do? That’s the name of a Facebook group and a book. And I have to wonder what Woolf would do if she saw either one. 

Would she be flattered? Would she be horrified? Would she be angry? Would she be disgusted?

Critic Daphne Merkin, a memoirist and cultural critic who is a non-posting member of the group, told The New York Times that Woolf would be mortified.

I know I’m mortified for her. Let me explain why.

The Facebook group that misses Woolf

First came the Facebook group started by Nina Lorez Collins, a former literary agent, writer and mother of four grown children, while she was going through a self-admitted midlife crisis.

She saw the group as a safe and private space for women to talk about their problems and propose solutions with which Woolf might agree. She describes it on Facebook as:

“A closed, confidential, forum for women over 40 with a bent toward the literary, witty, and feminist. A place to discuss, support, and share things that we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.”

According to a March 28 story in the “Style” section of the New York Times, the group has more than 7,600 followers across the country.

A Woolfian lurking among the Woolfers

Members of Collins’ Facebook group call themselves Woolfers. I became one of them this week so I could see for myself what the group was all about. I had to attest to the fact that I was over 40, submit a list of books I had recently read, and give my email address in order to submit my name for membership.

Once approved, I was able to view the group’s members — numbering 8,419 as of today — its posts, photos, videos, book lists, etc.

Only two of the posts I scrolled through mentioned Woolf and a few unidentified photos pictured her books or her home at 29 Fitzroy Square. Of the two book lists I skimmed, one included To the Lighthouse and another recommended that novel, along with A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.

The posts I scanned were about sunscreen, teenagers, college tours, vaginal dryness, fasting, colonoscopies, tinted eyebrows, traveling to Hawaii, poetry, a writing contest, Mary Magdalene, furry slippers and wearing bejeweled sandals with a chipped pedicure.

Recommendations on the site included such things as restaurants, hotels, spas, shops, universities and museums, but I saw nothing connected to Woolf.

I also noticed that the instructions to group members mentioned Woolf only once: “For the Love of God, Please spell Woolf Correctly!” I would also say: For the love of Woolf, please punctuate and capitalize correctly, particularly in an admonition invoking her name.

Collins herself mentions Woolf in a couple of her posts — one noting the anniversary of her death and another including two phrases from “On Being Ill,” although she doesn’t cite the source.

Note: Within a few hours of this post going live, Collins or one of her administrators kicked me out of her Facebook group. Thank you for the honor, Ms. Collins.

The book title without a punchline

Now Collins has parlayed the private Facebook group into a book, coming out in hardcover this month, whose official title is What Would Virginia Woolf Do?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology.

The book, said to include personal essays, is billed as “Part memoir and part resource on everything from fashion and skincare to sex and surviving the empty nest” and “a frank and intimate conversation mixed with anecdotes and honesty, wrapped up in a literary joke.” The website describes its title as “ironic.”

But where’s the irony and what’s the joke? If it’s connected to Woolf’s suicide, I consider that an obvious cheap shot. If it’s connected to something else, that connection is not apparent or explained.

Where’s the Woolf?

The book’s title sends the message that Collins consults Woolf’s writing and life for answers to questions raised by group members. But that isn’t the case.

If the book’s content reflects the Facebook group, it will be focused on the kinds of things a frank women’s magazine for women over 40 that is supported by advertising would discuss — skincare, diet, weight loss, fashion, and relationships — all centered on aging. I don’t see Woolf in this.

The New York Times agrees. It described the book as “a sometimes wince-inducing primer on fashion, sex, marriage, divorce, money and health.” Nevertheless, the book and the group have grabbed headlines. News of both has spread to the UK and Australia.

Wince-inducing Woolfers

The NYT winced at the book, but I am wincing at more than that. The Times says some (insert wince here) “Woolfers” do more than complain and kvetch. They have also formed subgroups that focus on philanthropy, activism, business networking and writing.

That’s nice. But take a look at Collins’ website and you’ll find more to wince at. It includes the wince-inducing word “Woolfer” so frequently that I could barely continue reading, and it has a blog rife with predictable alliterative topic headings such as “Woolfer Wins” and “Woolfer Wisdom.”

There’s a “Shop” tab on the site with this sales pitch: “From t-shirts to tote bags to vibrator necklaces, we’ve got what you need to get decked out like a true Woolfer.”

The “Resources” tab on the site includes a long list of recommended books by women, but only one — To the Lighthouse — by Woolf.

Collins’ characterization of Woolf? “[A] brilliant feminist I admire, a woman who chose to end it all in her late 50s.”

Collins links us to her own published writing, including her tale of how she was arrested three times in connection with domestic abuse against her ex-husband.

Would Woolf use cheap alliteration, hawk vibrator necklaces, exploit the suicide of another writer, and abuse her husband? I think not.

Just read the real deal

Virginia Woolf was an intelligent and thoughtful writer who valued her readers, as well as the importance of language and history and literature. Her thinking, along with her writing, was brilliant and precise, groundbreaking and timeless.

There are self-help books that do a wonderful job of invoking Woolf to give advice about writing and about life. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons and The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones, come to mind.

Collins’ book is not in the same league. Not by a long shot.

And although I am not embarrassed by vaginas — indeed, I celebrate them — it pains me to see Woolf’s name in the middle of a hot pink vagina graphic on the cover of a cheesy self-help book that exploits her iconic status.

While Collins has every right to age without apology and write whatever she wants without apology, too, she owes Woolf a huge apology for using her name to sell this cheap work. Why? Because it reflects the sad shallowness of pop culture, not Woolf.

The website calls it “A must-have handbook for modern-day women aged 40-100.”

I say the must-have handbook for women of any age is anything by Woolf, starting with A Room of One’s Own.

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Speculative fiction, aka sci-fi – a world where at first young women, then all women, discover they have physical powers, superpowers, that enable them to rise up against the patriarchy.

One review of The Power called it “Hunger Games crossed with Handmaid’s Tale.” The author, Naomi Alderman, claims Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin as mentors and models.

I read it with nary a thought of Woolf, caught up in the story and its key characters. So imagine my surprise and delight when I came across this subtle reference, accessible only to those in the know.

A sympathetic male journalist encounters one of the most powerful of the women during an extreme crisis and hopes she will help him:

“A fragment of something he read a long time ago floats through his mind. A flattering looking glass. He has to be a flattering mirror for her, reflecting her at twice her ordinary size, making her seem to herself to be strong enough to do this thing he needs her to do.”

I was able to contact Naomi Alderman and asked if she could say something about her decision to paraphrase this particular concept from A Room of One’s Own. Her reply:

“Firstly because ARoOO is just so so good. Secondly because I found that part particularly relevant to my own life, and how a good Orthodox Jewish girl is supposed to be ‘trained’ to behave – to tell men they’re wonderful all the time. And because it is so horrifying when you realise you’ve been doing it, and because in the moment of writing this scene I understood why in extremis it has been necessary for women to do this, to save their own lives.”

On the subject of women, misogyny and power, it’s ironic that the next book on my stack is Mary Beard’s Women & Power. Same subject but a far different style and approach. But both timely and powerful. When Woolf urged women to write she didn’t say to write futuristic thrillers or feminist manifestos; she said “write what you wish.”

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Ane Thon Knutsen with her hand-bound volume “A Printing Press of One’s Own,” introduced at this year’s Woolf conference in Reading, England.

Ane Thon Knutsen combined two loves with her project A Printing Press of One’s Own — her love of Virginia Woolf and her love of typesetting.

The two come together in her hand-set volume by the same name, which she debuted at the 27th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf at the University of Reading in June.

It includes Ane’s personal, heartfelt essay about her experience finding a space of her own in which she could pursue her passion — typesetting. Her search occurred at a personally challenging time, soon after becoming a mother.

The intersection of the two — and the rescue role Woolf played in it — comprise her story. It includes her experiences conducting research at the British Library, which allowed her to handle the first volumes Virginia and Leonard printed on the Hogarth Press.

About that, she writes:

What contrasts! In some cases they have really tried to print appealing books, but in others they have not made the effort, or investment of time. Inkblots. Everything off-kilter. The complete disregard for the sanctity of the type area. Scraps of paper crookedly pasted on to cover up misspelled names. Damaged types which had not been replaced. These are not books considered worthy of dignified display alongside William Morris and Gutenberg’s bible. This smacked more of punk rock and anarchy. The books bear the marks of temper and a strong will. I was touched.

The essay also includes Ane’s ruminations on why Woolf did not write about the time she spent with the typecase. As Ane puts its,  “She, who could name the feelings, details and experiences we let slip by unmentioned, was perfectly qualified to describe the meditation of typesetting.”

Thoughts of her own

According to Ane, “The book is an essay referring to A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. The essay reflects upon women’s role in letterpress, and the importance of a room of one’s own in artistic practices.

“In this book I am investigating the first books printed by Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, both in practice and in the written ‘dialogue’ between Virginia Woolf and myself, as we are both self-taught typesetters.”

Two versions

The illustrations throughout both the English and Norwegian versions of the volume are linocuts by Ane’s artist sister, Ylve Thon. All text is hand set and printed together with linocuts on a proofing press.

The English version has a blue cover, is digitally printed, and contains handprinted linocuts and is hand-bound. Both are for sale, with the English version priced at £18. The handset Norwegian version is £75.

Ane’s volume is part of her artistic research project in graphic design at Oslo National Academy of the arts, where she works on a project investigating tactility in printed matter.

You can follow her on Instagram @anetutdelaflut.

“A Printing Press of One’s Own” by Ane Thon Knutsen – Photo courtesy of Ane Thon Knutsen

A look inside – Photo courtesy of Ane Thon Knutsen

Linocuts in the volume are by Ane’s sister, the artist Ylve Thon. – Photo courtesy of Ane Thon Knutsen

Ane’s books among some of her typesetting equipment. – Photo courtesy of Ane Thon Knutsen

Ane met Cecil Woolf at the conference, and he graciously signed a limited edition Hogarth Press centenary keepsake of Woolf’s “The Patron and the Crocus,” available from Whiteknights Press.

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I’m not a literary snob—well, maybe a bit—but I’ve never had any interest in John Grisham’s blockbuster novels. I’d heard they’re page-turners, well written even though formulaic, good distractions if that’s what you’re after.

Then a friend told me that his new novel, Camino Island, wasn’t his typical corporate/legal skullduggery, that it was summer fun—a beach read—about the theft of Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts from the Princeton Library. The story focuses on a novelist and a bookseller in a Florida island community. Sounded promising, and the deal-maker was a Virginia Woolf reference.

Grant, a bookstore owner and collector of rare books, is showing some of his favorite acquisitions to Mercer, whom he’s trying to seduce and who is a plant, hired by Princeton’s insurer to spy on Grant for any possible connection to the stolen manuscripts. He extracts his most valuable book from safekeeping, a signed first edition of Catcher in the Rye (prized because Salinger seldom signed his books). Mercer mentions that she taught it once but that it’s not a favorite. She prefers female writers. He then brings out the rarest book he has by a woman, A Room of One’s Own.

 Mercer: “I love this book. I read it in high school and it inspired me to become a writer, or at least give it a shot.” She recites the key line: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” They discuss Woolf—“so brave,” “a tortured soul”—and writers’ sufferings and destructive behaviors.

Mercer has been struggling to write a second novel, several years after the success of her first. Now, with free time and the windfall she’s getting from the insurance company, the narrator observes: “With a room of her own and some money in her pocket, perhaps she could settle in and write some fiction.”

The beginning grabbed me—the heist—but it was disappointing after that, with a bit of punch at the end. I tried to enjoy it, but I found Mercer a not very interesting and not very convincing protagonist. It was a quick read, and I did stick with it until the end to find out what happened to the manuscripts. But, like Mercer, I prefer to read women authors.

Still, there was Woolf—existing in the lofty presence of Fitzgerald and Salinger, Hemingway and Faulkner, holding her own with all that testosterone.

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In the video posted here, Fiona Shaw does a masterful reading of “Shakespeare’s Sister” from Virginia Woolf’s feminist polemic,  A Room of One’s Own (1929), which was based on a series of lectures Woolf gave at Cambridge University in October 1928.

Woolf’s speech is one of several featured in the digital project Figures of Speech,” presented by the Almeida Theatre in London.

The project places history’s greatest speeches centre stage through a series of films read by well-known actors speaking the words of important historical figures and moments, to explore how they resonate in 2017.

Besides Woolf’s speech, the project also includes talks by:

  • Labour Party Politician Neil Kinnock spoken by Ashley Walters
  • American politician Harvey Milk spoken by Ian McKellen
  • Nelson Mandela spoken by Lucian Msamati
  • AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser spoken by Nicola Walker

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A Virginia Woolf Word Portrait arrived this morning. Created by Akron artist John Sokol, an admirer of Woolf and her writing, the portrait is entirely made up of Woolf’s words from A Room of One’s Own. Across her forehead: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction”. And so she did. Best. Christmas. Present. Ever. 

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