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Review by Tatiana Krasavchenko, Leading Researcher, Institute of Social Sciences Information, Russian Academy of Sciences

Virginia Woolfs Portraits of Russian Writers by Darya Protopopova
Hardcover: 244 pages
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 1 edition (April 1, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1527527530
ISBN-13: 978-1527527539

From learning to read Chekhov in original, to being haunted by Sophia Tolstoy’s attempted suicide – Virginia Woolf’s engagement with Russian literature was as dramatic as it was essential to the modernists in their search for cultural alternatives urgently needed to revitalize traditional forms in British literature and art.

The first part of this new study of Virginia Woolf’s international context follows the daughter of the conservative Victorian Lesley Stephen as she befriends anti-tsarist émigrés, dresses up like a Russian ballerina, and publishes pamphlets on the Soviet Union.

The main part of the book explores her views on the four Russian writers she most admired: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Woolf’s essays are set side by side with other writings on Russian literature that were familiar to her, including works by Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and Edward Garnett.

However, the book does not simply lay out facts about Woolf’s Russian literary encounters. It uses Woolf’s preoccupation with Russian literature as a key to understanding one of the key processes in European culture – the creation of the cultural Other.

Response to Russian art

The book explores Woolf’s interpretations of Russian literature as part of a wider response to Russian art in British culture of the time. It portrays Woolf’s literary and biographical encounters with the Slavonic ‘Other’ in their full socio-cultural significance. The book carefully documents how Woolf used her essays on Russian writers as a platform for expressing her views on fiction, translation, biography, and, most importantly, on what constitutes new realism in literature.

The major difference between this book and the existing studies of Woolf’s response to Russian literature (see, for example, Rebecca Beasley, Russomania: Russian Culture and the Creation of British Modernism, 1881-1922, Oxford University Press, 2017, and Claire Davison, Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S.S. Koteliansky, Edinburgh University Press, 2014) is its attempt to place her writings about Russian novelists within a historical context. Woolf was anxious to go beyond seeing Russian literature from the national point of view. She became intensely interested in biographies of Russian writers which showed her how diverse their philosophical and moral positions were, and suggested how impossible it was to unite them under one label of ‘Russianness’. In order to examine Woolf’s dialogue with her contemporaries regarding the national element in literature, this book sets her reviews and essays on the Russians side by side with other modernists’ writings.

The book invites a wider readership with its discussion of the Russian ballet designs familiar to Woolf, paintings by Boris Anrep and Natalia Goncharova, also known to Woolf through her friendship with Anrep, as well as via Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, and, finally, photographs of Woolf and her Russian friends.

Explores links to Fry and Eliot

Since Roberta Rubenstein’s study Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), scholars have made significant discoveries about the importance of continental art and literature to British modernists. Protopopova’s book continues this line of research, linking Woolf’s essays on the Russians to Roger Fry’s interest in Russian Post-Impressionists and T.S. Eliot’s love for Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes.

The book exhibits the full extent of intimacy with which Woolf knew the then newly translated Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, as a result of her earnest attempts to read the Russians in original. Quoting from the Russian sources, Protopopova illustrated the precision of Woolf’s remarks on Russian literature, thus allowing her readers to continue their own dialogue with Woolf or, perhaps, challenge Woolf’s vision of Russian authors – the vision she at times adapted to fit her idea of new literary forms.

The book is aimed primarily at academic audiences: modernist scholars, art critics, historians of British cultural exchanges, scholars of Russian literature, and specialists in inter-civilizational studies. It will also appeal to undergraduate and postgraduate students of English and Russian literature, as well as a wider circle of admirers of Virginia Woolf and Russian literature.

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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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Female friends are special. I often wonder what I would do without them. So I like to take note of stories about longtime women friends.

This was particularly true during the past week. Knowing that today I was on the blog tour schedule to publish a review of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, stories of women’s friendships kept popping out at me.

I’ll share just two of them before adding the promised review.

Akron Beacon Journal article featuring the lifelong friendship of two women, now 94 and 100.

Women friends on a local level

Yesterday, the front page of my local newspaper featured such a close friendship.  It told the story of two women — one black, one white — who led a Girl Scout troop in an all-white community back in 1954 and became fast friends, as did their daughters.

Women friends on a national level

Last week, a lecture I attended by Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016) spoke of the importance of women’s friendships throughout U.S. history. She also emphasized how those intimate friendships sustained and supported women when their marriage relationships, often entered into solely for financial reasons, did not.

Women’s literary friendships

Women writers had sustaining friendships with female friends, too. But as  Margaret Atwood says in her foreward to A Secret Sisterhood, female literary friendships have often been overlooked.

Midorikawa and Sweeney bring them into the limelight in their 2017 book, A Secret Sisterhood. Now out in paperback in the UK, it explores the “secret sisterhoods” entered into by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. My focus will be on the book’s final section, whose three chapters explore the ambivalent friendship between Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

Woolf and Mansfield: friends or foes, cat or mouse?

Anyone who studies Woolf knows that there is much discussion of the love-hate relationship between Woolf and Mansfield. In Secret Sisters, Midorikawa and Sweeney bring it into clear focus.

They are careful to describe the complicated relationship between the two, showing us how and why Woolf considered Mansfield both her “bitter opponent and beloved friend — unrivaled by any other” (260). They use excerpts from letters, diaries and more to compile a detailed timeline that clarifies the relationship without oversimplifying its nuances.

The authors follow the relationship between the two writers from its spring 1917 beginnings in Mansfield’s humble Chelsea flat, where Woolf offered Mansfield the opportunity to have her work published with the newly formed Hogarth Press, to the news, delivered by Woolf’s maid Nellie Boxall in January 1923, that Mansfield had died.

In between, Midorikawa and Sweeney document the ups and downs of their professional alliance, as well as their personal relationship. Among them are Garsington gossip, the rivalry between the two to use the Garsington garden as the setting for a short story, and the ways they supported each other’s literary careers while engaging in creative competition.

We also get an inside view of Mansfield’s ill health and financial challenges, Woolf’s mixed feelings about Mansfield’s work, and the insecurities each woman had about the other as both a trusted friend and literary sounding board.

A Secret Sisterhood lays out the intimate inner workings of the friendship and competition between Woolf and Mansfield, setting theories and rumors to rest and illuminating a relationship characterized by a “rare sense of communion” (250) that has interested their readers for decades.

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A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, is out in paperback in the UK today.

In the U.S. we have to wait until Oct. 16 for the paperback version of the hardcover book that debuted last October. But that doesn’t mean we must wait to read about it.

Touring the blogs

The authors have arranged a blog tour to celebrate the paperback release as well as Women’s History Month. The tour started today, March 1, and runs through March 19, with a variety of bloggers publishing reviews of the book.

The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. Last, but not least is Blogging Woolf. If you have read the book — or read about it — you’ll know BW will focus on the three chapters and 63 pages of “Part 4: Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.” But I’m also eager to read the forward by Margaret Atwood.

Thanks to Emily and Emma for the invitation to participate in the blog tour. The hardcover version of their book has been front and center on my bookshelf for months now, so I’m glad to have a deadline to spur my reading.

Thoughts from an author

“My PhD. was on Woolf, so the Mansfield and Woolf section was a particular joy to research,” wrote Emma in an email.

“As for Margaret Atwood — what an act of literary sisterhood. We approached her after a public lecture (something we share in the book’s epilogue), and could hardly believe it when she agreed to take a look.”

Catching the eye of a 12-year-old

It’s title even caught the interest of my 12-year-old grandson, Michael, who was home sick from school with a tummy bug this week. Camped out on my home office sofa while his mom was at work, his eyes lit on the cover of Secret Sisterhood. It must have sounded mysteriously intriguing because he asked what the book was about. I gave him a two-sentence synopsis.

That may have burst the mystery bubble for a bright boy whose main interests are math, science, history, PlayStation, fishing, and baseball (not necessarily in that order). But I just might send him the link to my March 19 review anyway. After all, one is never too young to start appreciating Woolf.

Get the full tour

The full tour schedule is listed below, and was announced on the authors’ blog, Something Rhymed.

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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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white gardenMany people consider mystery novels the perfect escape. Whether you dip into the genre regularly or infrequently, Woolfians may find it hard to resist a literary “whodunit” with Virginia Woolf at its center.

Stephanie Barron preceded this novel with a series of Jane Austen mysteries; she professes to enjoy making things up about real people, knowing they might not approve of her embellishments on their lives.

The White Garden revolves around the discovery of a new diary, believed to be in Woolf’s hand, but started the day after she was supposed to have drowned herself in the River Ouse. Intending to commit suicide that day, she goes instead to Sissinghurst, where she is comforted and cared for by Vita Sackville-West.

And there’s more, much more, including Woolf’s discovery of some nefarious wartime activities involving Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle, but it’s all too convoluted, and I wouldn’t want to give anything away.

And of course there’s the contemporary angle. The diary is found by an American garden designer, who is at Sissinghurst in order to duplicate the White Garden for her wealthy New York employer, while at the same time trying to uncover a hidden secret in her own family. A number of people become involved in the intrigue and with each other, including the Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, manuscript specialists at Sotheby’s, and a Woolf scholar at Oxford.

Barron reminds her readers that this is fiction, hoping that they will enjoy exploring the possibilities and forgive the license that she takes. There’s plenty of that, from the bald facts of Woolf’s death and the implausibility of the plot to some manipulation of the topography, so one has to suspend disbelief and just go with it. And in the process, you can soak up the atmosphere of Sissinghurst, Monks House and Charleston Farmhouse along with Oxford and Cambridge. You could do worse!

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Finding MyselfI just finished reading something wild and wicked, wonderful and Woolfian. Knowing that I’m always looking for fiction with Woolf references, Beth Hicks (an Australian friend and Woolfophile) told me about Toby Litt’s Finding Myself, a 2003 novel about a novelist who is writing a novel called From the Lighthouse.

Victoria plans to invite a group of acquaintances to spend a month together, all expenses paid, during which she will observe them, with their consent, and write about them. This book is her manuscript, her “docu-novel,” with handwritten comments and deletions from her editor.

She finds a house on the Suffolk coast with not just a lighthouse, but “all the atmosphere one could desire. I kept expecting Virginia Woolf herself to waft round the corner, silk gloves in hand.”

She buys copies of To the Lighthouse for everyone to read for what she envisions as “an extended discussion of Virginia’s masterpiece, all secretly examining the parallels with our own relationships.” And she will, on their last evening, serve boeuf en daube.

She notes in her diary that if it comes out right, it will be “just the best beach book in the world, ever: naughty, gossipy—with just the right ratio of tittle to tattle. Virginia Woolf’s letters are all very well, but they don’t exactly make one throb, do they?”

Woolf is Victoria’s muse and is never far from her mind. When the guests decide to go to church, she is dismayed: “We’re meant to be the Bloomsbury set—who would never have been caught engaging in Anglicanism.”

Writing her notes by hand “seems more fitting to the spirit of Virginia” when necessitated by a computer malfunction. But from the start, the experiment fails to live up to Victoria’s expectations, and a hilarious romp ensues.

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