Lecture 1: Orientation to Woolf Studies


This is the first of a series of pre-trip lectures intended to orient students to the life and work of Virginia Woolf  (1882-1941), before we visit sites in England that have special significance to Woolf studies.  This first lecture describes the course and then reviews Woolf’s literary significance and the present state of Woolf Studies.  Students can find further detail in the class website, which contains materials from previous Woolf seminars, ranging from sample student seminar papers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about specific works, www.uah.edu/woolf


Virginia Woolf in England Woolf's Literary Significance Woolf Studies an "Industry"


Virginia Woolf in England

For detailed information specifically about this course, see http://www.uah.edu/woolf/about_abroad.html


This class explores the significance of place in three novels that Woolf wrote at the peak of her creative powers: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928).  We will visit places associated with these works as well as places where Woolf and her friends lived, some of which are now museums.  The goal of studying these books in the place where she wrote them, or their setting, is to get a richer sense of the highly charged intellectual milieu in which Woolf lived and wrote.  She was central to a group of artists and intellectuals now called the Bloomsbury Group, after the neighborhood where many of them lived (and where we will stay while in London).  As Americans reading these books over 70 years after she wrote them, we have much to learn simply from walking down the same sidewalk that Clarissa Dalloway walked in London.  Mrs. Dalloway provides particular impetus for the study of place because it provides so much minute detail about the various characters’ London walks (see handout, Dalloway Walk; I will bring copies of this to London). 


In addition to the three novels, we will read Virginia Woolf’s London: A Guide to Bloomsbury and Beyond (1987).  This book provides a biographical introduction to Woolf and includes detailed directions for several London walks we will take:

Walk 1: Bloomsbury Walk: The Houses of Virginia Woolf and Some of Her Friends  (Day 2)

Walk 4: A Mrs. Dalloway Walk (Day 3, but we have another version of this)

Walk 3:  Virginia’s City Walk (Day 8?  a walk through the old part of London called the City)


For the study of Woolf, there is no better scholarly resource than Mark Hussey's Virginia Woolf: A-Z (1995), now out of print but readily available through online sources.  Bookfinder.com listed 8 copies of both new and used from a variety of online sources.


Woolf and Bloomsbury will be the topic of the first student presentation (by Julie Hawk) on Day 2, June 2, our first day in London.


Mrs. Dalloway will be our topic on Day 3 (June 3), and I will lead that discussion as we walk the route described for various characters in that novel.


Knole and Vita Sackville-West will be our topic on Day 4 (June 4, Paula’s presentation), when we visit the country house that is the inspiration for the setting of part of Orlando, a pseudobiography written for and about Vita Sackville-West.  Woolf gave Vita the handwritten manuscript of Orlando, and it is now on display in the Great Hall at Knole.  That same day we visit Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens, the place that Vita and her husband Nigel Nicolson restored and where she lived and wrote.  The original handpress from the Hogarth Press is now in the museum at Sissinghurst.  In Vita’s Sissinghurst study is a specially bound first edition of Orlando inscribed “Vita from Virginia.”


Monk’s House and Charleston (Day 5, Saturday, June 5) are the country homes of Virginia Woolf (Monk’s House) and her older sister Vanessa Bell (Charleston).  Both houses are now museums with wonderful memorabilia about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.  Woolf was living at Monk’s House when she drowned herself in the nearby river Ouse (pronounced like “ooze”), and her ashes are in the garden here.


St. Ives and Talland House (Days 6 and 7, June 6-7) are the setting for To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s most autobiographical novel.  Woolf’s father, the eminent “man of letters,” Sir Leslie Stephen, discovered Talland House while on a walking tour and took his large family there every summer for the first thirteen summers of the young Virginia Stephen’s life.  Kate will give a presentation on Day 6 about Talland House, St. Ives, and the Stephen family.



Woolf’s Literary Significance


Virginia Woolf was one of the great literary geniuses of the 20th century, a major innovator in modern fiction and a pioneer in feminist criticism.  She was a prolific writer, publishing 15 books in her lifetime, as well as scores of book reviews and other occasional writing for the popular press, especially the Times Literary Supplement.

Woolf as Innovator.  Woolf wrote ten novels, all of them experimental in some respect, some far more so than others.  She is best known for a narrative technique usually called “stream of consciousness,” whereby the characters’ thoughts are recorded in a way that mimics the odd twists and turns of the unconscious mind.  (See especially Mark Hussey’s discussion of the varieties of this technique under “Modernism” in Virginia Woolf: A-Z.)


One reason Woolf was able to give free rein to narrative experiment was that she published all but the first two of her books from her own publishing company, the Hogarth Press. She and her husband Leonard Woolf began the Hogarth Press in 1917 with a small hand press set up in their home in London.  At first, they published limited editions of short works of their own and their friends or writers whose work they admired.  Later they hired out larger printing jobs.  Over time, the published some of the most significant works of the early part of the 20th century, including T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as work by Gertrude Stein, E.M. Forster, Sigmund Freud, and Katherine Mansfield, among others.


Woolf as Feminist Critic.  A Room of One’s Own (1929) has become a landmark in feminist literary criticism.  It explores the history of women in literature and what it takes for a woman to succeed as a writer, setting forward most of the lines of thought that have informed subsequent feminist criticism.  Whereas Woolf argues for an androgynous literary ideal in A Room, she takes what might be considered an essentialist view in Three Guineas (1938), arguing for a radical connection between patriarchy and war.  Woolf's feminism (a term she rarely uses) is central to any study of her work, and I will be bringing in materials from her feminist writings as well as from feminist critics who study Woolf.


Woolf Studies an “Industry”

(A version of this part of the lecture is in PowerPoint form on the class website, "Introduction to Woolf Studies," http://www.uah.edu/woolf/about_abroad.html )

·        The very elaborate website VWW: Virginia Woolf Web gives some sense of the breadth of interest in Woolf


·        An Amazon search on VW as author produces 320 hits (audio, different editions) and 363 with VW as Subject (but this mixes in her novels as well as the play by Edward Albee).

·        Since the 1990s, about a dozen biographies have come out. The one that has gotten the most attention is Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1997). For a list of key books for studying Woolf, see http://www.uah.edu/woolf/reserve.html

·        Woolf herself published 15 books in her lifetime.  Many newer works by Woolf are posthumously published writings such as multi-volume letters, diaries, reading notebooks. 

·        There is an International Virginia Woolf Society (IVWS, since 1976) and the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain.  The IVWS has run a listserv since 1996,  VWOOLF@lists.acs.ohio-state.edu (send subscribe to listproc@…).  The listserv had 614 subscribers in May 2004.

There are also French and Japanese VW societies

Japan: http://wwwsoc.nii.ac.jp/vwsj/index-e.html

            France:                     http://www.lire.fr/site.asp/idC=42226/idTC=29/idR=242/idG= 


·        Both of the English-language Woolf societies publish scholarly journals. The IVWS has published The Virginia Woolf Miscellany (really just a short newsletter) twice a year since 1973 and the British society publishes the Virginia Woolf Bulletin three times a year.  These frequently print newly discovered Woolf letters and rare photographs, as well as short scholarly articles on Woolf’s work.

·        The annual Virginia Woolf Conference is in its14th year (many of these essays are collected and published in Woolf Studies Annual )

·        Movies have been made of To the Lighthouse (1983), Orlando (1992), and Mrs. Dalloway (1997 with Vanessa Redgrave),


Biographical Criticism has been very important in Woolf scholarship.  People become wrapped up in her life and times, the interesting people she knew, especially the Bloomsbury Group, such as her sister the painter Vanessa Bell, Vanessa's husband Clive Bell, Vanessa's lover Duncan Grant, and the writer Lytton Strachey.


Woolf’s collected letters fill 6 volumes, and the published diaries are 5 volumes.  These private writings give us unusual access to her life and thoughts and provide a biographical foundation to Woolf criticism.   These diaries and letters, plus the fact that practically everybody who knew her wrote memoirs, feed that and make Woolf studies endlessly fascinating.  

Updated May 24, 2004             Copyright 2004 Rose Norman
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