August 1, 2011

On writing essays

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

When Virginia Woolf wrote her now famous essay A Room of One’s Own, she began with a story. She described to her readers how she researched her topic while staying at an Oxbridge college. She ate two meals during her visit, and her account of the delicious fare she was served at a male college (sole in cream sauce, partridge, a confection for dessert that defies description), and the plain gravy soup, humdrum beef and prunes and custard she sat down to at a woman’s college, immediately pulls the reader in.

Her story is more than a way of engaging attention. Woolf uses it to make a serious point about the differences between men’s and women’s education. The men’s colleges benefit from centuries of endowment and can fund luxuries such as fine wine at lunch, while the recently created women’s colleges can afford only water.

Woolf tells another, more serious story to develop her thesis about the woeful neglect of women’s education. She invents the character of Judith Shakespeare, sister of the great playwright William, whom she imagines to be as intelligent and gifted as her brother. Judith’s trajectory is tragic. Unlike William she is not permitted to attend school. Though she teaches herself to read and write she is chastised by her parents for neglecting her household chores. When a husband is picked out for her – the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler – and she protests, she is severely beaten. She runs away to London and like William tries to earn a living by acting. Women, however, are not allowed on the stage. Finally, pregnant and in despair, she kills herself.

These stories are far more powerful than any statistic about women’s education. Through them we experience with Woolf the stark contrast in the way men and women are provided for at Oxbridge. We empathise with the plight of the imaginary Judith Shakespeare – and our frustration and anger at the waste of her life are real.

The genius of Woolf’s essay derives not only from her ability to pen gripping stories. She is a compelling writer because she is also a devoted word-smith. When she is chased from the forbidden lawn of the men’s college, she doesn’t simply invoke an irate porter, she paints for us ‘the gesticulations of a curious-looking object in a cut-away coat and evening shirt’. In her anecdote about lunch she is not content to list the menu, she engages all our senses in her depiction of partridges with ‘their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent’. Woolf deploys language with the care and precision of a poet. She understands that words are powerful: that when they ricochet and dance together they have the potential to make us see the world anew.

There is a popular image of Woolf as relying on flashes of inspiration to fuel her writing. The truth could not be more different. Her detailed, almost daily diary entries and voluminous correspondence prove she was a voracious reader, a thoughtful planner, and a dedicated practitioner. She read French and Russian literature as well as English; classical authors alongside her contemporaries; books from a range of other disciplines. Ideas were tried and scratched out and slowly replaced by better ones; word choices were revised over multiple drafts.

I have quoted Woolf at length not only because I think story-telling and detailing particular cases are effective in presenting ideas to readers, but also because the record she left of her creative process demonstrates that good writing almost never comes fully formed. It requires feeding through wide-ranging and daily reading; ferocious hard work as well as regular breaks (Woolf was a great walker and frequently came back from an hour out of doors with a fresh perspective); and above all an incessant delight in the potency and possibility of words.

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July 1, 2011

Shakespeare’s birthplace

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:45 am by Susan

A few years ago I examined a Ph. D. on artists’ houses. The thesis was something of an intellectual departure for me – written by a candidate whose background is in museums rather than literary studies. The thesis explored how houses augment our understanding of the artists who lived there, arguing that the experience is powerful because it engages all our senses. As we move through the spaces in which an artist worked, we are assailed not only with myriad visual images, but sounds, smells, and the suggestion of tastes. Even the almost universal prohibition against touching does not prevent our intuiting how a room and the objects in it feel. This is a knowledge that depends on our being physically present, providing information that cannot be acquired from secondary written or pictorial records.

The idea of an artist’s home as a three-dimensional and multi-sensory archive feels right to me. We are sensate beings and our perception depends on a range of factors. Experiencing first-hand the colourful and exuberant art with which Vanessa Bell decorated almost every inch of her house at Charleston made me question biographical accounts of her life that depict her as silently restrained.

Imagine then my feelings when I visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon last month. After paying my entrance fee, I was herded into a blackened room where I was confronted with a large screen. Closed elevator doors informed me they would re-open only when whatever it was that was to happen had ended. I was trapped in the room with perhaps thirty other visitors.

We were shown a film with voice-over accompanied by computer-orchestrated multi-media effects. When the doors finally released us, it was into a second darkened space. I am not sure how many such rooms we endured – but by the third I started to wonder if (instead of Shakespeare’s birthplace) I had inadvertently stumbled into an Orwellian proles day out from 1984.

The glossy brochure advertising the presentation describes it as a ‘state of the art’ introduction to Shakespeare. For me, it was an abomination – for several reasons. None of the largely Spanish-speaking group I was held captive with could follow the English soundtrack (there may have been the option of an alternative language, but if there was no one in the group seemed to have understood this). Yet they still had to suffer the full sequence, film by film: escape was impossible. Then there was the elderly woman searching in vain for somewhere to sit while the performances lasted. None of us had any idea how many rooms there were and consequently how long she would be required to stand for. What might have been a highlight – a chance to see a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio – became a frustration because before I could take my turn, the computer-timed spotlight on its glass case had switched off and our attention was directed elsewhere.  In the final room, the visual display was not working and we spent the allotted minutes staring at a computer error message before the doors allowed us to leave. I wondered if pressing the return key might solve the problem – but there was no staff member to ask.

The real crime of this introduction to Shakespeare’s birthplace is its assumption our experience is homogeneous, and that consequently our visits can be managed by a one-size-fits-all computerised show. I appreciate that for some the information relayed and the special effects will register differently – but for me it remains a sad indictment of mainstream culture at its most pernicious. How Adorno would have hated it! Far from encouraging us to engage in a dynamic and multivalent way with the home of one of Britain’s greatest writers, what this ‘state of the art’ performance demands of its audience is a necessary, deadening passivity.

It seems particularly ironic that this should happen to Shakespeare….

March 1, 2011

Cambridge Virginia Woolf Edition

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

Friday saw the launch of the Cambridge edition of the works of Virginia Woolf, a project I have been involved in for the best part of a decade.

I thought I’d give a taste of the work we’ve been doing by presenting some of the findings from one of our two pilot volumes, The Waves.

Scholars have known for a while that Woolf was extraordinarily well read, but our research revealed just how detailed and wide-ranging her literary knowledge was. Virtually every page of The Waves contains at least one, often several, allusions or references to classical authors (such as Virgil and Catullus), Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Keats and especially Byron and Shelley), or Woolf’s contemporaries (in particular her friend T. S. Eliot whom many people believe provided the inspiration for Louis).

Although The Waves has often been thought of as an ‘abstract’ or ‘poetic’ novel, it is deeply rooted in the history and culture of its time. It contains many references to contemporary events. For example, when one of the characters, Bernard, reads in a newspaper that ‘a famous actress has been divorced’, this ‘actress’ can be traced to a living person. The Times lists five divorce cases between February 1929 and May 1931 (the period when Woolf was writing her novel) in which ‘actresses’ are either divorcing, or being divorced by, their husbands; the only one of these to whom the soubriquet ‘famous’ could reasonably be applied is the actress and singer Nancie Lovat (1900–46). Under the title ‘Actress’s Divorce Petition’, The Times of 8 April 1930 reports that ‘Mrs. Nancie Langlands, née Ellis, of Adelaide Road, Hampstead, the actress professionally known as Miss Nancy [sic] Lovat, now appearing in The Damask Rose at the Savoy Theatre, prayed for the dissolution of her marriage with Mr. Cecil Walter Langlands, a trainer of racehorses, on the ground of his adultery with a woman unknown’; the case was ‘adjourned’ in order ‘to give the husband an opportunity of stating the name of the woman with whom he was charged with committing adultery’.

One of our researchers, Dr Ian Blyth, also uncovered a short parody of The Waves written by Richard Mallett for Punch (The London Charivari, 18 November 1931). Entitled ‘The Flames’, this parody sets Woolf’s novel in an unnamed gentleman’s club. The style of the novel’s famous interludes are mimicked in a description of the flames emanating from the hearth in the centre of the room: ‘The fire had just been lighted. It held no warmth yet, except a pale suggestion of warmth, a timid ghost of heat to come. Little yellow flames rippled over the corners and folds of crumpled white paper, browning it, blackening it, consuming it, and then sliding gaily upwards to lick at the long yellow sticks’. In the main sections of the piece, four protagonists, Mr Smith, Mr Brown, Mr Jones and Mr Robinson, are in competition for the best chair in the room—the one closest to the fire:

“I am sitting in the best chair nearest the hearth,” said Mr. Smith. “I am glad they have lighted the fire.”

“I am cold,” said Mr. Brown, “but they have lighted the fire. I shall soon be warm now.”

“I am glad of this fire in a way,” said Mr. Jones, “it pleases me in a way. But it is an extravagance. We in the club will be made to pay for this extravagance.”

“I like to see the yellow light flickering,” said Mr. Robinson, “reflected in the leather chairs.”

Given Woolf’s interest in gender politics, I can’t help thinking this ridiculous portrayal of four men jostling for power would have appealed to her!

I’ll report some more of the edition’s findings for other volumes in future posts.