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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May 1, 2011

Things you might not know about Virginia Woolf

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:32 am by Susan

1. ‘Virginia’ was Woolf’s middle name: her full name was Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen).

2. Woolf was born in 1882, the same year as James Joyce; she died in 1941, the same year as James Joyce. They never met.

3. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the son-in-law (through his first marriage) of the famous Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

4. Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen (née Jackson, quondam Duckworth), was the niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

5. As a child, Woolf, along with her sister Vanessa, and their brothers Thoby and Adrian, was a keen butterfly and moth collector; she also went birdwatching with her brother Thoby.

6. One of Woolf’s childhood nicknames was ‘the Goat’.

7. With her brother Adrian and a group of his friends, Woolf dressed up as Abyssinian royalty and was given a red-carpet tour of H.M.S. Dreadnought – the biggest and newest of the Navy’s warships.

8. Woolf studied Greek, History and German at Kings College London and Latin with classical scholars Clara Pater and Janet Case.

9. Woolf began reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement in 1905, when she was only twenty-three; her first novel was not published until 1915.

10. Woolf’s eighth novel, Flush (1933), was a fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel.

11. Woolf’s ninth novel, The Years, was number six in the list of best-selling novels in the United States in 1937, outselling John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which finished the year in eighth place. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind occupied the top spot on the list.

12. Woolf added several new words to the English language, including ‘obfusc’ and ‘scrolloping’.

13. In Bonn in April 1935, travelling by car with her husband Leonard, Woolf inadvertently became embroiled in a motorcade intended for Goering. Given Leonard’s jewishness, this was potentially highly dangerous as the streets were lined with flag-waving Nazi supporters and armed stormtroopers and covered in banners proclaiming ‘The Jew is our enemy.’ Woolf and Leonard escaped unharmed, partly thanks to the fact that they were travelling with their pet marmoset Mitz, who distracted the attention of the crowd.

14. With her husband Leonard, she ran her own printing press, discovering and publishing many important authors of the period including Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot and Maynard Keynes.

15. She had tea with Sigmund Freud. He gave her a narcissus.

16. She published one of the first essays in English on the cinema.

December 22, 2010

Interview with Professor Yang Lixin

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:24 pm by Susan

Translating Virginia Woolf

British Literature in China today

Chinese books we should read



How did you first become interested in the Bloomsbury group?

Several years ago, when I began to collect materials for a research project on ‘Virginia Woolf’s Translation and Reception in China’, I read work by other important members of the Bloomsbury group such as E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville-West and Julian Bell. I was impressed and intrigued by their open attitude to Chinese culture and their friendship with Chinese people. It seems to me that this very active, avant-garde circle benefited from oriental aesthetics, and has in turn influenced modern Chinese literature.

Are Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell well known in China?

As an important pioneer of the ‘stream of consciousness’ literary technique and the western feminist movement, Virginia Woolf is well known in China – particularly to the common reader she herself valued so much. Since Xu Zhimo, a distinguished poet of the ‘Crescent Moon’ School, introduced Woolf in 1928 to a Chinese literary circle, Chinese translations and studies of Woolf’s works have abounded. Many talented contemporary Chinese writers and scholars, especially women writers and scholars, admire Virginia Woolf and have been deeply influenced by her feminist thought (for example her idea of ‘androgyny’ in writing) and by her poetic ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style. Understanding for and further study of her talented sister Vanessa Bell, on the other hand, has so far been limited to a small academic circle.


What has your own interest in the pair been?

For me, Virginia Woolf is one of the spiritual leaders of the Bloomsbury Group, a pioneer of western feminist culture, an important essayist, a talented critic and a biographer. My doctoral dissertation and postdoctoral research programme focuses respectively on western feminist literary criticism and contemporary Chinese feminist literary criticism. Virginia Woolf is consequently a crucial of object of study. While I was working on my book ‘Virginia Woolf’s Translation and Reception in China”, I found out more about the literary relationships between Woolf and several important Chinese writers. When I read the letters from Woolf to the Chinese woman writer Ling Shuhua (who was called the ‘Chinese Mansfield’) and Ling’s novel Ancient Melodies – which was written with the encouragement and under the guidance of Woolf, and then published by the Hogarth Press with a preface by Vita Sackville-West – I was amazed. As I read further, I learned that Vanessa Bell not only had an important role to play in her sister’s spiritual life, but also greatly influenced Virginia’s modernist aesthetic. They were intimate sisters, talented artists, close conspirators against patriarchal pressures on women – and rivals. Their unusual lives and loves, their close and competitive sisterhood, also enchant me.


What books have you translated from English into Chinese?

I have already translated John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (2002), Jane Gallop’s Thinking Through the Body (2005), Albert Manguel’s A Reading Diary (2006), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: Women Writers and the19TH Century Literary Imagination (2007) into English.


How are you finding translating Vanessa and Virginia compared to other translations you have done?

Each writer has a different language style. For me, the Chinese translations of Thinking Through the Body and The Madwoman in the Attic: Women Writers and the 19TH Century Literary Imagination were more difficult, because the sentences in both books are long and grammatically extremely complicated. So it really was a challenge for me to transmit what the authors said accurately into acceptable and logically clear Chinese. Stylistically, Updike’s novel is elegant and meditative. A Reading Diary shares Manguel’s witty and casual reading impressions and thoughts with readers, offering them a new contemporary perspective from which to understand the classics. It has a cordial, honest and simple style – and the sentences are not too long! This has been a welcomed translation in the Chinese reading circle. I’m now absorbed in the translation of Vanessa and Virginia. For me, the novel’s language style is one of calmness, gracefulness, simplicity and lyricism. It is a warm and marvelously readable book. Vanessa’s reminiscing of the past gives the novel a ‘mournful but not distressing; deeply felt but not sentimental’ aesthetic experience. I am trying to keep the original style of the novel with simple but vivid and beautiful Chinese. Some Chinese idioms have also been used here. I believe this novel will be popular with Chinese readers. There are a number of Chinese references and this will also help the enjoyment and appreciation of Chinese readers.

Can you give examples of some of the things that have been difficult for you in Vanessa and Virginia to translate into Chinese?

For me, the most difficult thing in translating the book is to accurately and vividly transmit the vision of Vanessa’s paintings. In the novel these have a symbolic function, and play an important role in creating atmosphere, conveying feelings and implying the fates of the characters. I think Susan did an excellent job of representing so many of Vanessa’s paintings in a verbal art form. Although the visual and verbal arts are sisters too, they use different media. Personally, I have to envision the scenes in my mind first, and then try my best to revision them to Chinese readers in accurate and elegant phrases. Since Chinese readers are not very familiar with Vanessa’s rather abstract painting style. As translator, I also have to read books such as Jane Dunn’s A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Diane Gillespie’s The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and Maggie Humm’s Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema. They are inspiring for my work.

What interest is there in China in British literature old and new?

Through the 20th century, Shakespeare has been the most important writer of British literature for Chinese readers. There are different and excellent Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s works. Students from both Chinese and English departments in China take British literature courses and read classical writers such as Chaucer, Milton, the Romantic poets, 18th century novelists like Walter Scott and Jane Austen, Victorian novelists, modernist and post-modernist writers. Many students in English or comparative literature write dissertations on Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, George Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Woolf, Forster, Doris Lessing. The works of Nobel Prize winners and Booker Prize winners are also very welcome in China. Detective and popular stories are widely read.

What ten books should British readers read in order to begin to become
acquainted with the richness of Chinese literature?

1. The Book of Odes: a collection of ancient Chinese folk songs

2. The Analects of Confucius: the recording of the disciples of Confucius on their tutor’s life and words

3. Historical Record: the most distinguished historical book written by Si Maqian in the Han Dynasty

4. Poems of the Tang Dynasty, which was prosperous both economically and culturally, and called the Dynasty of Poems. Sinologist Arthur David Waley translated many of the poems of this period into English. He made some of them gifts to members of the Bloomsbury group

5. Poems of the Song Dynasty, dramas in the Yuan Dynasty

6. The Dream of the Red Chamber: a romantic love story of a young couple and the tragic fates of four noble families. The number one ancient Chinese novel!

7. The Romance of Three Kingdoms: a novel, a wonderful war epic of Ancient China

8. Pilgrimage to the West: a novel, with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress

9. Lu Xun’s novels and essays: Lu Xun is the most important writer in 20th century China

10. Qian Zhongshu’s novel Fortress Besieged: this wonderful satirical novel focuses on the weakness of Chinese intellectuals

July 6, 2008

Vanessa and Virginia

Posted in new writing, Uncategorised tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:56 pm by Susan

In a gloomy house in Hyde Park Gate, two young girls are raised to be perfect ladies. But from the beginning Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf pursue different dreams, and in their Bloomsbury household they create a ferment of free thinking and even freer living. Devoted to each other, yet fiercely competitive, both sisters fight to realise their artistic vision amidst a chaos of desire, scandal, illness and war.

Traced with lyrical intensity, their intertwined lives gradually reveal an underlying pattern. Only at the end of this fascinating work does the real nature of the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa become clear. Susan Sellers’ novel reveals a dramatic new interpretation of one of the most famous and iconic events in twentieth-century literature – Woolf’s suicide by drowning – as the two sisters’ life-long rivalry reaches its final crisis.

An expert on Woolf’s life and work, Susan Sellers is inspired by Woolf’s own brilliant narrative technique – a sensuous, impressionistic, interior voice – to inhabit the mind of an artist at work, and recreate the tale of two sisters as Vanessa might have told it. Vanessa and Virginia is a chronicle of love and revenge, madness, genius, and the compulsion to create beauty in the face of relentless difficulty and deep grief.

To buy a copy of Vanessa and Virginia, click on

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Vanessa and Virginia is a beautiful, haunting novel about the love, the rivalry between two gifted sisters, and the real purpose of Art. The achievement here is an uncanny, utterly persuasive empathy for both sisters, and the world and times in which they lived.’

John Burnside