An Evening With Virginia Woolf
As well as being a great novelist in the modernist style, Virginia Woolf is a superb essayist.. And as well as being bitchy about others, as she certainly was, she can poke fun at herself, as she does in a little piece entitled AM I A SNOB.Having been born in l882, Woolf was a Victorian for the first 19 years of her life and would spend the rest of it rebelling against what we think of as Victorian morality.This was personified for both her and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, by their father Leslie Stephen, man of letters and editor of the first Dictionary of National Biography. Rightly or wrongly both his daughters cast him as a heavy father, which may have interested Virginia in an earlier Victorian daughter, and invalid, Miss Elizabeth Barrett of Wimpole Street.This in turn would lead to Virginia writing a little book about Elizabeth Barrett’s dog, the spaniel Flush, whom she utterly adored.
It is a fact that when Flush was kidnapped Miss Barrett rose from her sickbed and went bravely into the East End to find him and ransom him; later when she eloped to Italy with Robert Browning, unknown to her father, she took Flush with her, and there he would live happily for a number of years.
Flush had been given to Miss Barrett by a contemporary writer and friend, Mary Mitford, who lived in Berkshire. In her novel FLUSH Virginia Woolf fantasises on the dog’s early life with Miss Mitford, his fateful introduction to Miss Barrett and on the history of spaniels in general “A land was called “Hispania” or Rabbit-land, and the dogs who were almost instantly seen in full pursuit of the rabbits were called “Spaniels” or Rabbit-dogs…”.
One of Woolf’s many engaging qualities as an essayist is her great enthusiasm for other writers, dead and alive, many of them obscure and many of them women. She was a passionate feminist. Not until Woolf was in her mid thirties did some women over 30 get the vote, in l9l8. Her famous piece on women’s education A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, published in l929, is a skilled and effective piece of rhetoric, to be recalled with gratitude when thinking about the changing position of women over subsequent years. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN had grown out of a talk Woolf had been invited to give to young women students at the new women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, Girton and Newnham, on women and fiction.
Lastly, in her great novel TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, among other themes Woolf enters with spectacular imaginative power into what it may feel like to paint a picture.
This compilation by John Calder lasts approximately one hour. It has been presented by Karin Fernald at the National Portrait Gallery, London; the Calder Bookshop, The Cut, Waterloo: and, together with Godfrey Howard, in the Upper Library at Christchurch College, as part of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.