Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Remembering Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (died 28 March 1941)


I've already noted Virginia Woolf as one of the founding mothers who have inspired this daybook project. Today there is perhaps no more popular figure in English departments and women's studies courses alike than Virginia Woolf.*

And if products are any indication, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own has moved out of the classroom and into pop culture. You can buy t-shirts, mugs, aprons, refrigerator magnets, towels, and totes emblazoned with the title of Woolf’s book or with quotations from it. All these products, and more, are available online with a search engine, a few mouse clicks, and a credit card. You might even be able to buy some of these items at the A Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, though I’m not sure about that.

Virginia Woolf, 1927
You might remember the Roz Chast cartoon, published in the 26 May 2007 New Yorker, which “updates” Woolf’s title—among other things, the twenty-first century woman is looking not just for a room of her own, but a room with “adequate ventilation,” “near a grocery store,” and not “please God” in Queens, all for “under $2000 a month.” You can buy a matted print of this cartoon at the New Yorker website for $139.

Meanwhile, The New York Review of Books gallery displays five different David Levine caricatures of Virginia Woolf, from 1966, 1970, 1977, 1978, and 1980, but the Woolf t-shirt that first went on sale in 1983 isn’t offered any longer. There’s no reason to be disappointed, however. You can still buy a Levine caricature of Woolf on a postcard—in fact, two different postcard books include Woolf. She’s in the “Women Writers” set, of course, but I am happy to see that she’s also included in the series of “Writers” postcards, and either collection is a bargain—twenty cards cost just $9.95. She is also one of the writers pictured on the David Levine mousepad, available for $12.95. 

Cartoons and caricatures published in the New York Times and in The New York Review of Books may suggest Woolf appeals just to elitists or to snobs, but all the t-shirts and mugs show that her reach extends far beyond the realms Manhattan and academia. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962. I was only eleven then, and just fifteen when the 1966 film version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, played in theaters. I was too young to see the movie but old enough to conclude that Virginia Woolf must be a terrifying figure. (The show's fiftieth-anniversary Broadway revival was critically acclaimed.) In fact, Albee’s title, if not the play itself, seems to have generated a lot of anxiety about Woolf. 

Even so, Masterpiece Theater invited Virginia Woolf into the living rooms of American homes in 1991, airing Eileen Atkins’s one-woman dramatization of A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s life and work have also inspired a few feature films—Orlando was released in 1992, Mrs. Dalloway in 1998, and Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Woolf in The Hours, released in the U.S. in 2003. Not that these have necessarily been huge box-office hits—more of my students know that Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell starred in A League of Their Own than recognize the allusion to Woolf in the film’s title. 

Still, this 1992 Penny Marshall film proves that it’s not just snobs who love playing with Woolf’s title. I admit that we academics do seem to be particularly fond of this sin—the allusion to Woolf has become something of a staple of critical essays about women writers. Sally Alexander’s “Room of One’s Own: 1920s Feminist Utopias” (2000), José Esteban Muñoz’s “A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in New America” (2008), and Turgay Bayindir’s “A House of Her Own: Alice Walker's Readjustment of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own in The Color Purple (2009), to name only three examples, show how irresistible Woolf’s title is. 

Even more audacious, perhaps, is multi-media artist Kabe Wilson’s 2014 novella Of One Woman Or So, by "Olivia N'Gofri," a "painstakingly rearranged" assemblage of "the 37,971 words" found in A Room of One's own. Wilson describes his process as a four-year exercise in "linguistic mathematics": he spent “day after day in a hot computer room combing through the latest draft, trying to balance out conjunctions and pronouns across the sentences, needing to stay extremely focused in case [he] made a mistake."

And yet it’s not just writers, literary critics, and filmmakers—there is Deborah Felder’s 2005 A Bookshelf of Our Own: Works That Have Changed Women’s Lives, Deborah Owens’s 2009 A Purse of Your Own, a finance book for women, and Rachel Bowlby's 2013 A Child of One's Own: Parental Stories. In 2007, to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary, the Canadian journal A Room of One’s Own shortened its name to Room, but added the tagline “A Space of Your Own” to its print cover and online logo. A 2009 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (Paris) featured “A Room of One’s Own,” a display of the work of several women artists “exploring the notion of private space, weaving new connections between mental projections and exhibition space.” In Istanbul, “Room of One’s Own” was the title of the first exhibition of 2010 at the Outlet Independent Art Center and featured the work of eight Turkish women artists. And Jazz pianist Rachel Z's 1996 Room of One's Own is available as a CD or as an MP3 download. 

Woolf’s title is so popular that “a room of one’s own” even has an entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions, and the online Urban Dictionary offers this definition for “Virginia Woolf”: “FemmeNazi lesbian psycho bitch whore who wrote books such as A Room Of One's Own.” (With two clicks of your mouse you can get this definition on your own “custom Urban Dictionary mug” for $21.95). There is also “A Doghouse of One’s Own,” a 2008 blog post from a writer who calls himself the “Spanish Inquisitor.” One reader of the piece wondered whether this is a pseudonym for “Virginia Wolf,” but the Inquisitor identified himself as a “55 year old, white, married male, a lawyer by trade, living in America, and an atheist.” 
  
As all of these products and references indicate, Virginia Woolf’s book is thoroughly embedded in the popular imagination, but it wasn’t always this way. A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929 by Woolf’s own Hogarth Press in England and by Harcourt Brace in the U.S., sold well. As Woolf notes in her diary, her “next year’s income” had been “made” by the book’s sales. But, despite the book’s popular success and the range and significance of Woolf’s literary output, interest in her work began to wane after World War II. Like so many women writers before her, Woolf all but disappeared. 

If any single work can give us a glimpse of her “official” status and reputation some twenty years after her death, it may be the multi-volume Oxford History of English Literature. J. I. M. Stewart’s Eight Modern Writers, published in 1963, includes a chapter on James Joyce, born in 1882, the same year as Woolf, and a chapter on D. H. Lawrence, born three years later. But Woolf is not one of Stewart’s select “eight.” In more than six hundred pages of literary history, he mentions Woolf’s name only three times, once noting the influence of Joyce’s Ulysses on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and a second time citing the “revealing absurdity” of her view of Joyce himself. (The third reference, from Stewart’s introduction, remarks that Woolf dismissed the Edwardian novelists and poets writing before the First World War because they represented the “thick dull middle class of letters.”) 

Today, although new books go out of print faster and faster, there are at least ten print editions of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own currently available at Amazon, in paper back and hardbound, and several Kindle editions. There is a bilingual edition (Chinese-English), and there are translations available in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Polish, Czech, and Japanese--I don't claim this as a comprehensive list. Romania even issued a Woolf postage stamp in 2007.

All the literature courses and women's studies students in the world can’t account for those numbers. 

As we know, historical memory can be brief--so today is a day for remembrance.