Michael Hrebeniak on T. S. Eliot

The Epoch of Space: Eliot's Art of Assemblage

Michael Hrebeniak

Reading The Waste Land Study Day, 11 June 2017

Michael Hrebeniak summarises some of the key ideas from his lecture.

T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land strikes a paradox: a bid for conservative recovery inside a radical poetics. This lecture suggested ways of understanding Eliot's great poem in terms of collage, the characteristic predisposition of modernism. This provides a framework for his exploration of the self-conscious surrender of personality and the poet's location within literary tradition.

The lecture considered the poem alongside corresponding movements in music and painting as an assemblage of shards and pieces that must be read through one another: a narrative tension between the linear, the dispersed and the side-by-side that generates fertility from waste. It looked at examples from Stravinsky, jazz, Picasso, and others.

The upshot is a textual focus that swerves completely from final meaning into an attitude of uncertainty that underpins Eliot's delicate exploration of cultural memory. Fluctuating patterns and recesses within the poem's narrative enforce reflection and encourage agility in the act of reading, which becomes an unprejudiced adventure.

It is here that The Waste Land's collage of 'broken images' might ironically yield a new consciousness, activating the poem's references to vegetation and anthropological myths of renewal through the radiant chambers of our own minds.



Fred Parker on Jane Austen

Fred Parker on Jane Austen

Literature Cambridge Study Day, Sat. 29 April 2017, Stapleford Granary
Reading Pride and Prejudice(1813)

With lectures by Fred Parker and Anne Toner, and a reading by Anna Moody. A memorable afternoon of learning and discussion. Thanks to all.


Fred Parker spoke on the subject of Disclosing and declaring love in Pride and Prejudice

This extract explores how Austen deals with the question of expressing the inner life:

How does the inner life find public expression, what difficulties does it encounter, and what happens to it in the process? Perhaps all public language is coded, but in the time of Jane Austen the protocols of external expression were peculiarly marked, clear, and conscious: the sense of living life as a public performance was strong, and this was especially true in courtship situations, and even more especially true of the behavior of young women in those situations. How then can you speak the movements of the heart? The manuals of behaviour insist that a decent woman will never show her affection – will never even admit to feeling it – until the man makes his declaration, if then.

Austen laughs at this, but she also recognises something deeply fraught and problematic in finding words in which to speak one's desire, in telling what you feel. In Pride and Prejudice, as in other Austen novels, proposal-scenes rendered in direct speech go badly; a successful proposal can be conveyed only, it seems, in the narrator's indirect report. We never hear the words in which Elizabeth – or any Austen heroine – says yes. Does this suggest something about how feelings of love are not something we can simply possess and express, but are realised only as they are acknowledged and recognised by another?

Dr Fred Parker
Clare College, Cambridge

Further reading

Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
Roger Gard, Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity (Yale University Press, 1994)
John Mullan, What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Macmillan, 1986; 2007)
Janet Todd, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (CUP, 2013)
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin, 2012)
John Wiltshire, The Hidden Jane Austen (CUP, 2014)


Susan Sellers on Woolf's Essays

Virginia Woolf Talks at Lucy Cavendish College

On 26 April, Susan Sellers gave an inspiring lecture on Woolf's essays and fiction, looking at A Room of One's Own (1929), Three Guineas (1938), and many other essays.   

Her lecture concluded with these reflections upon Three Guineas (1938):

There is wry humour – in the gaping absence of women from the printed photographs of patriarchs dressed in their finery and displaying the insignia of tradition and power, for instance – but its tone, as Elena Gualtieri stresses, is bitterly sarcastic. If there is a comedic tool it is parody, exemplified in the ironic references to ‘our country’, and the long, astute explanation of how women are viewed in Whitehall. Even the forays into fiction serve a new purpose. They are there to reinforce and incite, as in the depiction of the bonfires on which the word ‘feminism’ is imagined to blaze - with its terrifying overtones of the book burning ordered by Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933. Yet the provocations of Three Guineas – persistent and deadly earnest as they are – are not intended to instill emotion. On the contrary, what Woolf seeks is the ‘indifference’ necessary to resist patriarchy’s enticements and snares. As she observed in a diary entry in 15 May 1940, the best riposte to the ‘bombast’ of war is thinking.

Though I appreciate Leila Brosnan’s claim that the strikingly different style of this essay might be attributable to Woolf’s diminishing sense of a receptive audience, this is not how I read Three Guineas. For me, the adoption of the epistolary form presupposes a reply. Indeed, it appears to invoke both recipient and respondent. My interpretation of the almost reckless energy as Woolf veers from exasperated polemic to passages of devastatingly polite, exhaustively researched disquisition, is that it makes her call to forge an alternative culture to that of the father-dictators impossible to ignore. The fact that Woolf restricts this call in Three Guineas to educated women like herself seems connected to her recognition that the imperative to form an alternative to patriarchy rests with those least caught up in its nexus of loyalties and benefits. That Woolf performs her own resistance through thinking and writing appears equally important. As she insists, picturing the young English and German pilots battling in the sky overhead in her 1940 ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’: ‘there is another way of fighting for freedom without arms; we can fight with the mind.’ For if either pilot stops to think ‘he may be killed […]. So let us think for him.’ 

Woolf’s exposure in this essay of the ‘aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave’ that impels all those fighting, and acknowledgement that even those it enslaves bear a responsibility for its continuation, is a lesson we (in what A.C. Grayling has recently termed our ‘post-truth world’) would do well to remember today.[vi] As we move into the era of a new world leader whose own father-dictatorship seems founded on manipulating and promulgating ‘truth’ via twitter, an era too where here in the UK we face our own ‘hard’ exit from one of the most peaceful supra-national alliances in history, I believe more than ever we need to heed Woolf’s words. After all, as she reminds us listening to the guns and propaganda of war: ‘Hitlers are bred by slaves’.


Susan Sellers is Professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews and one of the General Editors of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf.

Her lecture on Woolf's essays will be published as a book by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain.

Virginia Woolf Talks are presented by Literature Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College.


Virginia Woolf Talks 2017

Virginia Woolf Talks 2017

Our free talks at Lucy Cavendish College continue in Easter Term 2017.

Wednesday 26 April 2017, 1.00 pm
Susan Sellers, Virginia Woolf and the Essay

Lucy Cavendish College
Cambridge CB3 0BU
01223 332190

Further information: Dr Trudi Tate, tt206 [at]

Town and gown all welcome.

Autumn 2017

Talks in Michaelmas Term 2017.

Wed. 18 October, 1.00 pm. Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry: Looking at the Carpet from the Wrong Side

Wed. 29 November, 1.00 pm. Claire Davison, Virginia Woolf and Musical Performance


Adrian Poole: Shakespeare, Tragedy and Rome

From ‘Shakespeare, Tragedy and Rome’ lecture, 18 March 2017

‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ exclaims Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A comedy, to be sure, in which nobody dies, no blood gets spilt. But that is indeed one perspective that tragedy offers – one of apparently god-like immunity from which we can look down with horror or amusement or both on those ignorant and benighted mortals, who can’t foresee their own doom. But it’s not the only one. There is another perspective, essential to tragedy, especially in the conditions of live performance, in which we share the same space and time as the actors playing these benighted mortals, and are drawn to experience their pain, their hope, their living and dying in the present, or what Iago calls ‘now, now, very now’. The moment when things could still be otherwise; when Medea might choose not to kill her children; when Brutus might decide not to join the conspirators, when Caesar might listen to Calpurnia and not go to the Forum.


Here’s what makes Shakespeare’s Roman plays speak to us, and our world. Is it really or solely for the good of Rome that its citizens risk their lives? Or is it for something more personal, their own glory, their own name and fame? There’s no problem of course when the two coincide, as they do for Caius Martius on the battle-field against the Volscians, where he fights so bravely from Rome and himself, winning honour and glory for both at once. What happens however when he returns home to Rome, and moves ‘from the casque to the cushion’ (as Aufidius puts it)? And what happens when Romans disagree about what they are fighting for and start fighting amongst themselves? What happens when their vision of Rome and what it means to be Roman radically differs? What happens when these ideals melt away and we are left with a brute struggle for power, with more or less naked self-interest, masked by shameless political rhetoric and the appeal to ‘the people’s’ self-interest? What happens is civil war, and the degeneration of political values and ideals to the great game of grab (a memorable phrase of Henry James’s). I won’t insult your intelligence by making explicit the parallels with our own world today, on both sides of the Atlantic, that Shakespeare’s Roman plays are bound to provoke.

Adrian Poole
Trinity College, Cambridge



Greek Tragic Performance: Further Reading

• B. C. Dietrich, Tradition in Greek Religion (1986), pp. 62-77 (on Dionysus and masks)

• Simon Goldhill, ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’, in Nothing To Do With Dionysus, ed. Winkler and Zeitlin (1990)

• Edith Hall, ‘Literature and Performance’, in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece , ed. Paul Cartledge (1998)

• Peter Hall, Exposed by the Mask (2000)

• Tony Harrison, ‘Facing Up to the Muses’, in N. Astley, ed., Tony Harrison (1991)

• A. D. Napier, Masks, Transformation, Paradox  (1986) (ritual v. theatre)

• A. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals in Athens (1968)

• Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (1987)

• Rush Rehm, Greek Tragic Theatre  (1992), esp. pp. 39-42

• Oliver Taplin, ‘Masks in Greek Tragedy and in Tantalus’, in Didaskalia , 5.2 (2001): online journal at

• David Wiles, Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy (2007)

• Jennifer Wallace, The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (2007)

 •David Wiles, Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction  (2000)

• Rowan Williams, The Tragic Imagination (2016)

Thanks to Jennifer Wallace for this reading list



Jennifer Wallace on Greek Tragic Performance

Thoughts on Greek Tragic Performance by Jennifer Wallace, who lectured on our Tragedy Study Day, 18 March 2017. 


It’s impossible to recreate a faithful, accurate performance of Greek tragedy. The most interesting productions are ones in which modernity and antiquity meet in a fascinating, estranging and illuminating encounter. But recognising and thinking about different aspects of ancient theatrical conventions – the chorus, the masks, the ritual/religious setting, the drama competition – allows one to understand the dynamics and anxieties of ancient tragedy more deeply, which can feed through into modern versions and productions.

electra with urn.jpg

It is in these performances and new productions that tragedy is confronted again and puzzles us afresh. For tragedy does not exist on the page, in a textbook or a set of dusty rules and definitions. It lives, it is re-embodied and made present again in performance. As Electra clasps the urn that she wrongly supposed contains all that is left of her brother, as Agave looks down at the face of her son she has torn apart in The Bacchae, no logical explanation or textbook analysis will do. We are there in the theatre with these characters, at this moment, viscerally bewildered and metaphorically torn apart too.

Jennifer Wallace
Peterhouse, Cambridge



Gillian Beer on Dialogue in the Alice Books

Following Dame Gillian Beer's talk at our Alice in Space Study Day on 25 Feb., here are two extracts from her book, Alice in Space, discussing dialogue in the Alice books.

The Dialogues of Alice

And like Alice, the other creatures of her books claim possession of language:

'Would it be of any use, now,' thought Alice, 'to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way down here, that I should think very likely it can talk: at any rate, there’s no harm in trying.' (21)

So first she tries the vocative 'O Mouse!,' learnt from 'her brother’s Latin Grammar'; then she tries 'the first sentence in her French lesson-book: “Où est ma chatte?”', learnt, it seems, by rote without much attention to its meaning. The mouse understands French instantly and is terrified. Alice is the liberal colonialist here, respecting the forms of speech but not the experiences of the indigenous – here motley – characters. She has not yet learned that just because animals speak, they have not ceased to be animals.

All adults have been children. They are in dialogue with their past, which is also lost to them. Much of Alice’s conversation is conducted within this nimbus of the irrecoverable. The different categories and thought-sequences of the young child are evoked, though not always through the person of Alice. Sometimes she plays the adult against the wayward arguments of those she encounters.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
'They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”
'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'very ill.' (65)

The two readers – child and adult – sometimes collaborate, sometimes laugh at odds with each other. But often they are one endoubled reader, responding with all the capacities they still share, or having shed, still half-recollect.  


The Alice books are never obscure, always transparent, and so, unexpectedly, refuse to yield to any familiar conceptual relations or share pragmatic goals. Throughout the two books Alice is always seeking rules: rules for shutting up like a telescope, for having jam for tea. Or, as the White Queen hopes, for being glad:

'I wish I could manage to be glad!' the Queen said. 'Only I never can remember the rule. You must be very happy, living in this wood, and being glad whenever you like!'

'Only it is so very lonely here!' Alice said in a melancholy voice; and, at the thought of her loneliness, two large tears came rolling down her cheeks. (173) 

Rules expand categories. Alice is lonely, as she repeatedly complains. She fears her nonce-status and seeks categories more inclusive than herself. That way, both flexibility and order lie – neither of them easy to come by in this hectoring zone. Rules for Alice promise companionship and order, but for most of those she encounters they mean triumph or domination. The relaxed rules of conversation are tightened into riddle, catechism, combative game.

Alice is lonely not only because she is one of a kind ­– a girl-child amidst odd adults and fabulous beasts ­– but because almost no-one she meets shares her sense of how a conversation can be conducted to bring people closer. Alice seeks mutuality through dialogue, whether the exchanges run in agreement or disagreement, or simply passing the time of day. Most of those she meets play by rules that exaggerate and satirize the various strategies of alienation in adult debate. The Red Queen, for instance, understands conversation as the answering of 'useful questions'. (223) And here Carroll is satirizing the tradition of pedagogic dialogues, then domineering over the Victorian educational system and combining inexorably with rote learning. 

Gillian Beer, from 'The Dialogues of Alice: Pretending to be Two People', ch. 4 of Alice in Space (2016), pp. 115-16, 120-1.



Zoe Jaques on Alice Among the Animals

Dr Zoe Jaques gave a paper on 'Alice Among the Animals' at our Study Day, Alice in Space, on 25 February 2017 at Stapleford Granary. Here she explains some of her ideas.

Alice Among the Animals

Carroll’s Alice books are saturated with animals, both real and imagined. These are narratives, as we know, invested in pictures and conversations: illustrators have invariably been drawn to interpreting the books through their bizarre range of composite creatures, and almost every one of Alice’s conversations is either with, or concerns, an animal. Every chapter of Wonderland includes at least one animal interlocutor. Looking-glass is a bit broader, introducing dialogue with plants and eggs, too, but is equally invested in the animal question. In short, thinking about the Alice books necessitates thinking about animals, and, I would argue, it involves thinking about those animals in distinctly animal terms.

A fascination with the non-human animal has always been at the heart of philosophy. Understanding the self, in any guise, relies upon negotiating that selfhood through the lens of an ‘other’, of which the animal is perhaps the most evocative and compelling form. Such mediation on otherness, however, frequently works to serve the dominant order – in this case mankind – so as to position the animal as of an ideologically lower order and to reinforce the anthropocentric status-quo. The animal’s perceived lack of rationality and capacity for language has dominated a great deal of philosophical thinking about ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Carroll’s Alice books, however, trouble these boundaries in a world in which all creatures reason with Alice and challenge the basis human of supremacy. From the Mock Turtle, who exists only as a recipe, through to the pigeon, who exposes that one’s status as human or animal is merely a matter of perspective, Carroll’s fantastical creatures draw attention to their lived animality and its relationship to humanity. Such an interest is in keeping with Carroll’s biographical investment in animal rights. More surprisingly, his fantasy worlds suggest that young readers are especially capable of negotiating these ontological complexities, making them particularly suited to new form of fantasy that divulges the intricacies of human-animal relations. He does, after all, send his young heroine to ‘follow’ an animal down a rabbit hole, exposing her to encounters with all manner of beasts intent on destabilising her sense of self. Undoubtedly Alice struggles with the radical ontologies depicted here, but Carroll emphasises the value of that struggle, repeating and recasting the debate as she moves through her dream world. While many critics have argued that there is a cultural relegation of ‘the animal to children’s stories and children’s thoughts’ (H. Peter Steeves, introduction to Animal Others, 1999, p. 2), Carroll’s works demonstrate that the stories and thoughts of childhood give animal studies philosophy some of its earliest developments.

Zoe Jaques
Homerton College, Cambridge



Guest Blog: Nanette O'Brien

Virginia Woolf Talks 

On Friday 3 March, 1.00 pm, Nanette O'Brien will speak about Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Cambridge food, gender, aesthetics, and archives. The talk takes place at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Here Nanette reflects upon some of the background to her research.

Food, Gender, Archives: A Room of One's Own

This paper comes out of my doctoral research on the representation of food in Anglo and American modernism, where I look closely at Woolf, as well as Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. I’d like to begin by saying a little bit about why food matters to Woolf. It is well known that Woolf had a complicated relationship with food, due to illness and practicality, and difficult dealings with her servants and cooks (as Alison Light so brilliantly uncovers in her 2007 book, Mrs Woolf and the Servants). Yet Woolf’s representations of food in her writing are central to her explorations of gender, domesticity, material culture, the everyday and her ideas about taste and expression.

Some of the most famous examples range from the different college meals in A Room of One’s Own that I’ll be discussing, to Mrs Ramsay’s boeuf en daube dinner in To the Lighthouse to Woolf’s penultimate diary entry: ‘And now with some pleasure I find that its [sic] seven; & must cook dinner. Haddock & sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down’ (8 March 1941, Diary V, 358).

Meals are stimulating for Woolf. They have literary and social significance; they offer moments of pleasure and disgust. Woolf could be quite a snob about how other people ate. In another diary entry, she describes people eating in Brighton as ‘fat white slugs’: ‘the fat woman had a louche large white muffin face. T’other was slightly grilled. They ate & ate’ […] Something scented, shoddy, parasitic about them’ (26 February 1941, Diary V, 357). Woolf’s capacity for snobbery about the working and lower middle classes is also well known (for more on this, read her essay ‘Am I a Snob?’). But although Woolf finds it difficult to let go of her perspectives on class, she is profoundly interested in the impact of unequal education and access for women across the social spectrum (and for more on Woolf’s involvement in social organizing, see Clara Jones’s excellent new book, Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist).

When I began my research into Woolf’s experience at Cambridge, I hoped I might be able to see evidence describing the kind of meals she would have eaten, if not the exact menus. I went to the archives of the colleges that she visited in 1928. Woolf visited Newnham College first, on the evening of 20 October 1928 for her dinner and lecture and then had a private lunch at King’s College the following day. She came back to Cambridge a week later to speak at Girton College but did not dine in hall. The lectures on ‘Women & Fiction’ were to be transformed and published the following year as A Room of One’s Own.

What I found in the archives was not at first obviously useful – I couldn’t find any evidence that exact menus had been kept by the colleges of either Woolf’s private lunch in the rooms of George ‘Dadie’ Rylands, nor of the general dinner in hall that Woolf ate in Newnham. And Anne Olivier Bell notes that the meal Woolf ate before her lecture at Girton was held at ‘the Lion Hotel, Petty Cury’, which has since ben demolished (Diary III, 201, note 4). So without much to go on apart from Woolf’s account, I had to look at the records that were available. There was an enormous difference between the amount and kinds of records kept at King’s, then a men’s college, and at Newnham and Girton, both women’s colleges. This matters. I will look at this more closely in my talk.

Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that ‘money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’ (84). The cost of education for women was significant. From the starting costs of founding Newnham in 1871 and of Girton in 1869, through the ongoing lecturing, building, heating, and food costs, education continues to be expensive for both individuals and newer institutions. I address some of the questions Woolf considered of how to account for the cost of education and of food. Some of the accounting is done in ledgers and records of meetings, which is what I looked at in the college archives. And other kinds of accounting are done in Woolf’s diary and reconstruction of the events in A Room of One’s Own. One of Woolf’s purposes in A Room of One’s Own, and later in Three Guineas (1938) is to draw attention to the costs of institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, for the students and the institutions themselves. She asks, at what cost, and at whose cost, do these things come to be? When women spend energy on things that are not their main creative work, they become depleted. If they are going to have energy to do good work, they also require good lodging and sustenance, hence the need for a room of one’s own.

Virginia-Woolf good but low res.jpg

A famous passage in A Room of One’s Own describes the wine served at the ‘good’ luncheon eaten at King’s College or ‘Oxbridge’:

Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. (13-14)

It might be the wine talking, but there’s also something about the conviviality and community of the meal coming through in Woolf’s description of the ‘glow’ of ‘rational’ conversation. In my paper, I hope to draw on some of this magical experience, and to further explore what records of expenses can tell us about the values, practices and systems that lie behind the experience.

Nanette O’Brien
Wolfson College, Oxford

Works cited

Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 1925-1930, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. (Harvest/HBJ, 1981)

Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, 1936-1941, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. (Harvest/HBJ, 1984)

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, ed. Morag Shiach (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Nanette O’Brien is writing her DPhil at Wolfson College, Oxford. She received a three-year doctoral scholarship from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and now holds an Esmond Harmsworth Scholarship at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford. As well as culinary modernism, her interests include modernism and masculinity and early twentieth century British and American concepts of progress, civilisation and barbarism.

Virginia Woolf Talks are presented by Literature Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Free and open to all, town and gown. 



Gillian Beer on Alice in Space

Leigh Chambers interviewed Gillian about her new book, Alice in Space, on Radio Cambridge 105, 11 February 2017. The interview starts 10 mins 30 seconds into the programme:

In her introduction to Alice in Space, Gillian Beer writes:

The Alice books present not so much the carnivalesque 'world upside-down' as the world sideways-on, an egalitarian zone in which everything becomes possible and nothing is unlikely because all forms of being have presence and can argue: doors, Time, eggs, queens, caterpillars, cats and hatters, oysters, gnats, and little girls – all have their say. Alice herself is the radical principle of the books: she represents infinite readiness. She is always curious, always enquiring, and always able to reason her way through the predicaments she finds herself in. [...]

Adamant Alice, no respecter of persons, also has to ask herself persistently who she is. Identity is no settled matter for her. Yet she is the reader’s pellucid guide through the maze. Henry James in the preface to What Maisie Knew (1897) says that 'Maisie to the end … treats her friends to the rich little spectacle of objects embalmed in her wonder. She wonders, in other words, to the end, to the death – the death of her childhood, properly speaking.' Alice is a more energetic wonderer, and objects more often escape her reach than become fixed:

'Things flow about so here! she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at. (176)

Alice endures metamorphoses rather than death or embalming, though death is the haunting alternative to change and growth:

'I never ask advice about growing,' Alice said indignantly.
'Too proud?' the other enquired.
Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. 'I mean,' she said, 'that one ca’n’t help growing older.'
'One ca’n’t, perhaps,' said Humpty Dumpty; 'but two can. With proper assistance you might have left off at seven.' (184)

Growing – growing-up, growing old, growing apart – is a generative dread that drives the narrative in the Alice books: Hilary Schor [in Curious Subjects] observes that 'storytelling is always tinged with mortality, that mortality ("growing up" and then "going out like a candle") is always at the heart of fiction.' And growing is the universal experience undergone and forgotten by us all. But Alice herself is resilient. She seems to emerge from the resilience of shared childhood.

From Gillian Beer, Introduction to Alice in Space: the Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (University of Chicago Press, 2016), pp. 5-6.



Reading The Waves

An extract from Professor Dame Gillian Beer's talk, 'Reading The Waves Across a Lifetime', given on Woolf's 135th birthday, 25 January 2017, at Lucy Cavendish College

Varying motions dapple the surface of Woolf’s language in The Waves (1931). The book explores the intimate individualities of six people, three women, three men, who know each other across their shared lifetimes but come together only infrequently once they are adults. We see them in childhood, at school, at university and in youth, out to dinner together, visiting Hampton Park, and Bernard in age: their thoughts range across time and tangle together events, images and repeated emotions. They are very different from each other in their sexualities and sensibilities though close in social class. The method of representing their consciousnesses is through direct reported present-tense utterance. The last vestige of the conventional narrator is held in the unvarying past-tense and inexpressive speech tag, ‘said Bernard’, ‘said Jinny’, ‘said Neville’, ‘said Rhoda’, ‘said Susan’, ‘said Louis’. In this book the effect is of quiet ritual rather than presiding narrative presence.  Moreover, utterance here does not imply speech but rather a threshold voice, heard in the reader’s ear alone and following the skeins of thought, passion, senses, and feeling within the mind. 

I have come to love the book partly for what it can make happen in a group. It is integral to several of my most poignant experiences as a teacher, and as a listener. It is a book about the everyday, forthright and mysterious. It embraces the ridiculous and does not seek to smooth out incongruity. It is a merciful book, and a book for all times of life. I first read it in my early twenties and now I’m as old as is Bernard at the book’s end. Some works wane but in the course of time, for me, The Waves has gathered. Recently I sat above the sea and heard the thump and withdrawal of the waves, outside meaning, restful, powerful, their systems invisible, their forms fleeting and manifest: unstoppable. Reading The Waves we must trust its process from page to page with some of the same quiescence and alertness that sea-sound induces in us. The book assuages narrative anxiety once we follow its rhythms. But it is also the vehicle of passion and ferocity.

The Waves, moreover, is work of extraordinary sensory directness, with sentences that make your finger-ends fizz. 

Neville:  ‘Yet that crimson must have burnt in Titian’s gizzard.’ (129) The fizz of this sentence comes through your ears as well as your eyes. Taste becomes violence, becomes colour. All our senses commingle as we read. And this is just one sentence in the midst of a paragraph in a fluid procession of lapsed and recovered moments.

Gillian Beer
Clare Hall, Cambridge


Virginia Woolf Talks are hosted by Literature Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. If you would like to be added to our mailing list, please contact tt206 [at]