Having attended various international Woolf conferences in the past few years, where I felt that exhilarating mixture of excitement and trepidation when giving a paper to a scholarly gathering, this year’s event found me feeling delightfully worry-free. The four days ahead of me were to be spent as a listener rather than a presenter; a rare opportunity just to listen and learn.
Leeds Trinity University is a green, modern campus in a beautiful setting on the outer edge of Leeds. Delegates had travelled from far and wide, the largest number coming from across the Atlantic. Proceedings began with little ceremony; it was straight down to business with a choice of panel sessions all relating to the overall theme of Virginia Woolf and Heritage. Leeds Trinity University is also the home of the Centre for Victorian Studies and it was a most appropriate context in which to explore Woolf’s perspectives on her forbears, as well as questions of her own literary legacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Presenters ranged from very experienced Woolfians who have published work dating back many years (and who continue to find new avenues to explore) to new researchers in the field. The superb organisation of the conference was the result of many years of planning and preparation by Professor Jane de Gay and her team. Everyone was unfailingly helpful in answering queries, directing people who were lost, reuniting delegates with lost property and recommending the quickest route to the bar. Yorkshire hospitality was much in evidence; new friendships were quickly made over delicious buffet lunches and lavish coffee breaks which involved platters of fresh fruit and plenty of cake.
The standard of papers given this year was notably high; particular highlights for me included a superb session on the archives at Charleston and the recent Angelica Garnett Gift, a plenary discussion by Marion Dell and Jean Mills on Woolf’s ambivalent relationship with her Victorian forebears, and a lively paper by PhD student Nanette O’Brien, who has consulted the Cambridge archives to explore Woolf’s reasons for using food as an illustration of the stark contrast between men’s and women’s colleges in A Room of One’s Own.
A further highlight was the music concert Virginia: A Musical Portrait, the first performance of specially commissioned original pieces for voice and piano accompaniment. Hearing Woolf’s words from her essays, letters and diaries interpreted in music was an astonishingly poignant experience, and it was illuminating to hear the three composers, Jeremy Thurlow, Richard Barnard and Jan-Willem van Herpen, talk about the process of composition at a joint session earlier in the day. There was also a splendid Banquet on Saturday evening which ended with a selection of readers sharing their favourite quotations from Woolf in a lively, convivial atmosphere.
As always, the time seemed to fly past and it was helpful to have a 3-hour train journey home to help digest the riches of the previous four days. I came away with new contacts made, new enthusiasms to explore, a more informed idea of Woolf’s literary inheritance, 3 newly-purchased books, and determination to write a paper for next year’s conference, Virginia Woolf and the World of Books, which will celebrate the centenary of the Hogarth Press and will be held at Reading University next June. I hope to see you there.