Virginia Woolf on Roger Fry

Woolf on Roger Fry, with a quotation from Fry on E. M. Forster

As a critic of literature, then, he was not what is called a safe guide. He looked at the carpet from the wrong side; but he made it for that very reason display unexpected patterns. And many of his theories held good for both arts. Design, rhythm, texture—there they were again—in Flaubert as in Cézanne. And he would hold up a book to the light as if it were a picture and show where in his view—it was a painter's of course—it fell short. He greatly admired E. M. Forster's *Passage to India*. 'I think it's a marvellous texture—really beautiful writing. But Oh lord I wish he weren't a mystic, or that he would keep his mysticism out of his books. . . . I'm certain that the only meanings that are worth anything In a work of art are those that the artist himself knows nothing about. The moment he tries to explain his ideas and his emotions he misses the great thing.'

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Virginia Woolf, *Roger Fry: A Biography* (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940), 240-1. Available online:

We look forward to Frances Spalding's talk on Woolf and Fry, Wed. 18 October 2017, 1.00 pm, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.


Some interesting information about Virginia Woolf's biography of Roger Fry from Smith College Libraries in Northampton, Mass., USA:

'As was her custom, Woolf alternated between writing nonfiction and fiction, working on *Roger Fry* and *Between the Acts* simultaneously in 1938. She was also writing her autobiography, “A Sketch of the Past.” Woolf began her research within a month of Fry’s death (9 September 1934) and the project took five years to complete. *Roger Fry* was published on 25 July 1940, six months after Woolf’s fifty-eighth birthday and eight months before her death.'

Quoted from:…/rarebook/ex…/penandpress/case15b.htm

Articles on The Years

In 1977, the Bulletin of the New York Public Library published several very interesting articles on Woolf's novel The Years (1937). These are now available online and can be downloaded as a PDF. A wonderful resource for readers. Thanks so much to Woolf scholar Vara Neverow for this information. Link here. Scroll to the very end of the list. The Woolf essays are in the latter part of the 1977 issue.

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Writing Mrs Dalloway

From Susan Sellers' lecture on Writing Mrs Dalloway
Mrs Dalloway Study Day
, 16 September 2017, Stapleford Granary

One of the things that frustrates me as a scholar is the way cultural adaptations (such as Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Woolf in the film The Hours) suggests she wrote from a state of depressed introspection. But this simply isn't true. Woolf was constantly looking outwards. Not only was she phenomenally well read – she studied Greek and Latin, undertaking her own translations of The Oresteia, and was an authority on a range of French writers, the Russian novel and the full span of English Literature – but she was knowledgeable about many other things too. At the time Woolf was writing Mrs Dalloway important new scientific ideas were in circulation, including Einstein's theory of relativity. We know that Woolf read the philosopher Henri Bergson, who explored in a book called Time and Free Will the difference between what he called historical time – which is external and linear, and measured in terms of the spatial distance travelled by a pendulum on the hands of a clock; and psychological time – which is internal, subjective, and measured by the relative emotional intensity of a moment.

There’s a wonderful re-enactment of this distinction in the novel, in the ways the two London clocks – Big Ben on the Houses of Parliament and St Margaret’s on the church nearby – ring out time.

Big Ben when it strikes is described in deliberately military terms, so that Peter Walsh for example hears it as he comes across a military parade:

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'Boys in uniform, carrying guns, marched with their eyes ahead of them, marched, their arms stiff, and on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England.'

This is a picture of England at its most patriotic and conformist, reminiscent – in that insistence on uniform that not only refers to clothes or movements but even the expressions on faces – of the machine, devoid of feeling, Septimus congratulated himself on becoming as he fought in the trenches of the First World War.

'St Margaret’s, on the other hand, with its late chime, not only seems to mock the chilling precision and inhumanity of Big Ben, but is also described in terms that connect it to Clarissa and which allow for human feeling:Ah, said St Margaret's, like a hostess who comes into her drawing room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. I am not late. No, it is precisely half-past eleven ... Yet, though she is perfectly right, her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back; some concern for the present. It is half-past eleven, she says, and the sound of St Margaret's glides into the recesses of the heart and buries itself in ring after ring of sound, like something alive which wants to confide itself, to disperse itself, to be, with a tremor of delight, at rest – like Clarissa herself, thought Peter Walsh, coming downstairs on the stroke of the hour in white.'

Unlike the emotionally dead marching men, then, this is a sound that is almost ‘alive’.


Mrs Dalloway: Peace and Betrayal, 1923

From Trudi Tate's lecture on Mrs Dalloway: Peace and Betrayal, 1923
Mrs Dalloway Study Day
, 16 September 2017, Stapleford Granary

On the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party, Richard Dalloway MP buys some roses for his wife Clarissa. When he arrives home, he finds Clarissa worrying over whether she should invite a dull cousin to her party. Richard settles her anxieties and puts her down on the sofa, like a child, for an afternoon rest, before returning to his work at the House of Commons. ‘“Some committee?” she asked as he opened the door.’ ‘“Armenians”, he said; or perhaps it was “Albanians”.’ What did he say? Clarissa is not sure, but she enjoys looking at the roses.

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'And people would say, "Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt." She cared so much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?' (157)


This is a startling paragraph to find in a book published in 1925. In this lecture, I hope to show that Clarissa’s confusion over Armenia and Albania is an obvious, even heavy-handed, satiric moment in the novel. Many readers might not recognise the references now, but they would have been quite obvious to Woolf’s first readers. I am going to suggest that Mrs Dalloway, one of Woolf’s most ‘aesthetic’ novels, is partly a satire on the political climate in Britain shortly after the First World War. But it is a satire of a very peculiar kind. It raises uncomfortable questions about how British civilians were placed in relation to the events of the war and to the settlements which followed.

First, I want to make a few general remarks about the end of the FWW. This is the context in which Woolf was writing – just a few years after the Armistice when people were feeling betrayed and angry about the war, and also about the peace settlements.

For many people, the suffering did not end with the war. The peace treaties reshaped the map of Europe, dismantling the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and creating a number of new nations, including Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria. Millions of people were displaced or rendered stateless by the treaties; this caused serious hardship and many people were forced to emigrate. (Some 4 to 5 million people were made refugees between 1914 and 1922.)

For several months after the Armistice of November 1918 Britain helped to maintain a blockade against central Europe. People were starving; women and children died of hunger in Germany, Austria and elsewhere. 

Wars continued after the war, in Poland, Albania, Greece, Russia, and Turkey. The peace settlements raised new sets of problems which contributed to the rise of fascism and another war in 1939. The peace settlements failed terribly. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), John Maynard Keynes warned that war had set Europe on the road to ruin; the Versailles Treaty continued this process. The war had ruined the economies of Europe. Countries which had previously been self-sufficient now depended on the United States for their basic food requirements. The treaties made the situation worse.

We are familiar with the idea of disillusion in literature of the First World War. But the peace, too, was disappointing. People felt disillusioned all over again, worrying about international relations (with good reason) as well as local problems. And people were aware that the two were often connected. For Leonard Woolf, writing in 1922, international politics were central to Britain’s future prosperity.

'This country', wrote Leonard Woolf in 1922, 'must stand out in Europe and the world as a sincere supporter of a policy of peace and international co-operation.' Leonard Woolf believed that political action immediately after the war was even more important than it had been during the conflict, and he often despaired that the bad decisions which had taken Britain into the war were being made again after it had ended. He saw the 1920s as ‘a time of continual crisis’. And the governments of the day were, by and large, not very good at dealing with such crises. This is the context in which Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs Dalloway.

Further reading


Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (1994)
N. P. Howard, ‘The Social and Political Consequences of the Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19’, German History, 2, 2 (1993), 161–87
John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919; London: Macmillan, 1984)
Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919 (1933; rpt 1985)
Trudi Tate, 'Mrs Dalloway and the Armenian Question', in Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (1998; rev. 2013)
Andrew Thorpe, Britain in the Era of Two World Wars (1994)
Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way (Autobiography of 1919-39) (1967)
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Alison Hennegan on A Room of One's Own

This is an extract from the opening lecture given by Alison Hennegan on our 2017 summer course, Woolf’s Rooms.

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A Room of One’s Own (1929) was originally a talk, requested by undergraduates at Girton and Newnham, the two first women’s university colleges in Britain: Girton founded in 1869, Newnham in 1871. And it is, I think, worth saying at this point, something of the very different philosophies and aspirations which distinguished those two colleges.

Emily Davies, the daughter of a Welsh clergyman, who was the first Mistress of Girton, was clear that anything the undergraduate men of Cambridge were asked to do, her students must do, too. To do otherwise would immediately incur the charge of being lesser, not up to it, needing an easier way.

Anne Jemima Clough, the first Principal of Newnham, and sister of one of mid-nineteenth century England’s most interesting poets, Arthur Hugh Clough, thought differently. Of course she wanted her women student to have access to a university education, but she was not so impressed by everything that nineteenth-century Cambridge did to feel that she and her women must follow slavishly. ‘Equal but different’ was her position. Equality, for her, did not mean being identical.

And this is something which Woolf returns to time and again throughout her work. It helps to shape her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. It’s present in her first thoroughly experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, with its often deeply hostile critique of the education conventionally offered upper middle class English boys and youths which teaches attitudes to women and their intellectual capacities which are at best condescending, at worst contemptuous. (Think of Jacob’s musings in King’s Chapel as he surveys the women in it.)

It’s working away in the difficult relations between Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman, her daughter’s governess. And it would be one way of characterizing a central difference between Mrs Ramsey and Lily Brisce in the 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse.

Constantly Woolf has in her sights some of the most influential teachings of the previous century, such as Ruskin’s 1865 essay, Sesame and Lilies, whose two sections detail the most appropriate education for boys and young men. Their chapter is tellingly entitled ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ – banks, counting houses, the world of economics. The chapter devoted to the education of girls and young women is equally tellingly entitled: it’s called ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’.  

So those two very different versions of equality – as ‘identical’ or ‘equal but different’ – run side by side throughout the various nineteenth-century feminist struggles, and they remain thoroughly familiar to us today. Wherever issues of evaluation, judgement, ranking pertain, they remain relevant, and they thread their way through A Room of One’s Own

But those two versions of equality yield no easy answers. How do they affect our sense of what is a good book, who is a good writer, what is a subject worth tackling, who stands where when they make those judgements, and why?

Alison Hennegan
Trinity Hall, Cambridge
July 2017

Sarah Cain on T. S. Eliot

From Sarah Cain's lecture on The Waste Land, 11 June 2017.

In late 1921, Eliot wrote to his brother Henry: ‘The great thing I am trying to learn is how to use all my energy without waste, to be calm when there is nothing to be gained by worry, and to concentrate without effort […] I realise that our family was never taught mental, any more than physical hygiene, and as a result we are a seedy lot’. Four months earlier, in August 1921, Eliot had been signed off his work at Lloyds Bank – his sick card simply read ‘nervous breakdown’ – to take a rest-cure at Margate followed by a trip to Switzerland; it was during this trip that he completed the first full draft of the poem that would be published as The Waste Land in April 1922. Eliot’s own experiences of illness and nervous breakdown are, first of all, useful biographical contexts for his early poems, particularly The Waste Land; but they also connect to the broader ways the texts interrogate the relationship of world, body and mind, and engage intriguingly with the stresses of modernity. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, medicine, psychology and physiology were all intensely focused on the ‘nerves’ as mysterious sites of trouble and disruption. Modernity itself was thought to induce particular kinds of illness: it was thought that the very experience of living a modern life – from the constant encounter with technology to travel at ever-faster speeds, or the time pressures of living at a faster pace than ever – could bring on conditions such as hysteria, paranoia and insanity, or neurasthenia (also known as ‘nerve weakness’).

Eliot’s work consistently represents the force of modernity, and the violence it enacts upon the self, as a form of shock: an electrical confrontation that ruptures body, mind and world. This motif appears throughout the early poems leading up to The Waste Land, from the 1920 poem ‘The Hippopotamus’, in which the ‘flesh and blood’ of the hippopotamus is ‘susceptible to nervous shock’; to the hysteric ‘epileptic’ of ‘Sweeney Erect’ who seems to exist only in the contorted shapes of her body on the mattress. Eliot’s lyrics obsess over illness and health, and in the relationship between the self and its surroundings, activating these anxieties as part of wider relationships between urban experience, life and work: in section III of The Waste Land, for example, the automatic, mechanical bodies of the typist and the ‘young man carbuncular’ are juxtaposed with an image of the worker as a ‘human engine’, ‘a taxi throbbing waiting’ in the ‘violet’ London twilight, which ‘hums’ with nervous reverberations. In this respect, Eliot envisages the movement through the modern city in similar terms to Walter Benjamin, who argued that the mobile eye of the flâneur and the neurasthenic’s inability to deal effectively with the modern world link together in the experience of the modern city and its technological demands.

For futher discussion of Eliot and psychology, see Sarah Cain, 'Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism', in Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017). More details here.


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