Visit to Wren Library 2018

Visit to Wren Library 2018

A visit to the Wren Library, July 2018

We are delighted to confirm that we will visit the Wren Library at Trinity College on both of our summer courses, Virginia Woolf and Politics and Women Writers, July 2018.

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We will see some of the remarkable manuscripts at the Wren, and hear about the history of the library and the college. We will also learn something of the history of women's suffrage in Britain. The library will have a display of materials about the Pethick-Lawrences, active suffrage campaigners in the 1910s. 


In A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf writes of a woman feeling very annoyed that she could not simply walk into the Wren Library to check a manuscript. In those days women could not become members of the college. As a non-member, one needed a letter of introduction to get into the library. Things have changed a lot since then, and women are now active in Trinity as Fellows and students.

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Guest Blog: Clare Walker Gore on George Eliot

Guest Blog: Clare Walker Gore on George Eliot

Women Writers summer course, 8-13 July 2018. 
Clare Walker Gore will lecture on George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860). Here she offers a few thoughts on the novel:

'The parallels between Eliot and her heroine, Maggie, are striking: Eliot too grew up in a modest home in the Midlands, had a brother who disapproved of her choices, and was unable (or unwilling) to live up to her family’s expectations. It is hard to resist the conclusion that, as Virginia Woolf puts it, Eliot ‘shows herself’ in Maggie.

Yet if her childhood was very like her heroine’s, Eliot's adulthood could hardly have been more different. She more than survived her family’s disapproval, forging a career as a translator and writer, moving to London to live independently, and then choosing to live with her partner G. H. Lewes, even though they were unable to marry. In real life, neither her brother’s rejection nor her defiance of social taboos destroyed her.

Why, then, does she not allow Maggie the same escape? When the real Marian Evans lived and thrived, why must the fictional Maggie Tulliver drown?'

Women Writers: Emily Bronte to Elizabeth Bowen, 8-13 July 2018.
Homerton College, Cambridge

Guest Blog: Alison Hennegan on E. M. Forster

Guest Blog: Alison Hennegan on E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster: For Love of Italy

This is an extract from Alison Hennegan's lecture on Forster and Italy,
given at our Study Day, 17 March 2018.

Before we plunge into today’s two novels – Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Room with A View (1908) – and his short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904) – I think it would be helpful to have a little context, to think a little about what Italy, rightly or wrongly, often meant for English visitors.

The Mediterranean has for many years exerted a powerful fascination over the British for whom the countries which enclose it have been seen as the most desirable antithesis of the grey, cold, wet, Northern Protestant part of the Continent.

From at least the sixteenth century we have records of Englishmen, and some women, visiting, travelling, sometimes living in Italy. With the evolution of the Grand Tour those feelings intensified as young Englishmen travelled across the Continent, sometimes for as long as two years, under the usually watchful eye of a tutor. 

Renaissance Italy spoke powerfully to those later visitors, but so too did the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome which underpinned it and whose rediscovery was the re-birth, the renaissance. Italy was the home of ‘Culture’, of Art – two things with which today’s two novels are much concerned with their constant exploration of the meaning, definition, value and power of Art, and Beauty; and of the relations between Art, Beauty and Morality and the frequent conflicts between them. 

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And we should remember that in the years when Forster was growing up and entering adulthood, the relation between Art and Morality was an especially potent and inflammatory debate – these were the years in which Wilde was coming to the peak of his powers, culminating in his spectacularly dramatic and very public downfall. 

During the trials of 1895 which sealed Wilde’s fate that debate – Art versus morality, as it was so often framed – was central to much of his cross-examination by Edward Carson. The morality or not of Wilde’s work, the validity or not of his arguments for Beauty as morality, and Carson’s insistence on conflating the morality of fictional characters and their creator’s shaped the case for the prosecution, and part of the problem was that the two men kept using the same words with entirely opposite meanings – what was beautiful to one was gross ugliness to another, love was merely lust, truth was merely obscenity. We can see similar misunderstandings and cultural ’mistranslations’ at work in today’s two novels.

The novels also question the relation between ‘Delicacy’ and ‘Beauty’ –the two are not the not the same, as the old lady at the beginning of A Room With a View knows. And some forms of false delicacy, of over-refinement, become actively unpleasant. There is, for example, a thin line between Miss Bartlett’s ‘delicacy’ and a rather gross prurience, in for example, her insistence that she should take the larger of the Emersons’ two rooms because it was the son’s, so it would be better for Lucy not to be obliged to him, with an underlying possibility, though, that it would too readily prompt an awareness in Lucy of George’s physical presence - the Room in which he would disrobe, prepare himself for bed, wash, perhaps use the chamber pot in the night, shave the next morning, et cetera. In all those things of which Lucy is to be assumed to be ignorant, and which the two older ladies communicate obliquely, there is a strong seam of sexual awareness and implicit emphasis.

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The novels question, too, the ‘comfortableness, or the ‘tameness’, or ‘niceness’ of beauty. And they question whether or how Beauty might enact itself in our daily lives – and would we like it, if it did?

Caroline Abbott, in Where Angels Fear To Tread, is only one of several characters who find themselves encountering powerful, even awe-inspiring instincts and emotions they do not really understand when she is confronted with the mystery of paternity as passion, as she watches Gino bathing his baby son. The emphasis is on the majesty of Gino in that mode and moment - beyond language, nationality, or class. 

'This cruel vicious fellow knew of strange refinements. The horrible truth, that wicked people are capable of love, stood naked before her, and her moral being was abashed. It was her duty to rescue the baby, to save it from contagion, and she still meant to do her duty, But the comfortable sense of virtue left her. She was in the presence of something greater than right or wrong.' 

Alison Hennegan
Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Guest Blog: Selin Kalostyan

Guest Blog: Selin Kalostyan

Some Notes on 'Woolf's Rooms'

Attending the literature summer course in Cambridge on Woolf’s Rooms last July could not have been more timely, nor too coincidental, for me, especially as a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature concentrating on an oeuvre of Virginia Woolf’s as part of my current dissertation project.

Several rooms were discussed and lived in for a week of intensive study in the inspirational grounds of Homerton College, where participants from all walks of life came together to explore and discuss a large body of Woolf’s writings. We studied A Room of One's Own, Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Between the Acts.

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And thus began our continued dialogue with Woolf’s Rooms. We touched upon furnished and empty rooms; cloistered rooms; history and genre as rooms; rooms suggesting boundaries and loss of boundaries; rooms that are potentially boundless and cheating the limitations of time; the stage as room; how books furnish rooms – among many other references and readings of rooms that figure in Woolf’s work – all discussed and studied with distinguished lecturers and supervisors from Cambridge University.

We took tea and read long passages from The Waves one lovely afternoon, the text enunciated by different voices and accents, in the individually communal room that we had built for ourselves through shared reading.

We took long walks discussing literature and art, broadening our intellectual rooms, while visiting the physical rooms in Girton, Newnham and King's College that became the subjects of many of Woolf’s works. 

The smaller, more intimate room on the basement floor of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which houses the manuscript version of A Room of One’s Own, delighted us in surprising ways when we found ourselves within touching distance of the still lively inscriptions of purple ink breathing on thin leaves – a Cambridge moment of being!

'It is when the candles are lit the room changes', I jotted down in my note-pad during the morning lecture on To the Lighthouse, copying the words of our guest lecturer. 

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The 'shared moment of viewing' she alluded to in the text was rehearsed on our final evening in the candle-lit Fellows’ Dining Room where we all had a chance to admire the meticulous, intricate work of Kabe Wilson, whose anagrammatically titled Olivia N’Gowfri – Of One Woman or So, was spread on the display floor, Orlando-esque. Wilson’s evocative pre-dinner talk introducing his work accompanied our 'Cheers', mingling into undertones of staying in touch. As we said our good-byes later that evening, we were already beginning to taper off in different directions.   

'All characters are united in the "lighthouse-being"' are words that were still resonating with me the following day, between acts of emptying my room and catching the London coach. On a rainy morning filled with much light and possibility.

Selin Kalostyan, New York.

Selin is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the City University of New York and a Lecturer at Lehman College, New York.

The 2018 Woolf summer course is on Woolf and Politics, 1-6 July 2018.

'Vain trifles’? Clothes and Gender Identity in Orlando

'Vain trifles’? Clothes and Gender Identity in Orlando

Guest Blog
Literature Cambridge lecturer Claire Nicholson sets out some ideas about Orlando (1929).

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have…more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Orlando, 179)

‘The man looks the world full in the face….The woman takes a sidelong glance at it…..Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same’. (181)

The first sentence of Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando combines fashion and gender as shifting, unstable concepts: ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it’ (3). The denial of doubt regarding gender identity serves to highlight the very thing it denies, and a fashion which is specified as ‘of the time’ inevitably is to become obsolete as a new style replaces it.

The idea that appearance can be deceptive in terms of gender identity returns again and again in the novel, such as when the Russian princess Sasha skates on the frozen Thames wearing velvet tunic and trousers and Orlando mistakes her for a boy. The role of clothing here is self-evidently a social surface; a piece of visual communication which causes a misreading. Its function within this mock-biography is to disrupt notions of visual identification, to reveal the social construction of gendered identity:

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have…more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Orlando, 179)

As Orlando discovers, to be dressed in women’s clothing is to prompt a pre-determined type of behaviour from the rest of the world. However, Woolf’s attention is not held by the surface of clothes as mere body-coverings but is focused upon the effect of clothing upon the wearer’s consciousness. In Orlando the putting-on of a new set of clothes can unleash a new self, irrespective of gender.

Orlando’s life-journey through the centuries and across the gender divide brings us to Woolf’s vision of harmonised androgyny in the sympathetic union of Orlando and Shelmerdine; ‘You’re a woman, Shel!’ she cried. You’re a man, Orlando!’ he cried (174). The freedom to indulge in the flexibility and liminality of clothing is one aspect of cross-gender exploration but it is more than a matter of surface; it illustrates the way clothing can determine behaviour through its effect upon consciousness. After the change in gender Orlando ‘dressed in those Turkish coats and trousers which can be worn indifferently by either sex’ (134) but it is only when she feels ‘the coil of skirts about her legs’ that she realises ‘the penalties and privileges’ of her female identity which include physical constriction by clothing and the need to cover certain body parts from male eyes. She becomes ‘a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person’. (179)

Why does Woolf raise the question of gender construction through clothing? How effective is this use of imagery? What role does clothing play in gender identity today? How do the illustrations in Orlando contribute to the text? (see the two pictures below)

We will explore all these questions and more in the summer course, Virginia Woolf and Politics, 1-6 July 2018.

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From Tennyson's Maud, end of Part I

From Tennyson's Maud, end of Part I

Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.

For a breeze of morning moves,
And the planet of Love is on high,
Beginning to faint in the light that she loves
On a bed of daffodil sky,
To faint in the light of the sun she loves,
To faint in his light, and to die.

All night have the roses heard
The flute, violin, bassoon;
All night has the casement jessamine stirr'd
To the dancers dancing in tune;
Till a silence fell with the waking bird,
And a hush with the setting moon.

I said to the lily, 'There is but one
With whom she has heart to be gay.
When will the dancers leave her alone?
She is weary of dance and play.'
Now half to the setting moon are gone,
And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
The last wheel echoes away.

I said to the rose, 'The brief night goes
In babble and revel and wine.
O young lord-lover, what sighs are those,
For one that will never be thine?
But mine, but mine,' so I sware to the rose,
'For ever and ever, mine.'

And the soul of the rose went into my blood,
As the music clash'd in the hall;
And long by the garden lake I stood,
For I heard your rivulet fall
From the lake to the meadow and on to the wood,
Our wood, that is dearer than all;

From the meadow your walks have left so sweet
That whenever a March-wind sighs
He sets the jewel-print of your feet
In violets blue as your eyes,
To the woody hollows in which we meet
And the valleys of Paradise.

The slender acacia would not shake
One long milk-bloom on the tree;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake
As the pimpernel dozed on the lea;
But the rose was awake all night for your sake,
Knowing your promise to me;
The lilies and roses were all awake,
They sigh'd for the dawn and thee.

Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, 'She is near, she is near;'
And the white rose weeps, 'She is late;'
The larkspur listens, 'I hear, I hear;'
And the lily whispers, 'I wait.'

She is coming, my own, my sweet;
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

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Guest Blog: Conference on Woolf, Europe and Peace

Guest Blog: Conference on Woolf, Europe and Peace

We are pleased to welcome Peter Adkins, Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent as our guest blogger. Peter is one of the organisers of the Virginia Woolf Conference which takes place in Canterbury, 21-24 June. After the conference, we look forward to welcoming some of the delegates to our summer course in Cambridge, Woolf and Politics.


Virginia Woolf, Europe and Peace
The 28th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf

‘The war was over – so somebody told her as she took her place in the queue at the grocer’s shop. The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed.’ (The Years, 1918 chapter)

In the short chapter of Woolf’s novel The Years set in the immediate aftermath of the November 1918 armistice, the Pargiter family’s former housekeeper Crosby experiences the uncanny sensation of continuing to hear the war which has officially come to an end. The gun salutes and celebratory sirens marking the ceasefire in Europe, ironically, perpetuate the wartime conditions that are meant to have ended. Woolf was herself disconcerted by the guns and sirens that were meant to signify the end of the First World War. As she wrote to her sister, Vanessa, on Armistice day, ‘[t]he guns have been going off for half an hour, and the sirens whistling […] though it’s all done in such an intermittent way that its not in the least impressive – only unsettling’. Peace might have been declared across the channel in France, but the war continues to structure the lived experience of everyday reality in London: ‘The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed.’

2018 marks a century since the end of the war that was purported to be “the war to end all wars,” but which in reality heralded the beginning of a modern mode of warfare that would come to dominate most of the proceeding hundred years. Crosby’s experience of hearing the guns continue to boom and the sirens wail after the armistice not only speaks to Woolf’s own experience in 1918, but also the failure of the armistice to keep to its promise. Writing The Years in the 1930s Woolf was only too aware that the promise of peace in Europe had not been kept, as events on the continent once again were building towards an imminent crisis. Woolf’s next book Three Guineas (1938), a work whose 80th anniversary is also to be celebrated this year, continued this line of preoccupation, addressing the questions of war and peace more directly, taking its subject as the rise of fascism in Europe and the complicity of patriarchy (both at home and abroad) in allowing such ideologies to flourish.

The 28th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, to be held at Woolf College, University of Kent, 21–24 June 2018 and taking the theme of Woolf, Europe and Peace, looks to engage with these anniversaries and legacies in new critical and creative ways. The conference will revisit how Woolf thought and wrote about ideas of peace and Europe, concerns that proliferate in Woolf’s texts, and not just in the context of the two world wars. For instance, Woolf’s love of Europe is well-known, exemplified in both the diary entries describing her romantic trip to France with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and in the fictional description of Jacob’s pilgrimage to the classical ruins of Greece in Jacob’s Room. As such, while we expect that the anniversary of the war ending (and the current state of global politics) will mean that many delegates look towards Europe’s wartime contexts, we also envisage contributions from those who are thinking about Europe and Woolf in broader terms.

Similarly, the notion of ‘peace’, a word whose meanings and implications exceed any specific context, is ripe with possibilities of thinking about Woolf’s writing through theoretical, historical and affective frameworks outside of the two world wars. The conference will also afford the opportunity to consider the question of Woolf, Europe and Peace in relation to those around her, particularly in the Bloomsbury circle, who were writing about these subjects. John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), Clive Bell’s Peace at Once (1915) and Leonard Woolf’s Quack, Quack! (1935) offer three prominent examples of the way in which these questions were being addressed by those who Woolf knew and whose ideas she was in dialogue with.

Our keynote speakers are  Professor Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht), Professor Claire Davison (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), and Dr Jane Goldman (University of Glasgow). There will also be a plenary dialogue on the subject of Woolf and politics by Professor David Ayers and Professor Rachel Potter. As is the tradition with the Annual International Woolf Conferences, in addition to the plenary talks there will be a number of additional events and excursions. These will include a performance of Claude Debussy’s La boîte à joujoux (‘The Toy Box’), a children’s ballet premiered by the Omega Workshops in 1915, on the Friday evening in the University of Kent’s Colyer-Fergusson concert hall. There will also be a performance of ‘The Particle and the Wave’ an ‘audio/video/text piece’ by Himali Singh Soin with Dario Villanueva and David Soin Tappeser, that uses algorithmic measurements of the distance between the 1,265 semi-colons in The Wave to create sound waves. Keeping with the conference’s focus on Europe, there will be a ‘Lunchtime Polylogue’ reading, in which the ‘Time Passes’ section of To The Lighthouse will be simultaneously read aloud in multiple European languages at a different points of the Canterbury campus.

For those delegates who are hoping to arrive a few days early (and we recommend you do, Canterbury is wonderful to visit in the summer) there will be the option to visit some of the places in Kent that were important to Woolf and which appear in her writing. On Wednesday 20 June, there will be a trip to Knole House and Sissinghurst Castle Garden, both, of course, the former homes of Vita Sackville-West. For those not attending the trips, there will still be the opportunity to wander through the historic setting of Canterbury and see aspects of the city which Woolf herself would have encountered when she spent a month on the outskirts of Canterbury in the summer of 1910 (for further information on Woolf’s connection with the city see Derek Ryan’s ‘Virginia Woolf and Canterbury’ in Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Number 89 and 90).

For more details about the conference please visit:

Tennyson, Tithonus

Tennyson, Tithonus

Reading Tennyson: Study Day, Sunday 18 February 2018. We will study Maud and several short lyric poems, including 'Tithonus' and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'.



The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, 
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground, 
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, 
And after many a summer dies the swan. 
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms, 
Here at the quiet limit of the world, 
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East, 
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn. 
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man-- 
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice, 
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem'd
To his great heart none other than a God! 
I ask'd thee, "Give me immortality." 
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile, 
Like wealthy men who care not how they give. 
But thy strong Hours indignant work'd their wills, 
And beat me down and marr'd and wasted me, 
And tho' they could not end me, left me maim'd
To dwell in presence of immortal youth, 
Immortal age beside immortal youth, 
And all I was in ashes. Can thy love
Thy beauty, make amends, tho' even now, 
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide, 
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift: 
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men, 
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all? 

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born. 
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure, 
And bosom beating with a heart renew'd. 
Thy cheek begins to redden thro' the gloom, 
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine, 
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise, 
And shake the darkness from their loosen'd manes, 
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire. 
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek. 

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears, 
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt, 
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true? 
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." 

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch if I be he that watch'd
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings; 
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson'd all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay, 
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet, 
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing, 
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers. 

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East; 
How can my nature longer mix with thine? 
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die, 
And grassy barrows of the happier dead. 
Release me, and restore me to the ground; 
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave: 
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn; 
I earth in earth forget these empty courts, 
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.


Alfred Tennyson

'Tithonus' was first drafted as 'Tithon' in 1833, then revised years later and published in 1860.

Hear 'Tithonus' read aloud by Frank Kermode, English Faculty, Cambridge, November 2009.

Clothing in Mrs Dalloway

Clothing in Mrs Dalloway

Claire Nicholson discusses some aspects of clothing in Mrs Dalloway (1925):

Woolf’s lifetime (1882-1941) coincided with a period of extraordinary change in clothing styles, especially for women. As a child of the late-Victorian era she knew the discomfort of wearing endless layers of cumbersome clothing, but by 1940 she was able to record the comfort and convenience of wearing her husband’s corduroy trousers. This enormous shift in clothing choices and the loosening of strict dress codes led to clothes becoming a more creative expression of identity, which is reflected in her fiction.

Her first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) are written in a fairly conventional style. Brief descriptions of dress are used to situate character in terms of class or position, with little to suggest individuality. But although Woolf is reliant upon brief pieces of visual description she is resistant to a detailed, photographic fidelity to appearance. Indeed she is critical of other novelists, especially Arnold Bennett, who she described as a ‘materialist’ for his over-detailed and lifeless descriptions of external appearance. Woolf was seeking a method whereby dress could be used selectively and appropriately to illuminate the psychological dimension of a character rather than presenting a simple photographic image in words. By the 1920s she was exploring how to capture the sense of how each character experiences the world through their own unique consciousness, and her purpose in relation to clothes was not so much to explore external ‘meanings’ of dress, as to express what it is to experience or to ‘undergo’ dress. As Clair Hughes says, in this aim, Woolf, like Henry James, was 'moving towards a "poetics" of dress'. (Clair Hughes, Dressed in Fiction (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 8.)

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In Mrs Dalloway (1925), clothes play a crucial part, not merely for their compliance with a certain dress code, but also for their effect upon the wearer’s consciousness. Just before the novel was published in May 1925 Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness, &c.’

When Clarissa Dalloway sits at her dressing table she ‘collects herself’ as she prepares the identity she will present to the world in her mermaid-green evening dress at her party. She repairs a tear in the dress herself, rejecting the maid’s help, and her ‘frock consciousness’ is complete when she escorts her most important guest, the Prime Minister, around the room: ‘she seemed,  having that gift still; to be; to exist; summing it all up in the moment as she passed’ (my italics, 154). We are not given any precise image of the dress but it exemplifies her social success and she enjoys the complete synthesis of body, mind and garment. Her identity is so immersed into the garment that when she hears news of the suicide of Septimus Smith the sensation she feels is expressed through her dress; ‘her dress flamed; her body burnt’ (163).

Perhaps Woolf’s use of clothing in her fiction is best summed up in a quotation from a later novel, Orlando (1928):

‘Vain trifles as they seems clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm, they change our view of the world and the wold’s view of us’ (180)

Claire Nicholson
Lecturer, Literature Cambridge

Claire will lecture on clothing in Orlando in our 2018 summer course, Woolf and Politics.

Virginia Woolf and Musical Performance

This is an extract from the beginning of Professor Claire Davison’s talk, given at Lucy Cavendish College on 29 November 2017 to an audience of 50 from town and gown. Our warmest thanks to her Claire a fascinating lecture and discussion.


The talk was introduced by a short extract from the Overture to Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, in a recording from 1911 conducted by Smyth herself.

In June 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth:

If only I weren’t a writer, perhaps I could thank you and praise you and admire you perfectly simply and expressively and say in one word what I felt about the Concert yesterday. As it is, an image forms in my mind; a quickset briar hedge, innumerably intricate and spiky and thorned; in the centre burns a rose. Miraculously, the rose is you; flushed pink, wearing pearls. The thorn hedge is the music; and I have to break my way through violins, flutes, cymbals, voices to this burning centre. Now I admit this has nothing to do with musical criticism. It is only what I feel as I sat on my silver winged (was it winged?) chair on the slippery floor yesterday. I am enthralled that you, the dominant and superb, should have this tremor and vibration of fire around you – violins flickering, flutes purring; (the image is of a winter hedge) – that you should be able to create this world from your centre. (Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, June 1930, Collected Letters vol. IV, pp. 171-2)

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Woolf’s oft-quoted letter to Smyth, with its evocative, idiosyncratic cameo portrait of the composer, shows the powerful inspiration of a new friend, whom Woolf would describe in somewhat punchier terms six months later as being ‘of the race of pioneers, of path makers, […] who has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for all those who come after her.’ (1) The quotation is also one of the very rare instances of a minor editorial oversight in the Letters of Virginia Woolf: there is no footnote contextualising the event, which was most likely a concert of Smyth’s music at Mansion House, London. (2) The repertoire that evening included her overture to The Wreckers, Spring Canticle and the Anacreontic Ode. Such details matter. They suggest that the miraculous pink flushed rose in the spiky, burning hedge may be less a dazzling and rather daring metaphor than a transposition of a very vividly recalled scene: that of the impassioned, conductor energetically directing the ring of musicians performing around her.

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There has been a welcome awakening of critical interest in recent years in what was in many ways an oddly mismatched intimacy between the two women in the 1930s; in literary and modernist studies however, accounts of Smyth still tend to favour caricature or anecdote, and surprisingly little attention has been paid to Smyth’s musicianship or to the mutual interplay of literary and musical influences in otherwise detailed recent accounts of their relationship. Similarly, the importance of music in Woolf’s life and writing has been splendidly documented in recent years, shedding light on Woolf’s sensitive awareness of the awkward relationship between music and language for example, the influence of Wagner, comic opera, and the musical form of modernist narrative strategies, along with the interwoven domains of twentieth-century music, literature and philosophy. (3) 

There is a tendency among professional musicians, however, to suspect that literary appropriations of musical motifs and musical representation tend as Smyth herself put it, ‘to go strangely astray’. (4) The literary critic, for example, is inevitably drawn to the stories music tells as an embedded narrative, to equate musicality and expressive elegance, to seize on apparent structural analogies (sonata form, symphonic form, fugue for example), or to etherealise and dematerialise music. Pater famously claimed that ‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ but this is a personal and in fact rather vague claim, not a truth. What is this condition of music to which the arts supposedly aspire?  Is there such a thing as a condition of music? Does music actually have it, or only aspire to it? While such questions can only tantalise, there is no denying that what music does have is a powerful performative effect whether it is being heard, read about, or remembered. This power of music in performance is still only partly understood by neurologists today, as they seek to chart how the brain receives, stores and retrieves the structural density, complex sonic patterns, rhythmic momentum and profound emotional appeal of music, and the part these play in the tenacity of musical memory. (5)

My talk aims to fill in some of the blanks by focusing on music in performance in Woolf’s work. To return to the opening quotation, I wish to address music not in terms of story, narrative form or a highly metaphoric expression of dawning friendship, but as an expression of her powerfully vivid recollections and evocations of music being performed, a reflection of what happens when music happens. As we shall see, this notably implies taking music out of bounds, from the concert hall to the hedgerow briars, so to speak, and from the domestic salon to the political arena. To do so, I draw on three interwoven facets of music, and three very different works:

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• the short story, ‘The String Quartet’ which I explore as ‘a listening text’;
• Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, and the question of ‘performing out of music’;
• what I refer to as ‘Singing Songs of Sixpence’ in Three Guineas.


(1) Virginia Woolf, ‘Speech before the London/National Society for Women’s Service, 21 January 1931’, in The Pargiters by Virgina Woolf: The Novel Essay Portion of the Years, ed. Mitchell Leaska (Hogarth Press, 1977), pp. xxvii-xxviii.
(2) Library, Royal College of Music, London.
(3) See in particular Emma Sutton’s outstanding monograph, Virginia Woolf and Classical Music (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), and also Adriana Varga’s edited collection, Virginia Woolf and Music (Indiana University Press, 2014).
(4) Ethel Smyth, ‘Where Musical Criticism Goes Astray’, Female Pipings in Eden (London: Peter Davies, 1933), pp. 71-86.
(5) See in particular Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007).

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Hans Grietens on Woolf’s Rooms

Woolf's Rooms Summer Course 2017

In July 2017, I attended the Cambridge Literature Summer Course Woolf’s Rooms, together with more than 25 students from all around the world. An unforgettable experience!

I was immersed for a whole week in the writings of Virginia Woolf and gained a deeper understanding of her work. We studied the different meanings of rooms in Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own and her novels Jacob’s Room, The Waves, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. We learned about public and private space, boundaries, rooms filled with people, empty rooms, rooms inhabited, rooms creating safety, a sense of self, and so much more. I did not know that Virginia Woolf referred so often to rooms in her novels. And I found it amazing to discover how she connects so many themes to rooms.

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For me this Summer Course was very inspiring for several reasons. I gained many new insights from the morning lectures, all given by leading experts who showed great passion for Virginia Woolf and who stimulated me to read and reread her works. The lectures helped me to slowly recognise Woolf’s unique voice and tone and to start understanding the multiple layers in her work. As one lecturer concluded: ‘Woolf’s novels keep giving!’ They are so dense and rich. I also enjoyed the group of participants. It was a mixed group, people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds, but with a common interest in Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury group, modernism and women’s writing. Easy to keep conversations going!

I liked the discussions in small groups of three students and a supervisor (tutor). Reflecting on the lectures and sharing our own reading experiences, we got a flavour of the famous Cambridge supervision model. The guided tours to King’s College, Girton College and Newnham College were all very worthwhile. An absolute highlight for me was our visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, where we had a close look at the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own. Impressive. A goosebump moment! Another highlight was when we read aloud long sections of The Waves, a very intense experience. And I also keep good memories of Kabe Wilson’s talk on his remix of A Room of One’s Own: Of One Woman or So. A very original talk which astonished the audience. Last but not least, there were the fun moments, the daily life in Homerton College, the drinks in the bar, the walks through Cambridge, the conviviality, the discussions on how to become a real ‘Woolfian’ and our future plans. I made many new friends in this Summer Course. I already look forward to seeing them next year.

Hans Grietens
The Netherlands

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Listening to Tennyson's poetry

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We are delighted to offer a Study Day on Tennyson, Sunday 18 February 2018. This includes readings of some of Tennyson's most moving works by expert readers. A rare opportunity to hear the remarkable long poem Maud (1855) alongside some brilliant short poems: 'Break, Break, Break', 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and others. Further details here.

If you are interested to hear Tennyson's poems read aloud, we recommend the wonderful readings of his poetry recorded at the English Faculty, Cambridge in 2009 to mark the bicentenary of Tennyson's birth. You can find the printed text on the same page as the recordings, to read as you listen. Listen here.

Bookings for our Tennyson Study Day at Stapleford Granary are now open.