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.