Jennifer Ristau on Woolf and Politics 2018

Jennifer Ristau reflects upon a week on Woolf and Politics

Here in Minnesota during some of the coldest, snowiest, blowiest days of the year [in early February 2019], I’m letting my line of thought dip back to last summer during a stretch of hot, dry, sunny days along the River Cam. There, during a week of shared readings, lectures, supervisions, and excursions about town, a fortunate group of Virginia Woolf enthusiasts gathered to consider the theme of Woolf and Politics. 

Byron

Byron

It was a week that generated some unexpected lines of thought. For instance, I recall standing in the Wren Library, somewhere near Byron's foot, listening to librarian Nicholas Bell read the draft of a condolence letter written by poet and classicist R. C. Trevelyan to Leonard Woolf. The hesitating loving-care and beauty of the letter, in addition to its somewhat happenstantial existence as a draft that was saved, brought about an incredibly moving moment which I think perhaps others in the group also felt. Some time later, wanting to know more about this R. C. Trevelyan, I read a Wikipedia entry which says he was ‘sometimes considered a rather ineffectual person’. And I thought whoever wrote such a thing had obviously never read his letters.

The week proved rich in conversation as well – which is perhaps not a surprising result when a group of people from all over the world has gathered to revel in appreciation and study of such a revered author – but a highly enjoyable one.  There was ample opportunity to parse out Woolf and politics during the organized events but also at meals, tea breaks, and other in-between times. I seized the chance to ask such deeply important questions as ‘How tall was Virginia Woolf?’ (Anyone? Still tallying opinions on that.) We wondered if England would win the World Cup. We wondered if it would rain. We even nominated one of our own group for president. 

Wren Library

Wren Library

In the week’s final lecture at Darwin College, Ann Kennedy Smith quoted from a letter the 22-year old Virginia Woolf wrote from Cambridge in 1904, ‘Lord! how dull it would be to live here! There seem to be about 10 nice and interesting people who circulate in each other’s houses-…’  I can’t help but wonder what that young Virginia Woolf would have thought about a group such as ours, gathered in Cambridge 114 years later to follow her lines of thought and tramp the trespassed turf.

Jennifer Ristau, common reader
February 2019

Literature Cambridge