Passing Glances at Virginia Woolf

References to Woolf, or her characters, are likely to show up in the most unlikely places. Sven Birkerts, for example, in The Gutenberg Elegies (London: Faber & Faber 1994)--a sustained meditation on the value of reading in an electronic age--hails Woolf's work as "an emblem for some of the very things that are under threat in our age: differentiated subjectivity, reverie, verbal articulation, mental passion." Lee Smith, in her novella The Christmas Letters (Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1996), has a middle-aged female character return to college, while her marriage is breaking up, to write an honors thesis on Woolf.

In these and other books making up our reading at random, Woolf is there--a testament to her genius and, further, to several decades of her readers' passionate and public scholarship. But she is not just there--she is being used. She is "passing" for (or against) something, in the sense that Pamela Caughie has recently discussed ("Let is Pass: Changing the Subject, Once Again," PMLA 112 [1997]: 26-39).

We at The International Virginia Woolf Society have been soliciting the help of Woolf-minded readers everywhere in order to come up with such references (which by definition will elude the standard bibliographic compilers). Below are the ones we've received so far, for which we're grateful. You are encouraged to send in your own examples of references to Woolf in works of literature or nonfiction, together with a short analysis of what "passing" use is being made of her (as in the following examples).

Note: By popular demand, we've begun to collect "glances" from the popular press, as well. These are collected separately below, after the book entries.

Send them to Or mail them to her at 406 Morgan Creek Road, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, 27514. You'll be given credit, with thanks.

Also available are bibliographies of Virginia Woolf scholarship for 1996, 1997, and 1998.

Book "Glances"

Botton, Alain de. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel. Random House/Pantheon, 1997.

In a chapter of this literary parody of the self-help genre called "How to Put Books Down," Woolf exemplifies "Symptom no. 2: That we are unable to write after reading a good book." "Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf," writes Botton. "She loved his novel . . . rather too much. There wasn't enough wrong with it." Botton continues with "Marcel and Virginia: A short story," an historical narrative of Woolf's engagement with Proust beginning in autumn 1919, when she wrote Roger Fry in France asking him to bring her back a copy of Swann's Way. Woolf then procrastinated for several years: "Everyone is reading Proust. I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience. . . . I'm shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again."

This fear proved for a horrible moment to be true: "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures--there's something sexual in it--that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that. . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped--and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp." Woolf, Botton continues, was able to gather her forces to write Mrs. Dalloway, though she remained diffident: "I wonder if this time I have achieved something? . . . Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly's bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own."

Later, Botton notes, when she was in the doldrums after Orlando, she asked herself, "Why always be spouting words? . . . Take up Proust after dinner and put him down. This is the worst time of all. It makes me suicidal. Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless." At this point, Botton writes, she wisely gave up reading Proust so as to write more books of her own, returning to him only in 1934: A la Recherche "is of course to magnificent that I can't write myself within its arc. For years I've put off finishing it; but now, thinking I may die one of these years, I've returned, and let my own scribble do what it likes. Lord what a hopeless bad book mine [The Years] will be!" Botton sums up the peace Woolf has made with Proust thus: "The path from depression and self-loathing to cheerful defiance suggests a gradual recognition that one person's achievements did not have to invalidate another's. . . . Proust might have expressed many things well, but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him. His book did not have to be followed by silence; there was still space for the scribbling of others, for Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, A Room of One's Own, and in particular, there was space for what these books symbolized in this context--perceptions of one's own."

Botton's examples here of the books Woolf managed to write despite having gone "down and down and down" into A la Recherche omit her most stunning post-Proust achievements in capturing "what has always escaped"-- To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Between the Acts--to emphasize the moral of his chapter: how to put down even the most magnificent books by other people so as to write a book of one's own.

--Christine Froula

"A Common Reader," mail order book catalog, Spring 1997

This catalog's entry on Woolf's Common Reader and Second Common Reader makes it clear that the catalog's organizers had her in mind rather more than Samuel Johnson: "In the two volumes of The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf gathers a record of her own reading that is a library of intellect, instinct, and imagination. Scholarship takes a back seat to serendipity, education seems--as it should--a circuit of enthusiasms, and a serious mind finds its shape among the sentences and sentiments that speak most directly to it. In these pages, one learns, through Woolf's developing understanding, valuable lessons about Chaucer and the Elizabethans, Montaigne and Defoe, Jane Austen and George Eliot, and relishes as well her sparkling reflections 'On Not Reading Greek' and on how one should read a book. 'Few people ask from books what books can give us,' she notes with a special authority; in these collections, she teaches us to query volumes for ourselves."

--Sally Greene

DeSalvo, Louise. Vertigo. New York: Dutton, 1996; paperback, 1997.

I use Virginia Woolf and my work on her throughout my memoir. I talk about the congruencies between Woolf's life and mine--depressive mothers, sexual abuse, trying to find meaning in writing and work. I write about how in first writing about Woolf's life, I gathered courage to explore my own. Woolf figures too in my forthcoming memoir Breathless (Boston: Beacon, 1997). In it, I write about how I learned about how to work with illness by learning how Woolf worked with hers.

--Louise DeSalvo

Keefer, Janice Kulyk. Rest Harrow. 1992; HarperPerennial, 1993.

A Canadian professor on sabbatical, gathering material for a biography on Virginia Woolf, Anna ensconces herself at Rest Harrow, a cottage in the English countryside not far from where Woolf spent her last years. Anna's desire is to cut herself off from other people, including her lover, Luke. But her life becomes entangled with an exceptional cast of local characters, and Anna's attempt at control--sealing off her private world--is shattered. She is confronted by her self, as past and present pain explode to the surface, and by an England that bears little resemblance to the country of her imagination. Yet in the depths of Anna's uncertainties is the promise of a new beginning.

--the publisher's description, from the book, submitted by Allyson McGill

Lippincott, Robin. The Real, True Angel. Fleur-de-Lis Press, 1996.

In "The 'I' Rejected," one of the stories in my short story collection, the main character is an "anonymous" gay man who--through Isherwood/Auden/Spender etc.--knew Woolf a bit, back in the 30s; in addition to being highly Woolfian in style, Woolf does actually appear in the story. In "If You're Going to San Francisco," the main character has just read Mrs. Dalloway and refers, specifically, to "the solitary traveller." And in "Forcing Forsythia," one of the characters is writing a study of Woolf and D. H. Lawrence called The Moth and the Flame.

--Robin Lippincott

(Robin also has a novel-in-progress called Mr. Dalloway; an excerpt appears in issue 41 of The American Voice.)

Madden, Chris Casson. A Room of Her Own: Women's Personal Spaces. Clarkson Potter, 1997.

This coffee-table book virtually overflows with pictures of rooms, glorious rooms, of successful living American women. They include Ali McGraw, Sally Quinn, Grace Mirabella, Maya Angelou, Faith Popcorn, Oprah Winfrey, and many others. Madden dedicates her wook "To three strong and vibrant women, role models all: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Virginia Woolf, Oprah Winfrey, and to all the phenomenal women who opened up the doors to their private places . . . ." She further writes in justification of her project that "Although Virginia Woolf writes that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write ficton, I believe a woman today must have a room of her own if she is to survive and thrive." Where, we might ask, did the "money" go in her revision.? Into the rooms, of course. The book's photographer is Jennifer Levy, with design by Dania Martinez Davey.

--Sally Greene

Mairs, Nancy. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Nancy Mairs has written autobiographically on a wide range of themes, especially the debilitating effects of the multiple sclerosis from which she progressively suffers. Voice Lessons recounts her process of becoming a writer, of "finding her own voice"--a process to which Woolf was extremely important. Part Two of the book begins with a chapter called "Writing (Into) Life: Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing." Though she had read Orlando in high school and Mrs. Dalloway in college, it was not until she was 36 and depressed about writing that she happened on to A Writer's Diary. She connected with Woolf "immediate[ly] and intimate[ly]," sharing Woolf's sense of wanting to discover the meaning of life as she expresses it in her diary. After an absence from her studies at Arizona State University, she returned and "changed her life," shifting her major from English education to English literature. She signed up for a seminar on Woolf and began an intensive study of feminist theory, spurred on by A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. For Mairs, Woolf is not just "in passing" but has been an inspiration to how to live her life as a writer.

--Cheryl Heneveld

Maso, Carole. Aureole. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1996.

The preface to Aureole, Maso's most recent book, quotes this sentence from To the Lighthouse: "Mr. Ramsey, stumbling along the passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsey, having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty." Maso describes how this one sentence had preoccupied her for years with its ability to communicate such a physical sensation and emotional feats which had barely been tapped into." Maso refers to Woolf in other works as well, including her experimental novel Ava (1993).

--Stephen Pelton?

Mitford, Nancy. Love in a Cold Climate (Part Two, Chapter Two). First published by Hamish Hamilton, 1949.

In this comic novel set among the pre-war aristocracy, the conventional down-to-earth narrator, Fanny, makes the mistake of telling the Countess of Montdore that her (Fanny's) husband "doesn't believe that women ever are intellectuals hardly hardly ever, perhaps one in ten million--Virginia Woolf perhaps--." Lady Montdore, who '"had no thoughts except in relation to herself," mulls this over and a few days later reappears and asks, "Who is this Virginia Woolf you mentioned to me?" When Fanny assures her that Woolf had written "a fascinating book about a society person" (Mrs. Dalloway), Lady Montdore borrows her copy of the first edition.

The following week Lady Montdore returns again, "saying that she really must write a book herself as she knew she could do much better than that": it was "too boring and she never did get to that society person."

The appalling Lady Montdore always shows herself up with every word she speaks, and this instance indicates how unintellectual and uncultured she is. At the same time, we delight in her every appearance and outrageous statement. It is also likely that not a few of Mitford's readers have had a similar reaction to Woolf, but with less of Lady Montdore's courage in expressing it. While the reader may be surprised at Fanny's enthusiasm (buying the novels as they came out, no doubt), many of us lack confidence in the voice of sanity in the middlebrow novel (cf. Flora Poste in Cold ComfortFarm). Put it another way: if Fanny criticised her husband's sexist ideas, the reader might take her views about Woolf on trust.

--Stuart N. Clarke

Schiwy, Marlene A. A Voice of Her Own: Women and the Journal-Writing Journey. New York: Fireside, 1996.

This is both an exploration of women's journal-writing and a how-two manual for those who would like to give it a try. Here is the Woolfian opening of the foreword, by Marion Woodman: "As I read A Voice of Her Own . . . I experience myself in a large, round room with many doors. One by one, the doors open and several of the closest companions of my life--Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Etty Hillesum, and others--women whose most private thoughts have profoundly influenced mine, quietly enter the room." This book bears comparison with Betty Jane Wylie's therapeutic Reading Between the Lines: The Diaries of Women (Toronto: Key Porter, 1995) and Thomas Mallon's engaging A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984), both of which are peppered with references to Woolf.

--Sally Greene

Scott, Jody. I, Vampire. New York: Ace-Berley, 1984.

I, Vampire is a science fiction novel in which a 700-year-old female vampire named Sterling O'Blivion meets and fall in love with an alien who has taken on Virginia Woolf's personality. Sterling meets Woolf (the alien is really Woolf, as she might be in alien form) on Chicago's Michigan Ave. in front of a Bloomsbury-like house. Sterling is a kind of misunderstood Orlando; like Orlando, she has a sexually ambiguous name, and her ideas are different from those of her contemporaries. Also, Sterling is an artist who needs a discourse, but can't find one in the dark ages, where she is born. Woolf meets and understands her, and the two survive peril after peril before they take off to outer space where they can be their "true selves" without fear of sanction or persecution. Sterling can be a real vampire, and doesn't have to hide her pedigree, or the fact that once a month, she needs one liter or so of blood (from a blood bank) to survive; Woolf can shed her body and assume a more comfortable, even more intellectual sea mammal body.

Woolf is both pragmatic and ironic in this book. She shares Sterling's sense of humor, and offers her companion and understanding when no one else will. Yet, Sterling is a kind of "Judith Shakespeare" too. In a way, she subverts the restrictions various societies have put upon women, much as Orlando dons a wedding ring in the nineteenth century so that she can write her poem. Woolf is portrayed as the champion of artist/outsiders like Sterling.

Sterling works in Chicago at a dance studio but becomes chief spokesperson for the aliens. They are on earth to promote the sales of "Famous Men's Sperm Kits." When other characters turn on Sterling, and she becomes the victim of a large media conspiracy in the twentieth century, Woolf steps in and whisks her off to safety.

--Ellen Tsagaris

Shields, Carol. Swann. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Woolf appears on the first page--and only the first page, as I recall--of Carol Shields' academic mystery Swann. This book was described to me as a sort of reverse Possession, and that still seems right: evidence of the life of an unknown woman poet disappears bit by bit as the novel progresses. Shields, I think, suspects that Woolf would have taken some malicious pleasure in how this poet--and the lack of information about her--continuously thwarts the various political agendas of the scholars attempting to study her. However, she invokes Woolf's name in a moment of malicious social anthropology, of the sort that is perhaps most familiar from her country-woman, Margaret Atwood.

In introducing the character Sarah Maloney, twenty-eight, a brilliant post-doc in feminist theory, fiercely protective of her privacy and conflicted about her boyfriend, Shields writes: "Some days Virginia Woolf is the only person in the universe I want to talk to; but she's dead, of course, and wouldn't like me anyway." It's a great moment; we recognize that her admiration for and connection to Woolf is inevitable, yet we like her all the more for it (and her concomitant nervousness about claiming too much of an affinity with a hero).

--Anne Fernald

Magazine "Glances"

Rosen, Jeffrey. "Men Behaving Badly." The New Republic, 29 Dec. 1997.

In writing about the incoherence of sexual-harassment law, Legal Affairs correspondent Jeffrey Rosen focuses on the recent Supreme Court argument in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Here he asserts that "the justices seemed skeptical of the shipping company's claim that same-sex harassment could never be illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act." It seems that Joseph Oncale claimed that his supervisor allegedly put his penis on Oncale's head; the U.S. Court of Appeals, however, held that "sexual harassment doesn't include men behaving badly with other men." The Supreme Court justices now struggled with the question of "whether Oncale had been harassed because he was a man or because his supervisor didn't like him . . . ."

The article relates the opinions of various Supreme Court justices as well as Catherine MacKinnon's brief filed on behalf ot the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization; here MacKinnon asserts that men who do not conform to stereotyped gender roles become the targets of male sexual aggression, and are feminized in the process.

Were men being discriminated against because of their sex? Justice Scalia thought it possible that Oncale was Harassed simply because his supervisor didn't like him. Another approach was taken by Justice Ginsburg who suggested that protections should be extended to those men who are harassed in the workplace because they are not viewed as sufficiently masculine. If effeminate men were harassed, but effeminate women were not harassed, Ginsburg felt that the men were then victims of discrimination "because of sex." Justice Stevens suggested that Oncale should have the opportunity to prove at trial that he wouldn't have been harassed but for his sex; that is, he would have been left alone on the oil rig if he had been a woman rather than a man.

At this point, Rosen invokes Virginia Woolf: "But how, precisely, would a jury carry out this odd thought experiment, with shades of Woolf's Orlando?" With a case that raises a multitude of questions regarding sex, gender, sexual discrimination, and sexual harassment, this jury faces some extremely complicated matters. Will the jury--harking back to Woolf's Orlando--be expected to deconstruct gender polarities?

--Judith Allen

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