Virginia woolf

Work, walk, meditate: Practice, by Rosalind Brown, reviewed

Practice is a short novel set in a ‘narrow room’: one day in the life of an Oxford undergraduate writing an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Annabel is trying to ‘perfect her routine, to get more out of each day’. She goes to bed early and rises at 6 a.m. She makes coffee like it’s a ritual and drinks it from the same small, brown mug. She has a plan. She will work, walk, do yoga, meditate, each at their allotted time. The restriction of the novel – a single day, a single character, discrete passages strung together like a sonnet sequence – lends itself to a delicate portrait of Annabel’s

What Shakespeare meant to the Bloomsbury Group

In November 1935, Virginia Woolf saw a production of Romeo and Juliet. She was not overly impressed. ‘Acting it,’ she wrote, ‘they spoil the poetry.’ Harsh words, you might think, for a cast that included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Alec Guinness. But Shakespeare on the stage was something of a bête noire for the Bloomsbury group. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ Clive Bell later said. The Shakespeare that mattered was the one on the page. Shakespeare on stage was a bête noire for the Bloomsberries. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ said Clive Bell Who was that ‘we’, though? Marjorie Garber’s understanding of the

The extraordinary life of 17th-century polymath Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century Duchess of Newcastle, has been described as a heroine whose every doing ‘is romantic’ (Samuel Pepys); as being ‘so distracted… that there are many soberer people in Bedlam’ (Lady Dorothy Temple); as looking like ‘a devil in a phantom masquerade’ (King Charles II); as ‘the great atheistical philosophraster’ (anonymous 17th-century gossip writer); as ‘a picture of foolish nobility’ (Horace Walpole); as ‘a giant cucumber’ (Virginia Woolf); as a ‘crack-brained, bird-witted… fantastical… crazy duchess’ (Woolf again) and as ‘the empress and authoress of a whole world’ (herself). She has been seen as that most tiresome of types, a ‘character’. But in this erudite and entertaining book, Francesca

A feminist finds fulfilment in derided ‘women’s work’

Marina Benjamin writes with a frankness, depth and wisdom that recalls the self-exploratory but world-revealing essays of Michel de Montaigne. In A Little Give, she turns her exacting philosopher’s mind, and opens her capacious heart to, her own life. Her essays, Tardis-like in their complexity, depth and range, scrutinise what has made and unmade her feminism, and then enabled her to make anew the feminism that has given her life both its personal and political trajectory: While I’ve never stopped identifying as a feminist, I am less and less certain what it means to live as one. I don’t mean how to organise and mobilise collectively. I mean simply how

The shock of the new in feminist art

Lauren Elkin begins her book about bodily art with a charming ode to the punctuation mark that she in American English calls a ‘slash’ and we in British English call a ‘stroke’. She likes the way it expresses ‘division yet relation’. Brings disparate things together. Makes space for ambiguity. Blends and blurs. And/or. She writes: The slash is the first person tipped over: the first person joining me to the person beside me, or me to you. Across the slash we can find each other. Across the slash I think we can do some work. That work begins in Art Monsters with a lively and vibrant account of feminist art

Can we know an artist by their house?

Show me your downstairs loo and I will tell you who you are. Better yet, show me your kitchen, bedroom, billiard room and man cave. Can we know a man – or woman – by their house? The ‘footsteps’ approach to biography argues that to really understand a subject, a biographer must visit his childhood home, his prep-school boarding house, his student digs, his down-and-out bedsit and so on through barracks, shacks, flats, garrets, terraces, townhouses and final Georgian-rectory resting-place. Walk a mile in their shoes – then put on their carpet slippers. So, to know Horace Walpole, we board the 33 bus to Strawberry Hill. For Henry Moore, it’s

The Norfolk manor house that inspired Virginia Woolf

Many English country houses lay claim to literary legacies. Blo Norton Hall, however, has more right than most. In the summer of 1906, while in her early twenties, Virginia Woolf rented the Elizabethan Norfolk manor house with her older sister, artist Vanessa. The seven-mile journey there from Diss station, through isolated countryside, and their arrival at the secluded, moated site made a deep impression on Woolf. She wrote in her diary: ‘Every mile seemed to draw a thicker curtain than the last between you and the world. So that finally, when you are set down at the Hall, no sound whatever reaches your ear; the very light seems to filter

A vroom of one’s own: how I loved my old Mini

Almost 100 years ago the writer Virginia Woolf advised women to find themselves a room of their own: a refuge away from the busy, crowding demands of life, where they could focus instead on themselves and write, think, be. At a time of austerity, when space is at an expensive premium and when post-pandemic empty nests have been re-occupied by returning offspring and spare rooms newly identified as shared office space, I have found an alternative sanctuary. For the past 20 years or so my refuge was my car, acquired with the first real money I ever earned as a writer. My Mini offered me an unconditional escape during the

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

Arnold Bennett’s success made him loathed by other writers

Virginia Woolf admitted to her journal: ‘I haven’t that reality gift.’ Her contemporary Arnold Bennett had it in spades. He was a great novelist, as anyone who has read Riceyman’s Steps or the Clayhanger trilogy would attest. Being also the contemporary of Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence – you might say this was one of the reasons his reputation became obscured since those glory days of English fiction – he had fierce competition. Woolf’s snobbishness about him (see her lecture on ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’) did not help matters. It was easy to be snobbish about Bennett, ‘The Man from the North’, to use the title of

Disappointingly conventional and linear: BBC radio’s modernism season reviewed

This week marks the beginning of modernism season on BBC Radio 3 and 4, which means it’s time for some pundit or other to own up to abandoning Ulysses at page seven, or to finding T.S. Eliot a bore, or to infinitely preferring the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner to the repetitive squares of Kazimir Malevich. That pundit, however, won’t be me. Modernism is rather like the birth of the Roman Empire. It could be seen as a brilliant sloughing off of everything that had decayed in favour of sensible revolution, or as the predictably reactive consequence of years of wrangling over a loss of identity. Most of the contributors to

The novels that became instant classics

In the world of books, a modern classic is an altogether more slippery thing than a classic: it must walk a line between freshness and durability; reflect the current age but hope to outlast it. For individual publishers, given many 20th-century writers are still in copyright, a modern classics list will necessarily be partial. However, few such partial lists are as complete as Penguin Modern Classics (PMCs), founded in 1961 four years after Penguin’s general editor A.S.B. Glover said: ‘We don’t want — without outstandingly good reasons — to start any new series such as “Modern Classics”.’ The outstandingly good reasons were lots of outstandingly good books that weren’t old

How two literary magazines boosted morale during the Blitz

William Loxley’s lively account of ‘Bloomsbury, the Blitz and Horizon magazine’ begins with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrating to the United States in January 1939 and ends with George Orwell dying in University College Hospital in January 1950. Between these two events Loxley explores the often interconnected professional and personal lives of a number of British writers, publishers and editors — principally Orwell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann and Dylan Thomas — during the second world war and its immediate aftermath. Faced with criticism in both public and private for his and Auden’s ‘defection’, Isherwood attempted in January 1940 to justify his action to

The stuff of everyday life: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy, reviewed

Real Estate is the third and concluding volume of Deborah Levy’s ground-breaking ‘Living Autobiography’. Fans of Levy’s alluring, highly allusive fiction will appreciate the insights into her life; moreover, anyone with an ounce of curiosity will be fascinated by her compelling tour of city streets, island rocks and meandering diversions into ideas from a wealth of writers and artists. We begin the book with the author buying a plant from a flower stall. (Our modern-day Mrs Dalloway purchases a banana tree in Shoreditch rather than cut flowers in Westminster.) Levy then steps from this familiar act of flower-buying into the world of Georgia O’Keeffe, and we accompany her ‘from the

Seldom less than gripping: Banged Up podcast reviewed

Prison-based podcast Banged Up, now in its second series, is far more uplifting — and less soapy — than its name suggests. It begins with the tacit assumption that, if you haven’t personally been incarcerated, you probably have at least a dozen questions you’d want to ask someone who had. Is the food really awful? How likely are you to be beaten up? Is there a lending library? (I’d start with the last.) Banged Up has the answers to plenty more besides. The podcast is hosted by a prison lawyer named Claire Salama and two ex-inmates, a former footballer, Mike Boateng, known as ‘Boats’, and university-educated Rob Morrison, who describes