(I really hate that I have to rush this post)
Oddly enough, so many people who (have) play(ed) an important roll in my life were born in January. Therefore, it was a serendipitous discovery, but not a huge surprise when I discovered that Virginia Woolf’s birthday was yesterday, January 25th. With its writer posthumously reaching the ripe old age of 127 (if my basic arithmatic serves me correctly), her work still is fresh, radical, and moving, and that is truly something to celebrate.
I admit that sometimes I feel a little embarassed about loving Virginia Woolf simply because whenever I say that I do I get a fairly irrational fear that people are writing me off as a walking cliché. I wrote my senior thesis on the relationship between gender and creativity in three of her novels. Telling people my topic usually resulted a bit in “Oh. Of course. What else there is to write about her?” (Captain Subtext translates this as: Oh great: here’s another woman writing about Woolf. Get the cheese to go with the whine.)
So now that I’m writing this mini-tribute, I have to figure out what to say. Believe me, I could go on and on (and on) about her novels. When read my first book by Woolf, To the Lighthouse, as a freshman in college, I was shocked by its power, its ability to change me. Literally– after reading a chapter, it would take a good half an hour to get me to stop myself from thinking in long, detailed monologues. But as this is a cultural criticism blog, I think the only fitting tribute for her right now would be to talk about her as a cultural critic.
If I now write as a cultural critic, it’s thanks to Virginia Woolf. I had always known cultural criticism was important. I had always known cultural criticism was interesting. But Woolf showed me. From the moment I read A Room of One’s Own, which I still think is one of the best and most relevant essays ever, I saw the kind of writer I wanted to be. Room, you see, is an essay about cultural privilege. It’s about how society crafts the idea of who can write. It’s also about Woolf poking fun at ridiculous the ridiculous assumptions men make about women–many people don’t realize that she had a marvelous sense of humor. What she realized is than in a society that spends all its time worrying about what differentiates a MAN from a WOMAN (all-caps to emphasize the silly binary thinking), a woman could be a woman writer, but she couldn’t be a writer. Her conclusion, that a woman needs space and an income to be able to craft fiction, seems shockingly materialistic, especially in contrast to the poetic meditations on where creativity comes from that you hear from most writers. But Woolf recognized the cultural climate. She recognized privilege. She recognized that woman’s education, though it existed, was so low on her culture’s priority list that even the food women’s schools served was inferior. Her conclusion is practical, but that’s what makes it radical. Spiritual, lyrical rhapsodies about the soul of art are irrelevant in an environment that is not condusive to creation in the first place. She taught me that understanding culture was vital to changing it.
But beyond her skilled writing, I will never cease to be impressed with how much bravery she had to have to write at all. How to explain? Well, let me tell you a strange story: The summer before I wrote my thesis, I spent a lot of time in the British Isles, volunteering on organic farms, and reading all the Woolf I possibly could. As I spent my days digging weeds and shoveling compost, I hoped that the spirit of place would help add some compost to the little seeds of my thesis that I was cultivating in my own brain. It did–but not in the way I was expecting.
In Surrey, my friends and I stayed with Emma and Peter (names have been changed to protect the British), helping out in their small organic garden. The day we arrived coincided with their annual village barbecue, and they offered to bring us along as cultural enrichment. I quickly learned that a British barbecue is not an American barbecue. Each family brought their own card table and rocking chairs; not to mention that the table cloths were neither plastic nor red-checked, and the plates and glasses were most definitely breakable. There was no barbecue grill. A band clad in red and white pinstriped suits and straw hats piped a selection of 1920’s-style jazz. As my friends and I sat with our hosts, drinking wine (a white entitled “Pisse D’oie,” which, yes, does in fact mean goose piss.) that had been brought back from a jaunt across the channel to France (thank you, Chunnel), we began to learn that village life in Southern England often has a very… novelistic feel to it. Well, novelistic is the word if we’re talking P.G. Wodehouse.
Attempting to write the reactions of our hosts’ friends to our motley barely-showered trio makes me feel like I’m oversimplifying the matter. I don’t believe anyone can be a walking stereotype, no matter how much of one a person may appear to be . I don’t and have never believed that British people actually were a part of a magical race with gorgeous accents who walked around with Burberry umbrellas, drinking tea, chatting about cricket scores, and worrying about class above all. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when our hosts and their friends started telling us the precise age of every building in the vicinity (The vulgar “new” buildings being a mere century old) and insisting that Britain had never wanted India anyhow. History apparently just dropped an entire nation in their lap (And, you know, one must take up the “white man’s burden” and all that.). I felt as if I had stepped into a farce, or at least an episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.”
When they asked us about ourselves, I mentioned that I was reading for my thesis on Woolf. Our hosts and their friends laughed amongst themselves remarking, “Ah! She would love to write about a party just like this one!”
I couldn’t tell how they meant it: if they were laughing at her, me, or themselves. I don’t know if they understood the depth of their remark, or if they just knew that Mrs. Dalloway was about a party. And I’ll never know.
What I do know is that their simple remark gained new significance when the gossip turned to the new village of the vicar who was, scandalously, a “lady vicar.” Her husband had moved to follow her job and was seeking employment in the area.
“Who ever heard of a husband moving for his wife’s job?” an older man remakred.
As if understanding that this did not seem particularly shocking to their guests, Emma was quick to explain, “It’s not that we don’t like it; it’s just so new.” She continued to explain this change in their community: “You just don’t get a proper British vicar these days; in fact, you never know what you’re going to get. You can get a lady vicar, or a black vicar, or… what’s the other one?”
“A gay vicar?” offered my friend Tom.
“Yes! That’s it! A gay vicar! Or all three–you just never know.”
Suddenly, everything Woolf had been up against, with her depression, her refusal to be herteronormative (her sexuality was tremendously complicated.), her strength, and her unapologetic radicalism, all of that became clearer to me. Though I do not use this strange moment of culture shock as a mental model for the gendered climate of all of England, the fact that this kind of attitude still exists there makes me truly understand just how amazing and shocking she was. She was truly awesome, both in the slang sense and the “awe” sense.
Woolf had her faults. I don’t believe in perfect heros. But nevertheless, I love her. I love her because she dared to be a cultural critic. I love her for her frankness. I love her for her sense of humor. And I love her for her excellent writing.
Happy Birthday, Ginny! We still love you!