February 2012

I just finished reading Glaciers, by Alexis Smith. The narrator, Isabel, is such a fragile flower, and while I’m not one by any stretch of the imagination, her life and loves and longings resonated for me in this sweet story.

Because the writing was compared to Virginia Woolf  — which is what enticed me to read it — and as I found a hidden reference to Woolf, I wrote about it in my post, “Woolf Haunts Glaciers“, on Blogging Woolf.

“Between the Lines” is the title of my monthly column in the Presidio Sentinel, a community newspaper in my San Diego neighborhood of Mission Hills. The column gives me license to write about all things bookish–reading and writing, book culture, &c. My latest column, “Reading Contemporary Americana,” was the result of reflections about two of 2011’s blockbuster novels, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. The two stories had a number of things in common, and both novels were highly acclaimed, making a number of “best” lists for the year. Why did I like one so much more than the other?

Last year I entered an essay competition sponsored by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain in memory of Julia Briggs, acclaimed Virginia Woolf scholar and a member of the executive council of the society who died in August 2007. The theme was ‘Why is reading Virginia Woolf still so crucial today?’ and my entry was about the lasting relevance of A Room of One’s Own, the wisdom it holds for women today. My essay wasn’t one of the winners, but later in the year the Society contacted me and asked permission to publish it–it appeared in the Society’s January 2012 Virginia Woolf Bulletin as “A Room Of One’s Own and Women’s writing today.”

My thesis is that A Room of One’s Own ” has revealed new truths and given renewed direction over the decades since its publication in 1929.  Even today, barriers exist and full equality does not; Room resonates for women, and men too, who have had to compromise or subvert their ambitions to societal convention or others’ expectations.  In this essay I hope to show why Room continues to be important as a reminder of the past, a companion for the present, and a guide for the future.”

I recall the writers who influenced Woolf — Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot — and then Woolf’s influence on contemporary writers, particularly Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and Alice Munro. The piece ends with the following:

“Woolf’s exhortations are no less valid today than they were in 1929 when she told her readers to write all kinds of books, because ‘history is too much about wars; biography too much about great men’.  Her peroration is an entreaty to read and learn from the classics in order to see more intensely, and to travel, idle, contemplate, dream, loiter: ‘So that when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life. …’  She refers again to that time, one hundred years thence, when ‘Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, [Shakespeare’s sister] will be born’.  She continues to exhort us, Room’s readers today, to be vigilant, to remember our history and our forerunners, to forge new links in the chain that extends to future generations.”