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Virginia Woolf in the twenty-first century

As we approach 26 March 2015, the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, it seems apposite to consider how her writing resonates in the twenty-first century. In the performing and filmic arts, there certainly seems to be something lupine in the air. Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works, opens at the Royal Opera House this spring and draws on Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Ben Duke’s dance-theatre piece, Like Rabbits, based on Woolf’s short story, Lappin and Lapinova is currently on tour. Life in Squares, a BBC mini-series focused on Virginia’s relationship with her sister Vanessa was filmed last autumn on location at Charleston. At the same time, I’m told, casting was taking place for a film version of Flush.

But how do her feminist essays, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), read in 2015? While both of these essays started off as talks given by Woolf to audiences of young women, their fortunes have been quite divergent. A Room of One’s Own has become a feminist classic, its title and central tropes (e.g. Shakespeare’s sister) in turn inspiring their own feminist afterlives. It outlines the history of economic, spatial and ideological constraints on women’s artistry at the same time as it produces the first literary history of women. Three Guineas (1938), Woolf’s feminist, pacifist, anti-fascist essay, has had a more uneven reception. It emerges out of a particular historical moment (the rise of fascism on the continent and in Britain) and a particular conflict (the Spanish Civil War). But Woolf’s dissection of her own militarized, monetized, patriarchal society is easily translated to our own. In thinking about whether women, as outsiders, might be best placed to oppose war she reveals the systemic and structural inequalities in public life. Each issue she raises seems uncannily prescient: access to higher education and the role of the university as a democratic space of intellectual freedom; the number of women in public life; violence against women and girls; women in the church; working motherhood; pay inequality.

Virginia Woolf. By George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf. By George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Editing Woolf in the twenty-first century means annotating her writing in ways that reveal her wide-ranging engagement with her contemporary moment (and its literary and political histories). It means framing and introducing those references and contexts that have faded from view, such as the photographs she included of public, male figures instantly recognizable to her readers in the 1930s (and restored to their original position in this new edition). Decked out in full regalia, Stanley Baldwin, Baden Powell, Gordon Hewart and Cosmo Gordon Lang may no longer be familiar to general readers in 2015 but as images of the perpetuation of masculine wealth and privilege through spectacle and tradition they need no translation. As Woolf writes in Three Guineas: ‘we listen to the voices of the past […] Things repeat themselves it seems.’

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