Voyaging Out (or staying in)

‘She was like her mother, as the image in a pool on a still summer’s day is like the vivid flushed face that hangs over it.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, 1915)


Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection, © The Estate of Vanessa Bell. Courtesy of Henrietta Garnett.

A summer blogpost about a handful of news and events that I hope will be of interest.

1. Literature events: On 15 August Literature Cambridge is running an online study session, taught by Alison Hennegan, exploring Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. There will be insights into ‘the struggles of one young woman to attain self-knowledge, independence of thought and action’ in Woolf’s depiction of Rachel Vinrace. The novel also introduces the first glimpse of Clarissa Dalloway, who would become the subject of Mrs Dalloway ten years later. (“I’d give ten years of my life to know Greek,” she thinks, wishing women had access to the classics in the way that Cambridge male students had). You can read more about Literature Cambridge’s 2020-21 ‘Virginia Woolf Season’, based on her twelve major books, here.

2. TV: Mrs America is a new nine-part historical drama series currently being shown on BBC2 (available on BBC iplayer). It tells the story of the 1970s campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment across different American states, and highlights the personal and political clashes between the leading ‘second-wave’ feminists (who include Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan) and the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. In a recent article in the L.A. Times Steinem criticizes Mrs America for paying too much attention to her right-wing adversary Schafly (played with great aplomb by Cate Blanchett), and concludes ‘“Mrs. America” has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.’ However, the drama’s depiction of the politician Shirley Chisholm (played by Uzo Aduba) has been widely praised; she was the first black woman to become elected to Congress and the first black person to run for US president. Mrs America is a thoroughly engaging series, and I found it interesting to compare the different points of view on the women’s cause in the 1970s with Ray Strachey’s 1908 transatlantic trip as an idealistic young British suffragist encountering American feminists for the first time (she was more forceful than they were).

3. Book news: Earlier this month it was announced that, because of Covid-19, The Guardian will cut 180 jobs and lose its Saturday supplements, (Weekend, Review, The Guide, and Travel sections). This has caused dismay among many readers, and a group of editors and journalists who contribute to the supplements have pointed out that ‘Saturday is by far the biggest day of the week for print sales of the Guardian, with a circulation 130% higher than on weekdays.’ It does seem a shame if everything moves online. I was thrilled when my first book review for The Guardian appeared in the print edition of the Saturday Review in April (and online here), so I very much hope the supplements continue into the next decade .

4. Reading recommendations: (nonfiction) Mark Honigsbaum’s overview of a hundred years of epidemic outbreaks, The Pandemic Century (WH Allen) is an excellent and timely book. (I quoted his article in my post on Francis Jenkinson and the ‘Russian’ flu pandemic of the 1890s here.) First published just over a year ago in April 2019, Honigsbaum wrote in the hardback’s epilogue ‘the only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics. It is not a question of if, but when.’  For the paperback edition he has updated the book with a new epilogue and an extra chapter, ‘Disease X’, bringing us up to date with the ongoing situation. The book’s subtitle has been changed to ‘A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19’.

(Fiction) As a break from the worrying news cycle, and perfect summer holiday reading, I recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. It’s an alternative history that answers several ‘what-if’ questions: what if Hillary Clinton hadn’t married Bill, and what if she had beaten Trump to the presidency? The Guardian’s Emma Brockes described it as ‘a kind of revenge fantasy for women who sublimate their own ambitions for the sake of their husband’s careers’. It’s the perfect foil to the 1970s world that is depicted so skilfully in Mrs America, and a great beach read.

5. Cambridge culture: For a good excuse to go out, it’s very good news that Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum are re-opening in August, as are several Cambridge libraries, including Milton Road Library. I recently wrote about the ‘hidden’ wedding photographs that Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey took of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, so I’m looking forward to an online talk on 5 August called ‘That was our place: the Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’. It’s by local scholar Di Beddow, and organized by the Friends of Milton Road Library. You can book a free ticket here.  

I hope you are enjoying safe summer days whether you are voyaging out, or staying safely at home.

Ann Kennedy Smith 31 July 2020

A sense of home: ‘Period Piece’

 

‘This is a circular book. It does not begin at the beginning and go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from the hub, which is me.’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Memoir of a Cambridge Childhood (1952)

 

Period Piece

Gwen Raverat’s account of growing up as a member of the extended Darwin clan in Victorian Cambridge has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952, and it has recently been reissued as a collector’s hardback by Slightly Foxed. ‘Humour, tenderness and affection are the keynotes of Period Piece,’ Hazel Woods writes in her introduction, ‘but there is a fierce and passionate undercurrent that tells you something about the artist Gwen became.’ Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog. “My mother had the first lady’s tricycle in Cambridge. Our dog Sancho was horrified to think that anyone belonging to him would ride such an indecent thing”. It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.

I’ve been thinking about Period Piece again because tomorrow evening I’m giving a talk for Literature Cambridge (see their website here for details of courses in 2019 and 2020). My talk is part of the final evening of this year’s ‘Fictions of Home’ course, and will take place in Darwin College, which was founded as Cambridge’s first graduate college in 1964 and incorporates both of Gwen Raverat’s former riverside homes, Newnham Grange and the neighbouring Old Granary. I’ll be discussing three women who changed Cambridge: Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Ida Darwin. Ida’s later sister-in-law Maud was an American from Philadelphia who married George Darwin in 1884. They hired an architect and turned Newnham Grange into their family home. Their first child Gwen was born there in 1885.

Raverat biog

Recently I re-read Frances Spalding’s excellent biography of Gwen Raverat, revealing Gwen’s unhappiness as a child and her long struggle to become an artist. She found happiness when she enrolled as a student at the Slade, and made friends in the Bloomsbury set including Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) who came to Cambridge to visit. They sat in Newnham Grange’s garden together and Virginia smoked one of Gwen’s father’s cigars. In 1911 Gwen married Jacques Raverat, part of their ‘Neo-Pagan’ circle. Then the war came and their friend Rupert Brooke was killed in April 1915, on the same day as Gwen’s first cousin and childhood companion, Erasmus Darwin. There were other sadnesses, as during the war the ailing Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gwen and Jacques had two daughters, probably through artificial insemination, and the family went to live in Vence, but his condition slowly worsened and he died there in 1925.

His death after years of pain triggered a deep depression in Gwen, but she kept on working and became recognized for her brilliance as as the first modern wood engraver. She and her two daughters returned to Cambridge in the 1930s, and during the Second World War Gwen Raverat spent four years drawing maps for the Naval Intelligence Division. In 1946 she moved back into the Old Granary next to her former home (both houses are now part of Darwin College), and her mother Maud died the following year. Living there again, admiring the reflections on the river, and sifting through old letters and diaries made Gwen decide to write about her own life, as she had always wanted to do – though she claimed to hate writing – and capture something of her past. She told her publisher that she saw the book ‘as a social document – to be a drawing of the world as I saw it when young, not at all as a picture of my own soul (though I suppose that gets in by mistake)’ (Spalding, 397).

The memoir is a circling back to the childhood that, aged 66, Gwen Raverat could still recall vividly, especially now that she was living again in the house by the river. Reading Period Piece today in the light of Raverat’s subsequent life shows just what a remarkable book it is. There are hints of unhappiness– her parents’ ‘hands that understood nothing’, but she observes them and growing up among Victorians with humour and forgiveness. Compared to the darker times to come, the sunny days of her Cambridge childhood were bright indeed. If you get the chance, do go into Darwin College’s gardens and stand on the riverbank where Virginia Woolf once daringly smoked. The view from there is lovely.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 25 July 2019. (All rights reserved.)

Sources

Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001)