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Happy birthday Virginia Woolf!

In a double celebration of Wayne McGregor's ballet Woolf Works and Woolf's birthday, we're looking for your reaction to the author's writing.

By Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products)

25 January 2017 at 9.15am | 24 Comments

On this day in 1882, Virginia Woolf was born. We're marking the occasion by asking for your reaction to her writing. Woolf is a huge figure in 20th-century modernism, who inspires complex and passionate responses from readers.

'the ‘book itself’ is not form which you see, but emotion which you feel'
Virginia Woolf, On Re-reading Novels

We'd like to know about your personal experience of reading her novels and essays. How did you discover her? What was the first thing you read? What struck you about it? What did (and does) her work mean to you? Perhaps you've never read any Woolf, and the ballet has inspired you?

We originally asked this question ahead of the ballet's premiere in 2015, but we're revisiting the question as Woolf Works returns to the stage again this year.

Woolf Works is a full-length ballet from Wayne McGregor, and with it Wayne hopes to convey the feeling of reading Woolf, rather than telling the story of her novels in a conventional narrative. Read the audience's reactions so far.

If you haven't encountered any of Woolf's writing, a good place to start is Mrs Dalloway, a novel in which past, present and multiple points of view criss-cross around themes of memory, madness and love.

Let us know what Virginia Woolf's writing means to you.

Woolf Works runs until 14 February 2017. Tickets are still available.

By Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products)

25 January 2017 at 9.15am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged

This article has 24 comments

  1. Janey responded on 25 January 2015 at 9:43am Reply

    Boring and prententious beyond belief.

  2. Mags Lawrance responded on 25 January 2015 at 10:16am Reply

    I became fascinated by Woolf in the late 90's studying English Degree in later life. I'm also a classical dance consultant and educator so it's just amazing for me to see Woolf Works taking place. My particular enquiry would be 'Time Passes' from To The Lighthouse, the lack of mum's first name ever being revealed. What did in fact happen to Cam? Also besotted with Mrs Dalloway. Think I should have continued with my proposed MPhil, however time passed!

  3. Julie Botteron responded on 25 January 2015 at 11:34am Reply

    Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' has remained with me ever since I read it for the first time. What struck me most is that the issues she raised at the beginning of the 20th century are not that different from the ones we are facing today, such as the place of women and women writers in our society, women's access to education, and the domination of the patriarchy, among others. Also, her writing has a 'flowing' quality which can easily be related to dancing.

  4. I started to read Woolf at university and she not only influenced my way of thinking about life and caused me to notice things differently, but also directed my course of reading. Orlando travels through time, but uses literature and literary history as a vehicle. My focus on other periods of literature (of which we studied a vast spectrum at Glasgow) were influenced by Woolf's own reading of them and I also found that often we would coincide on favourites. I'm a single parent and I don't think I would have had the same will or courage to carry on trying to do what I do had it not been for the inspirational words in her essays and lectures on women. Woolf inspired my own writing beyond measure and I have a large photograph of her above my kitchen sink to remind me of all that she wrote for when I am feeling at my most menial!

  5. David Anderson responded on 25 January 2015 at 5:26pm Reply

    I read The Waves some years ago and didn't "get" that at all. After I saw the film The Hours, which I found remarkably gripping and poignant, I read Mrs Dalloway. On the first reading, I thought "Huh?" Then I read it again and all of a sudden it clicked with me. A wonderful novel (also gripping and poignant).

  6. Margaret Norman responded on 25 January 2015 at 6:07pm Reply

    Shakespeare's Sonnet Number 60:-
    "Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
    So do out minutes hasten to their end;
    Each changing place with that which goes before,
    In sequent toil all forwards do contend."
    And the rest of the sonnet.
    Is that what Virginia Woolf was thinking of when she wrote The Waves? It haunts me.

  7. Margaret Norman responded on 25 January 2015 at 6:09pm Reply

    Sorry, spelling correction to above :-
    "our minutes" not "out minutes".

  8. Katherine responded on 27 January 2015 at 6:39am Reply

    I was given Mrs. Dalloway by a friend when I was 17. She knew that I was on the hunt for new and exciting literature--"impassioned prose" as Woolf herself might call it--and thought I might find the sort of writing I was looking to read in Woolf. I was hooked from the first page--the rhapsody, the rich, dense poetic language, the exhaustive awareness of perception, the beauty, the unflinching commitment to truth and the revolutionary construction of the novel all had me by the collar. I promptly read all the Woolf I could get my hands on, and she has been a friend and mentor ever since. Her impeccable critical taste has guided me through more than one paper, and I maintain that Lily Briscoe's "Mrs Ramsay!" at end of To the Lighthouse is one of the most cathartic moments in literature. We agree absolutely on Beethoven (very much in favor of) and Donne (again in favor of) and on how one should read a book (whichever way suits you best). Happy Birthday, Mrs. Woolf! I so look forward to seeing your work realized on stage (I think you would've liked it).

  9. Woolf explores through her stream of consciousness the transience of life, art as a means of preservation, the subjective nature of reality, nostalgia, gender, and an autobiographical resonance. As a lover of both ballet and Woolf's work I wrote my dissertation on how dance, (epitomised by the innovation of the Ballet Russes in London, iconic figures such as Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Michael Fokine, Martha Graham and Loie Fuller) provided a platform of inspiration for literary modernism, in particular Virginia Woolf.

    I believe Woolf admired an economy of communication in the body of the dancer and it is this, which she sought to replicate in her fiction. Woolf allows motionary undercurrents to move within her texts, creating a layer beneath the literal narrative: a kinaesthetic semiotics derived from an understanding of the power of the body to communicate. Sometimes literally her characters move;
    ‘Jinny dancing like a flame’ in The Waves blazing with motionary moments mirrored from the stage of the Firebird indicates how the dance medium also caught Woolf’s imagination alight. We can identify moments of influential dance works in Woolf’s fiction (such as The Firebird), but ultimately The Waves captured the rhythmical motion of dance itself, in the very essence of its semantic construction.

    The ideas that language mobilises sounds, sense, rhythm and rhyme is Woolf’s achievement in The Waves.

    Reading Woolf against the framework of dance presents a writer who is keenly aware of life’s dramatic dimension and of the self as a performer. I'm ecstatic to see McGregor's interpretation on stage- I only hope I can get a ticket! Happy Birthday Virginia!

  10. Dr Daryl Barclay responded on 29 January 2015 at 7:49am Reply

    Having taught English Literature for 33 years, I've never found a text that is more thoroughly absorbing or more consistently full of genius than Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway". One is aware of a most extraordinary and complex authorial force at work in the novel, of an intelligence and perspicacity of Shakespearean dimensions. Every time I return to it I am confronted afresh by the gigantic mind behind it.

  11. To the Lighthouse got me. It was the first book I read that challenged conventions. To me, Woolf sinks her teeth into what it is 'to think'. I like the feeling of being submerged in her sentences, understanding them in the moment, but being lost when they're out of context. I find it true to the way I think - sometimes bewildering, sometimes magical.

  12. Haroun responded on 21 February 2015 at 8:05pm Reply

    For me Virginia Woolf's power lies in her fidelity to natural rhythms and processes that underpin both writing (where she restores musical resonances and undercurrents to their rightful place as the driving forces behind language) and life (where the body and its biological patterns are presented as foundational, and thoughts are like water-lilies on a pond). The 'truths' she presents us with are filled with mystery, and her 'mysteries' are filled with truth - that blurring of the distinction between analysis and intense physical feeling, the tracing of a thought through all of its physiological stages, the willingness to depict not only the 'surfaces' of people and things but also the ineffable reservoirs beneath, gives her writing such force (and makes it particularly suited to dance interpretation!).. What is wonderful is how she evokes, often nonverbally, that strange vanishing point where all of these shattered perspectives meet. Hoorah for Virginia Woolf!

  13. Sarah Nasar responded on 22 February 2015 at 10:49pm Reply

    Discovering Virginia Woolf for the first time was a revelation to me. The ways in which she used language to articulate interiority was astonishing; she conceived of the sentence in a radically new way. She used the word to give flesh to our inner lives. She used the rhythms and cadences of language to imbue corporeality to the moments between language and thus to use dance to express Woolf is fitting and poetic.

  14. Sarah Seddon Jenner responded on 15 March 2015 at 5:52pm Reply

    Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? As a thoroughly educated American student in the 1970s and 1980s, Edward Albee’s play is the first I’d ever hear of Virginia Woolf. After exploring her writings, I thought ‘what’s to be afraid of?’ Her observations are acute; few have described how frightening it would be to be unable to forge even the simplest emotional link between one’s self and the everyday world. The writings show a real sense of humour; Lucrezia in Mrs. Dalloway speculates that Shakespeare despised humanity and wondered to herself, “Was Shakespeare a difficult author?" Perhaps best loved in England for having her finger on the pulse of Englishness, Woolf captured the charisma of a mystery Royal travelling through London in a limousine, an image B.B. King used well decades later. How is all this going to give forth 21st century ballet? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out!

  15. Jenny MacGregor responded on 17 March 2015 at 11:10pm Reply

    As a new 'Woolfie' I'm loving to get to know this amazing lady through 'Moments Of Being'. She has been able to express with such clarity thoughts I've had about our relationship to self and our surroundings but never quite been able to explain and it has been a complete joy getting to know her, I can't wait to move onto one of her novels!

  16. sarah gough responded on 19 March 2015 at 4:00pm Reply

    I first became interested in Virginia Woolf when we were living at Long Barn, which had once been home to Vita Sackville West. At first I did not find the books very accessible, but on rereading them I found them more fascinating each time. I have seen "The Waves" twice at the National Theatre and found the characters very interesting. Occasionally Nigel Nicolson came to visit us and he used to tell us of catching butterflies with Virginia - she obviously had an empathy with children.

  17. Imogen Emmett responded on 31 March 2015 at 10:23am Reply

    After reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I came to the realisation that I truly knew no one other than myself. Woolf exposes all the intricacies of Clarissa and Septimus’ minds to the reader, in a way never really achieved by any other author. Her characterisation focuses not on characters’ basic whims and interests, but on the whole manner in which their mind operates. In my opinion, Woolf’s individualistic characterisation is largely accomplished through her navigation from the external world into the internal world. In no other context is the influence of external factors on the inner life narrated quite as vividly. So as you reach the conclusion of Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa is not a character one particularly wants to befriend or aspires to be like, yet one feels an overwhelming compassion towards her because Clarissa is explored as a human rather than a fictional figure. One is forced to realise that we are ultimately self-contained creatures, who cannot explore each other’s minds in the way we can Clarissa or Septimus’. Therefore, do I really know my closest companions? Or are Woolf’s characters the closest I can come to really knowing another person?

  18. Sally responded on 4 April 2015 at 1:11pm Reply

    virginia woolf's "the waves" is one of my favourite novels: I like the way she has represented a group of friends from childhood to old age. Her fluid, modernist style brilliantly reflects the way our identities and sense of self are affected by our circumstances and relationships. I have read the novel so many times and always found something new. I have taught this novel to sixth formers who always start be being completely perplexed by her distinctive style but end up as enthusiastic fans. Much to most people's surprise I wrote my dissertation on "humour in Virginia woolfs novels". She herself had a great sense of humour which isn't always revealed or understood.

  19. Geraldine Dora responded on 4 April 2015 at 5:31pm Reply

    Innovative, intelligent and still startlingly relevant to today's readers - Virginia Woolf's prose is demanding for a modern audience but we are rewarded with cross-genre writing that is both analytical and imaginative. Her characterisation in Mrs Dalloway, informed by sensitive psychological observation and understanding, together with her tangential and meandering style, could be perfectly suited to the ballet form as it explores choices and behaviour within the constraints of a particular social setting. Despite Woolf's intellectual approach she never loses sight of what structures mean for individuals. Her empathy with Septimus in MD or Shakespeare's sister in A Room of One's Own bring her ideas to life and both would provide wonderful roles for dancers.

  20. I am always struck by how much Virginia Woolf means to those who read her. My own experience with Woolf started as an undergrad with a reading of Mrs. Dalloway. I have returned to that novel many times over my life, each time finding new levels of understanding and a deeper appreciation of Woolf's artistry. Many years after reading her for the first time, I made Woolf the focus of my master's program. And that's when I truly fell in love. I traveled to England to visit Woolf sites, began attending Virginia Woolf academic conferences and started a website, Blogging Woolf, that serves as a resource for Woolfians everywhere. I only wish I could be in London to see "Woolf Works."

  21. Woolf first encounter
    'It was, unjustly, a very hot summer the year my mother died, that summer when I first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Sunbathing with my friends, my mother was everywhere. My every word and movement was either a guilty pleasure, wrong to enjoy so soon after the funeral, or else carried a stinging similarity to my mother’s daily gestures. My mother was also in To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay had a bodily presence, a voice, and a face like my mother’s.
    My mother died aged forty-nine when I was thirteen, the same ages as Julia Stephen and Virginia at Julia’s death. Scenes from To the Lighthouse and ‘A Sketch of the Past’ have an incredible resonance for me. But where, with my friends, I was haunted and depressed by my mother, when she turned into Mrs. Ramsay there was warmth and love and peace.
    At age eighteen, Virginia’s Mrs. Ramsay, my mother’s image, helped me through ‘A’ levels. English Literature ‘A’ level examination papers used to contain unseen passages for comment and analysis. With amazing serendipity Mrs. Ramsay appeared again. The passage that year was from ‘Time Passes’. While ‘Time Passes’ is frequently praised as a masterpiece of description, for working class Newcastle secondary school pupils it was not an easy read. But for me the time of my mother’s death had never passed. ‘A’ level certificate in hand, I left Newcastle for university, the world of books and the chance to read even more Virginia Woolf'.

  22. I first discovered Virginia Woolf's The Waves when I was at university wandering through the nearly empty library on campus. I started flicking through their edition and was captivated by the strange poetic sub-conscious speech of these six characters who become more and more distinct as the novel progresses. I related to the fear, longing, lust and pressing awareness of the passing of time which all the characters feel both in unison and on their own. I recalled what this novel made me feel when watching Woolf Works by how the dancers seem to be tossed and turned by life and the waves projected behind them. I think it's the most extraordinary novel ever written and this ballet beautifully articulated the sensation of Woolf's words.

  23. Wendy Jones responded on 25 January 2017 at 8:34pm Reply

    I'm a novelist and the main character in my next novel - The Willow Pattern inadvertently attends Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own lecture, and doesn't reallise what she's witnessing. I was just thinking about difficult experiences and if other women noticed or sensed it. I might put it in the novel. So I feel like I spin around Woolf creatively.

  24. Sally Rushbrook responded on 26 January 2017 at 3:47pm Reply

    The more I read of Woolf's works the more facets I find and every time I think I have a grip on her particular talents and preoccupations up pops another. She is far the author who has most consistently impressed and surprised me. I am still only about five novels in but what really floors me at the moment is how the very small, intimate and interior world of an individual seems to mesh almost indistinguishably in her work with the larger, universal force of nature, fate and the passing of time. She is playful and experimental without being pretentious and her use of language never fails to make me swoon. She matches her intelligence with her compassion beautifully and I am delighted that I still have some way to go in reading her works.

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