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Conference Review: The International Virginia Woolf Conference 2016

Posted by. Dr Jane de Gay
Posted on 24 June 2016


​​​​​​​​​More than 220 scholars from all over the world gathered at Leeds Trinity University last week to discuss the work of one of the most significant writers of the 20th century: Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf's writings are of enduring interest and relevance, as can be seen by the fact that this was the 26th annual conference in her name. This year's theme was 'Virginia Woolf and Heritage'.

  • Professor Suzanne Raitt gave an engaging plenary on Knole; the ancestral home of Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West – showing how Woolf gives us an intimate view of the house in her novel Orlando.

  • Professor Jean Mills and Dr Marion Dell explored Woolf's treatment of her female mentors Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Jane Harrison, leading to a lively dialogue and group discussion as to how far Woolf lives up to her own claim to 'think back through one's mothers'.

  • Professor David Bradshaw offered a complementary perspective on Woolf and her male forebears in a witty and erudite talk on Woolf's attitude towards her cousin, the historian and politician H.A.L. Fisher, noting that Woolf expressed grudging respect as well as criticism.

  • In the closing plenary, Professor Laura Marcus provided a sensitive and thoughtful analysis of a more troubled aspect of Woolf's heritage: her Puritan sense of shame and her disclosure of abuse by her step-brother. 

Over 140 other scholars presented papers in panel discussions. These included a roundtable featuring the curator of Charleston, Home of the Bloomsbury Group, and talks from archivists who whetted researchers' appetites to explore Woolf books and papers in their care. Speakers examined Woolf's responses to past writers from Classical Greece and the Renaissance onwards, with Victorians such as the Brontës featuring prominently. Other papers considered Woolf's legacies for later generations, showing that she has inspired artists and musicians, as well as writers in countries as far apart as Eastern Europe, Kenya and Mexico. There was also much discussion of Woolf's appearances in popular recent works of biofiction.

Living heritage was represented in the person of Cecil Woolf (Woolf's husband's nephew), who shared reminiscences with Jean Moorcroft Wilson at the conference banquet.

Woolf scholars are known for their openness and generosity of spirit and intellectual engagement – and this conference was no exception. Delegates were impressed with the genuinely supportive dialogue and debate. One wrote: "I learned so much and made many connections (with people and ideas) that will continue to bear fruit for a long time I am sure."

We asked delegates their thoughts on the conference, which is shared in our video below: