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In-depth review: The 26th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf

Posted by. Tom Breckin, Jane de Gay, Haythem Bastawy and Anne Reus
Posted on 06 July 2016

blogs, blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

The 26th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf was hosted by Leeds Trinity University and the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies from 16 – 19 June. Dr Jane de Gay, the main conference organiser, chose 'Virginia Woolf and Heritage' for this year's topic. This covered a wide range of themes from Woolf's literary heritage, her engagement with her Victorian heritage, and our approaches to Woolf heritage locations, such as Monk's House and Charleston House. This is a joint conference review by the conference organisers, Dr Jane de Gay, Tom Breckin and Anne Reus, and Haythem Bastawy, a PhD student at LTU.

Haworth

"Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth," wrote Woolf. "They fit like a snail to its shell."

The day before the conference began officially, a group of delegates arrived into Leeds early, in order to visit Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Woolf visited Haworth and the Museum in 1904, when visiting her cousin, Will Vaughan, and the trip planned to retrace her footsteps through the small but enchanting village.

After a journey through the spectacular Yorkshire countryside, the group reached Haworth and headed to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The conference organiser, Dr Jane de Gay, and Rebecca Yorke, from the Museum, had worked together to plan a full itinerary for the visit: the Museum gave a bespoke talk (based on Woolf's essay, 'Haworth, November 1904') and a guided tour of the village, with time after for people to explore the Museum. This was concluded by the presentation of the Parsonage's guest book, opened to the day Woolf visited with her cousin's wife, Margaret Vaughan, and showing the signature of Virginia Stephen. This was received with great interest by the conference delegates!


Following the Museum tour, some of the party took a hike to Top Withens (the model for Wuthering Heights, from Emily Brontë's novel), while those preferring something more leisurely explored the shops and eateries and soaked up the atmosphere of the Brontë village.

After a full day of exploring the village and soaking up the literary atmosphere that Woolf had also experienced, the group returned to Leeds to enjoy a meal together.

Day 1

The first day of the conference saw a fascinating range of panels take place, with topics ranging from 'Modernist Histories' (featuring a paper from LTU PhD student, Ruth Clemens) to 'Writing Life and Death' (concluded by a paper from another LTU PhD student and conference co-organiser, Anne Reus).

A creative writing workshop took place in the morning, first exploring some of the concepts of fiction that Woolf discussed in her work, before attendees were led through several writing tasks with a Woolfian theme, allowing them to produce some original writing pieces. The workshop was run by LTU's Liz Flanagan, a creative writing PhD student who has recently been signed to a publishing deal for her two debut novels, and Tom Breckin (LTU PhD student, and conference co-organiser).

The plenary speech of the day was delivered by Professor Suzanne Raitt, who gave an engaging talk 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

The day was concluded with an open-mic event organised by Dr Amina Alyal and Wordspace, and hosted by the Leeds West Indian Centre. A steel-drum band opened the evening's festivities, followed by a selection of original readings from conference delegates.

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Day 2

The Friday of the conference featured another absorbing array of different papers; included amongst the fourteen panels was an undergraduate roundtable, chaired by Dr Julia Vandivere, where students from Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, discussed how biopolitics, with its understanding of the relation between definitions of human life and structures of power, can give new insights into what life meant as articulated in modernist literature, and specifically in Woolf's work. This was followed by a response and further discussion with students from Leeds Trinity University.

'Curating Virginia Woolf' was one of two 'Featured Panels' of the day, and was of a humorous, light-hearted nature with remarkable interaction between a diverse audience of Woolf fans and researchers on one hand, and curators of special Woolf collections on the other. Three different Woolf collections were presented: the Frances Hooper Collection of Virginia Woolf Books and Manuscripts (Karen Kukil), the Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (Trevor James Bond), and Virginia Woolf in the Berg Collection (Isaac Gewirtz). After the presentations the three speakers led an interactive discussion between the panel and the audience, chaired by Mike Young in a seamless audience-oriented style which accommodated for the high volume of questions from the floor.

A second roundtable took place in the auditorium, entitled 'Composers in Conversation: Setting Woolf's Letters and Diaries'. This was a discussion on the concept and creation of the evening's event, 'Virginia: A Musical Portrait'. Other panels of the afternoon included 'Inheriting Victorian Men of Letters', which had a focus on the influence of Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and featured a paper from Dr Helen Kingstone of LTU, on the significance of Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography.

The plenary speakers of the day were Professor Jean Mills and Dr Marion Dell, who 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'. 

 

As mentioned, the evening's event was 'Virginia: A Musical Portrait'. The concert focused on settings of Woolf's diaries and letters and featuring three world premieres: the song cycle 'A Lonely Mind' by Jan-Willem van Herpen; Richard Barnard's song cycle 'Woolf Letters'; and a song by Jeremy Thurlow. Barnard's and Thurlow's works were commissioned for this concert. The fourth work of the concert was Dominick Argento's 'From the Diary of Virginia Woolf' (1974, written for the English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker). Although different in style, all pieces were united by their ability to emphasize the poetry of Woolf's style and highlight the natural musicality of her writing. All the pieces were performed to a very high standard and extremely well received; their introspection and emotionality provided a poignant finish to a stimulating day and discussion of the concert continued long after the music had finished.

Day 3

Day Three of the conference provided a further seventeen panels of varied and intriguing thought and discussion, and opened with a panel on the topic of 'Spirituality'; this featured a paper on Caroline Emelia Stephen and her influence on Woolf, presented by Dr de Gay. Amongst panels discussing reinterpretations of Woolf and constructions of artistic identities in her work, Lois Gilmore and Andrea Zemgulys considered Woolf's engagement with Lewis Carroll and Alfred Tennyson in their two papers, given on the 'Victorian Literary Heritage' panel.

In the afternoon's plenary, 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. 

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The day was closed with the conference banquet, and featured living heritage, represented in the person of Cecil Woolf (Woolf's husband's nephew), who shared reminiscences with Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Following this captivating dialogue, The Woolf Society Players presented a spoken selection from Woolf's work.

Day 4

The final day of #Woolf2016 – as it was tagged on twitter – took place across the morning, and consisted of seven panels covering topics from drama and performance in Bloomsbury, to 'Reinterpreting Literary Heritage', which included papers on Woolf's relationship with the Romantics and with John Ruskin.  

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. 

 

Giggleswick

As the unofficial finale of the conference, we decided to visit one of the smaller Woolf heritage sites, Giggleswick School in the Yorkshire Dales, where Woolf had visited her cousin Will Vaughan, then the headmaster, and his wife Madge, in 1904. While there, Virginia had visited the Brontë parsonage, the destination of the first pre-conference trip, (as her signature in the visitors' book proved) and she had written her first published article 'Haworth, November 1904'. Thus, we got to see the location of Woolf's first 'official' engagement with her literary heritage, as well as explore an institution, the Public School, which figures greatly in her later works, as the fascinating panel on 'Woolf's ideological heritage' with papers by Patricia Morgne Cramer and Natasha Periyan had demonstrated earlier that day.

While we departed in reasonably sunny conditions, the weather took a definite turn for the worse on our way through the Dales, but the warm reception at the school more than made up for it. We were welcomed by the School's Archivist Barbara Gent, and Mark and Ruth Turnbull, the headmaster and his wife, and offered a wonderful afternoon tea, which was quintessentially English, and absolutely deliciousness. While we were enjoying this, Barbara read an apt selection of passages from Woolf's Giggleswick letters and diary, which evoked her exasperation with the endless round of School visits and the infernal ringing of the church bells (not surprisingly, when she returned in 1907, she decided to rent a room a little distance away) and prepared us for the next part of our visit, a quick look into Hollywell Toft, the headmaster's house, where Woolf had stayed in 1904.

The group then split in two: a group of walkers decided to brave the weather and went on a long and vigorous hill walk. Starting from Settle Marketplace, they climbed Sugar Loaf Hill and the Attermire Scar, and some even explored the Jubilee Caves, all based on Woolf's notes in her Giggleswick diary. Those who had opted to stay inside were treated to a Chapel tour by Barbara Gent, with a brief history of the school and of the chapel's building. Completed only in 1901, the donor, a school alumni, had spared no expenses and Woolf likely would have seen this marvel at least once during her visit, as 'Chapel' would have been one of the central institutions of Public School life. This was followed by a concert of organ and piano pieces, played by the School's Director of Music, James Taylor, and its organist Philip Broadhouse. The programme featured English organ music from 1900 to 1950, and approached the themes of Englishness and Yorkshire heritage from a musical perspective, ending with a Carillon that imitated the clanging bells which had so annoyed Woolf during her stay. Finally, all were reunited in the bus to Leeds, with nothing left to do but say goobye and hopefully see each other at next year's conference in Reading.

Conclusion

During the course of the conference, over 140 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.

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."

Congratulations were passed on to Dr de Gay for organising such a varied and rewarding conference at the banquet, but throughout the event and after, delegates were effusive in their praise and appreciation of the efforts Dr de Gay had made in ensuring the great success of the 26th Annual Virginia Woolf Conference.   

This September, Leeds Trinity University will also be hosting the Women's History Network Annual Conference on 'Women's Material Culture/Women's Material Environments', organised by Lauren Padgett, a PhD student at LTU. For more information, visit the conference website.