More than 200 scholars from around the world converged on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus from June 4-7 for “Woolf and the City,” the 19th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf.
Through four days of discussions, plenary sessions and performances related to Woolf’s writings, scholars explored the enigmatic author and feminist’s complex relationship to her beloved London.
Attendees were treated to a performance of the 2004 play Vita and Virginia, written by Dame Eileen Atkins and directed by Matthew Maguire, director of Fordham’s theatre program.
“Woolf today, in the 21st century, has emerged as not just a woman writer, but as a great writer,” said Anne Fernald, Ph.D., associate professor of English, director of writing and composition at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, and organizer of the conference. “She speaks to so many people—politically, socially and artistically.”
Tamar Katz, Ph.D., associate professor of English and urban studies at Brown University and one of the plenary speakers, said that critics examining Woolf’s urban writings see her role as a flaneur—a narrator who wanders through the city to observe and experience it.
In her talk, “Pausing, Waiting,” Katz referenced two of Woolf’s novels set in London—Mrs. Dalloway(1925) and The Years (1937). Both novels, she said, illustrate the author’s use of time and rhythms in urban life—particularly those moments that her characters spend pausing and waiting—as a means to develop larger themes and questions about the human condition.
“If there is an optimism to the narrative model that Woolf figures to the city, it is one in which we are always pausing, waiting and looking,” said Katz, author of Impressionist Subjects: Gender, Interiority and Modernist Fiction in England (Illinois Press, 2000). Such anticipation, said Katz, is a form of suspension that leans forward toward a future revelation that can be horrific or pleasing.
Woolf’s own life, Katz said, may have been structured, in part, by anticipation, too. The author suffered from acute anxiety and depression and, in 1941, took her own life.
“This idea of anticipation has a horrifying side, a sense that it has something to do with Woolf’s fear of madness descending on her,” Katz said. “But the anticipation of pleasure is [also]really important to Woolf.”
Other highlights of the four-day conference included a keynote speech on Woolf’s influences by essayist and journalist Rebecca Solnit; an emotional recollection by 97-year-old Ruth Gruber, Ph.D., of her meeting with Woolf in the 1930s; and readings by six students from Fordham’s College at Sixty program, who penned creative writing pieces inspired by Woolf’s style.
In addition, the conference’s silent auction raised more than $1,900 for Girls Write Now, a local tutoring organization that pairs New York City public high school girls with professional women writers.
Woolf authored nine novels and more than a dozen non-fiction books, including The London Scene(1931), essays on city life. Fernald, who has attended many of the Woolf conferences over the years, said that she was inspired toward the conference’s “city” theme by the interesting theoretical work being done today around urban theory and Woolf’s writings, which have often focused on gender, class and modernity.