“She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.” So writes Virginia Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past” about her mother, Julia Stephen. I could say the same about Woolf herself, for I’ve been writing about her for over two decades in my academic work. More recently, she’s emerged as a vital presence in my personal writing as well.
Last year, I published my first book, The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming (Main Street Rag), a memoir about the experience of being named after a deceased sibling—my parents’ first child, who died when she was three years old. In reflecting on childhood, legacy, and family relationships, I naturally turned to Woolf. I thought of her half-sister, Laura, who lived well into adulthood but primarily in group homes or institutions, away from her family for most of the year. I wondered how Laura’s absent presence shaped the Stephen family dynamic. “In Woolf’s voluminous letters and diaries,” I write in my book, “Laura scarcely registers as a presence. Woolf never saw herself or her vocation in any way influenced by this sister—yet she doesn’t forget her. In To the Lighthouse, the most autobiographical of her novels, the Ramsay family has eight children, not seven.”
I looked to “A Sketch of the Past” again when reflecting on other formative experiences. “In the impact upon us of summers by the sea, Virginia Woolf and I are kindred spirits,” I write. While she spent her childhood summers at Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall, I spent mine at my uncle’s house, a block from the beach in Rockport, Massachusetts. Woolf writes in A Passionate Apprentice of returning to Cornwall years later with her siblings, and her impressions upon revisiting old haunts resonated strongly with mine when I began vacationing in Rockport once again after a gap of many years. Woolf became a touchstone, a guide, and a companion as I crafted my memoir.
I’ve been drawing her, too. After a transformative experience taking a Book Arts class a couple of years ago, I began playing around with watercolors and colored pencils. I have much to learn, and I’m enjoying the process. Making art has been an absorbing activity during the pandemic and a great way to stay off screens. I hope everyone’s finding solace, joy, and inspiration in creative endeavors during this time.
Kristin Czarnecki is an English professor at Georgetown College whose work has been published in Woolf Studies Annual, Journal of Feminist Scholarship, Journal of Beckett Studies, College Literature, CEA Critic, and Journal of Modern Literature as well as in edited volumes. She has a personal essay forthcoming in Peatsmoke, and her poetry and blog posts have appeared in Clementine Unbound, the Virginia Woolf Miscellany, WordMothers, and Replacement Child Forum. From 2015-2020, she served as president of the International Virginia Woolf Society. You can see what she’s up to at kristinczarnecki.com.