On September 30th, a number of Woolfians assembled online for a meeting of the Woolf Salon Project, a semi-formal, regular gathering , to discuss Woolf’s work. The Woolf Salon Project is amazing, though I’ve only been a part of it for a short time—and this session, in particular, transcended literary discussion in a way that I found compelling. The Woolf community is friendly, welcoming, and open-minded, in my limited experience, and these traits all make it a place where a grad student wants to spend their time, particularly since everyone’s respective qualifications—and it would be easy to be intimidated by some of the names present—don’t seem to matter. It’s as equal a footing as I’ve encountered in academia.
What I am getting to is the way in which—inspired by the group’s focus on the third chapter of Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938)—a question came up that asked (and I’m paraphrasing), Is the reading/writing of activist texts enough? And enough for what? Don’t we need to be out on the streets, protesting? Was reading/writing enough for Woolf, pre-WWII, and is it enough for us now, in increasingly tumultuous times? How, why, and when to relate Woolf’s text to our own lives has always felt, to me, a relevant topic, but I found these more developed questions motivating. Activism takes many forms, of course—but I’ve never heard a group of scholars so willing to question their own place in things, and this is notable because academia has some entrenched practices and power structures that are worth questioning. Hearing tenured professors, whom I greatly respect, ask themselves, out loud in a public setting, what more they could be doing to offset or mitigate power imbalances was incredibly refreshing. And so was talking about protests and acknowledging that not everyone can get out into the streets, but allowing that they have other ways of contributing that are also valid.
This Woolf Salon came on the heels of the Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir conference in Paris, which ended the same morning for me (different timezones). Scholars there, comparing these two early feminist giants, were often struck by the similar themes of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas and Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). I couldn’t help but think, as the Woolf Salon conversation veered into a discussion of activism, of Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (1954), where the writer Henry Perron confronts a similar question—what can an author, what can literature do, in the face of horrors and injustices?
It’s telling that we are still confronting the same issues today, but I am happy to be part of a community of academics that openly brings this into their own work. The sense of community and inspired purpose that I felt on the 30th hasn’t left me since. While I’m sure this is not the only group of scholars with similar views, I haven’t yet encountered others this receptive to the comments of graduate students, unaffiliated scholars, and the like. I can’t adequately summarize the full breadth of the conversation from that day, or any other previous session I have attended, but online recordings are accessible for members of the IVWS. I can only say that I highly recommend that Woolfians of any background attend—and I hope to see you there.
Gwen Rose (she/they) is a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Gwen’s research interests include modernism and the lived experience of marginalized peoples. Her dissertation combines these interests, examining the representation of transgender characters within literary modernism.