Virginia Woolf’s brown stocking

I’m currently in the research stages of a paper on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and the narratological metaphors of painting and knitting.  I have a long way to go before arriving at a solid argument, but the idea was inspired by a conviction that Mrs. Ramsey’s knitting is more important than previous critics have believed.

Sometimes, a stocking is not just a stocking.

Woolf herself was surrounded by both painters and textile designers: under Roger Fry, several members of the Bloomsbury group created housewares for the Omega Workshops, including Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell.

Part of my developing argument deals with the material process of creating applied arts objects, like a piece of knitting (which means the endless hours I’ve spend working on my knitted legwarmers are actually research!).

Like Mrs. Ramsey I’m susceptible to the crushing sadness of knowing there’s not enough time to finish a project:

“You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted — the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”

And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something — wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things — she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is — the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

Woolf’s writing characteristically involves the celebration of the everyday, the small domestic details of a woman’s life, and the importance of women’s acts of creation.  But I didn’t realize, until I searched for images for this article, that Woolf was herself a knitter.  According to this short article, Woolf crediting knitting with an immense therapeutic effect after a breakdown.  “Knitting is the saving of life,” she wrote to Leonard.

Vanessa Bell painted Woolf knitting in about 1911, at the same time she was preparing the draft of her first novel, The Voyage Out.  The painting is quintessential Vanessa, who, following Roger Fry, prized form over content.  She thought a painter could leave the faces blank with no detriment to the subject.

I’m fascinated by Woolf’s left hand (the lower one), how it blurs slightly.  I wish I had been able to see this painting in person when I visited London, as that hand just begs to be analyzed in closer detail.  Are the smudges purposeful?  Could they represent some small bit of movement in an otherwise still and static image?

I also have to wonder if any of Woolf’s knitting survives in an archive somewhere.  What kinds of things did she make?  Did she herself practice the process of making Mrs. Ramsey’s reddish-brown stocking?

To the Lighthouse is available as a free ebook from the University of Adelaide Library.  It’s worth reading for a lot more than just the knitting scenes, too.

Depravity in the Quaker City: George Lippard’s Monks of Monk Hall

George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Of The Monks of Monk-Hall is a strange and lurid entry into the subgenre of Philadelphia Gothic.  It is, in part, an homage to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 Gothic novel The Monk: A Romance.  Lippard does his damnedest to out-shock readers of it and other controversial, graphic, and even offensive novels of the time.

Its sprawling, sensationalistic plot hinges on the evil denizens of a secret club, The Monks of Monk Hall, who gather every night in a decrepit-looking mansion in Southwark. But inside the walls of this house lurk all the horrors of the modern age: vice and crime, rape and murder, perpetrated on a nightly basis. Within Monk Hall is a tower with three levels below its ground floor, including a crypt formerly used by a real monastic community that occupied the house in the 18th century, and, deepest of all, a dark pit, into which bodies fall through trap doors, never to be seen again. Lippard takes all of the conventions of the gothic novel — a decaying castle/mansion chock full of secret, labyrinthine passages, trap doors and underground pits for prisoners, cackling torturers, sorcerers, innocent damsels about to be ravished, evil “monks”— but doesn’t give them the usual medieval setting of a gothic novel. Instead, he drops them right down in the midst of an urban Philadelphia in 1842. — Edward Pettit for Citypaper

The novel, published in 1845, is based a murder trial and considered the first muckraking novel:

The Quaker City is partly based on the March 1843 New Jersey trial of Singleton Mercer. Mercer was accused of the murder of Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton aboard the Philadelphia-Camden ferry vessel Dido on February 10, 1843. Heberton had seduced (or raped – sources differ upon this point), Mercer’s sixteen-year old sister. Mercer entered a plea of insanity and was found not guilty. The trial took place only two months after Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story based on other murder trials employing the insanity defense; Mercer’s defense attorney openly acknowledged the “object of ridicule” which an insanity defense had become. Nonetheless, a verdict of not-guilty was rendered after less than an hour of jury deliberation, and the family and the lawyer of young Mercer were greeted by a cheering crowd while disembarking from the same Philadelphia-Camden ferry line on which the killing took place. — Wikipedia

Lippard knew his lineage well; he dedicated the novel to the memory of Charles Brockden Brown, the author who arguably originated Philadelphia Gothic.  But Lippard’s depraved monks outpace anything Brown’s wandering young protagonists ever dreamed of. has a fascinating version of The Quaker City, with illustrations and extensive marginalia, available to read for free online.  There are also partial annotations available, with lots of interesting Philly details.

Lippard also wrote Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahickon, which injects his luridly Gothic style into a local legend about a brotherhood of cave-dwelling monks in the woods outside Philly.

The City as Labyrinth: Brown’s Arthur Mervyn

If we’re talking Philadelphia Gothic, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Charles Brockden Brown’s other 1799 novel, Arthur Mervyn.  While Edgar Huntly skirts the city boundaries, this one plunges you right into the nightmare of its urban setting.  Philadelphia becomes a labyrinth of terror as an outbreak of yellow fever spreads among the inhabitants.

Brown knows the city well, as he lived on Second Street, about a mile from Broad Street and what was then the edge of the city.  The yellow fever plague is itself based on fact; an outbreak swept the city in 1793.

Using the PhilaGeoHistory map overlay, it’s possible to get an idea of the city’s layout, and actually trace Arthur’s walk from the bridge over the Schuylkill to Front Street.  It’s actually quite a hike.

I was almost unmindful of my way, when I found I had passed Schuylkill at the upper bridge. I was now within the precincts of the city, and night was hastening. It behooved me to come to a speedy decision.

Suddenly I recollected that I had not paid the customary toll at the bridge; neither had I money wherewith to pay it. A demand of payment would have suddenly arrested my progress; and so slight an incident would have precluded that wonderful destiny to which I was reserved. The obstacle that would have hindered my advance now prevented my return. Scrupulous honesty did not require me to turn back and awaken the vigilance of the toll-gatherer. I had nothing to pay, and by returning I should only double my debt. “Let it stand,” said I, “where it does. All that honour enjoins is to pay when I am able.”

I adhered to the crossways, till I reached Market Street. Night had fallen, and a triple row of lamps presented a spectacle enchanting and new. My personal cares were, for a time, lost in the tumultuous sensations with which I was now engrossed. I had never visited the city at this hour. When my last visit was paid, I was a mere child. The novelty which environed every object was, therefore, nearly absolute. I proceeded with more cautious steps, but was still absorbed in attention to passing objects. I reached the market-house, and, entering it, indulged myself in new delight and new wonder.

I need not remark that our ideas of magnificence and splendour are merely comparative; yet you may be prompted to smile when I tell you that, in walking through this avenue, I, for a moment, conceived myself transported to the hall “pendent with many a row of starry lamps and blazing crescents fed by naphtha and asphaltos.” That this transition from my homely and quiet retreat had been effected in so few hours wore the aspect of miracle or magic.

I proceeded from one of these buildings to another, till I reached their termination in Front Street. Here my progress was checked, and I sought repose to my weary limbs by seating myself on a stall.

— Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn

If you just can’t get enough of this particular brand of Philly Gothic, Brown’s other works are worth reading as well.  Ormond uses the same 1793 yellow fever plague as a starting point, while Wieland is set on a farm on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Spidermamas: Judy Budnitz, Louise Bourgeois, and Kristeva’s abject

One of the perks of grad school is getting to put together class presentations on a range of crazy fun topics.  This week, I’m presenting in my American Gothic class on the stories of Judy Budnitz and their relation to Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection.

I structure my presentations a lot like I structure my blog posts: I pull together quotes and images, offer analysis, and try to expose my audience to related materials they may not have seen before.

So what is abjection and what does it have to do with spiders and mothers?

The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. — Dino Felluga, Purdue U

Much of what we understand about the abject and abjection comes from the French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva.  Her essay “Powers of Horror” details the effects of the abject, especially as it relates to Lacanian psychoanalytic thought.  She writes, “The abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language” (“Powers of Horror” 13).

Judy Budnitz’s short story “Where We Come From” is a perfect example of abjection at work in literature.  The story tells of three mothers in succession: the first a mother in a foreign country, the second a would-be immigrant mother, and the third an American mother who adopts the second’s baby.

Much of what is abject in the story revolves around the second mother, who tries time and again to cross the border and have her baby on American soil.  Where she comes from is unimportant — there is a placelessness to the third world country of her origin that stands in for all third world countries.  Repeatedly rebuffed at the (rather mythical) border, she carries her baby for four years, until she is finally able to give birth in an American hospital.

Budnitz’s evocative fabulism makes this take of twisted motherhood work:

“She carries him for two years.  She constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight.  She uses a cane.  She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks.”

This spider imagery immediately reminded me of the sculpture work of Louise Bourgeois.  She crafted a giant spider sculpture, called Maman (French for mother), for the Tate Modern in 1999.  Bronze replicas of Maman have been exhibited all over the world.

Bourgeois meant her work as a tribute to her own mother, but its grotesqueness does, in a way, comment on how we view motherhood.  (Another version of this can be found in the film Alien, in which a terrifying, acid dripping alien-mother impregnates male bodies, dooming them to be ripped apart by her parasitic offspring.)

Abjection can also be understood as the state of being experienced by women, people of color, unwed mothers, and other marginalized groups.  Budnitz’s story, I think, deftly weaves all these various strands together (spider pun intended!), while at the same time implicating America in the ongoing abjection of the mother.  What does it say about us, if this is indeed “Where We Come From”?

Unexpected reading binge: Eastern Europe

Have you ever had those days where one little link clicked in the morning leads you down a rabbit hole of reading for the rest of the day?

It happens to me a lot.

Today a few things conspired to lead me on a binge of reading about Poland and Eastern Europe in general.  Based on this review, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk is going to be a great read, as soon as I can track down a copy.

From there I found reference to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  While my library has a copy, it’s in the section of the stacks that are currently moving and inaccessible.  Luckily, The Atlantic has the rather lengthy magazine version available online for free.  I’ve always meant to read some West, and never have until now, but she is truly wonderful and I can’t wait to finish the whole long piece.

It was in a London nursing home. I had had an operation, in the new miraculous way. One morning a nurse had come in and given me an injection, as gently as might be, and had made a little joke which was not very good but served its purpose of taking the chill off the difficult moment. Then I picked up my book and read that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins: ‘Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.’ I said to myself, ‘That is one of the most beautiful poems in the world,’ and I rolled over in my bed, still thinking that it was one of the most beautiful poems in the world, and found that the electric light was burning and there was a new nurse standing at the end of my bed. Twelve hours had passed in that moment. They had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about for three hours and a half, and had brought me down again, and now I was merely sleepy, and not at all sick, and still half-rooted in my pleasure in the poem, still listening to a voice speaking through the ages, with barest economy that somehow is the most lavish melody: ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’

— Rebecca West

Though wildly unversed in it, I have a fondness for Eastern European and Polish history and literature that stems in large part from my own Polish roots.  Stasiuk and West’s books will likely join Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus on my (short) list of excellent Eastern European travel books.  (This NYT piece points out some complications with Kapuscinski’s body of work, but I, like its writer, still admire the strengths of his work.)

Today is also the birthday of celebrated Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (who died in 2004 at the age of 93).  I love Milosz’s ABCs, a strange and irreverent little collection of prose reminiscences.

Admiration: I have admired many people.  I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect.

I firmly believe that the best way to experience Milosz’s poetry is to hear him read it. has a few suond recordings available.  My favorite of the bunch is “And the City Stood in its Brightness.”

King Solomon’s Mines, Homosocial Male Bonding, and the Possibilities of Masculine Identity

What a difference a big budget film makes.

Earlier this semester, I Netflixed the classic 1950 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, for an article I was working on for The Film League.  I found it fascinating:  an imperial English love story set against the backdrop of Africa, using real Africans and footage of real safaris.  I also found it problematic in all the usual ways: an imperialist period piece using the legacy of imperialism to gain footage of “exotic” Africans, which in turn could spice up the otherwise ho-hum white, heterosexual love story, which itself uses Africa and Africans as both catalyst and afterthought.

Actually reading the book for my Victorian lit class was quite a different endeavor, even moreso than I initially imagined it would be.  For one thing, the love story is totally fabricated.  The novel actually follows three men into the wilds of Africa in search one’s lost brother (and the treasure).  This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t rehash another white person love story; instead, the “love” is the homosocial bond between the three men, who all represent various points on a spectrum of masculinity.  (I kept thinking about the male identity-trinity from Star Trek: The Original Series as reference point.)  Haggard rather self-consciously sets the three up as positive masculine role models, each representing several different possible masculine expressions from which his boy readers could choose.

The novel is famously free from any “petticoats,” narrator Allan Quatermain’s metonymically reductive description of white women.  Much as been written about the treasure map representing the female body to be penetrated (like Africa), and the terrifying depictions of African female identity.  But somehow — and this rarely happens — I find myself much more interested in Haggard’s strange masculinity project, and what it meant for Victorian ideas of manhood, and why on earth this was deemed unsuitable for a blockbuster film adaptation.

I don’t have any answers to those questions or problems, but they’re sticking in my mind, along with several others.  Why such vitriol against women?  Why reconstitute the family as homosocial male bonding mechanism in the final pages of the novel?  And why has this story above so many others stayed in our pop culture consciousness and been replayed over and over again?

The Rossetti Siblings and Troubling Sexuality

My Victorian lit class provided me with an interesting poetic juxtaposition: reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Christian Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” side by side. As a poet, I think, Christina is more well-known. I like her work better than her brother’s, but I also think they illuminate each other to a great degree.

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To me, “Jenny” and “Goblin Market” are both about the commodification of sexuality in the Victorian marketplace, and the ways that it can twist male desires and harm women. They’re also tremendously weird poems with fraught sexual expressions. “Jenny” features the age-old client-who-thinks-he-treats-his-prostitute-right trope; “Goblin Market” is a fairytale mixed up with lesbian incest that posits the protective quality of radically homosocial female relationships.

In other words, this is stuff I really love.

The radical possibilities Christina provides for the redemption of the fallen woman at the end of “Goblin Market” struck me perhaps most of all. The idea that a fallen woman could be saved is pretty much unheard of in Victorian literature.

Because this was classwork, I also read a few assigned critical essays on the poems, and unfortunately, I thought some of them missed the mark pretty seriously. Your argument will never win me over by removing sex from the discussion, especially not when dealing with poems like these. (And articles about the “World Wide Web” written in 1998 are just embarrassing to read now.)

This is not to say that I fault the professor for picking bad secondary materials. Quite the contrary, I think reading articles one vehemently disagrees with can be both exhilarating and thought-provoking. My theories about the poems are stronger because I have negative examples against which to structure my thoughts.

I also got to write about the poems for class, which gave me an unexpected chance to put my love of the archives to use. I wrote about the shared use of the term “goblin” in the poems, the evolution of the word’s use in various drafts of “Jenny,” and how the word links the poems thematically.

This is all a little more academic than I usually get on this blog, but I’m interested to hear what others think about the Rossetti siblings as poets. Who is your favorite? What are your thoughts on the poems?

Literary Lady Lights: Kelly Link

There are few contemporary authors that I follow with the same gusto as Kelly Link. There are, I think, few who are doing anything as interesting as Kelly is doing. Her particular brand of speculative fiction — so full of weirdness, and yet so familiar seeming — is not only highly readable but also highly addictive. Once you read the world through her eyes, it’s boring to go back to plain old reality.

Her style is spare and matter of fact; it reminds me of literary fiction writer Amy Hempel, who likewise utilizes short declarative sentences to great effect. (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is the first and still the best Hempel short story I read. It’ll break your heart.) But Kelly’s understanding of youth, and the magical way it can feel, sets her apart for me; she combines the seriousness, writerly-ness of literary fiction with speculative and fantastical elements, without overdoing either. There is hope in her stories, along with the zombies, ghosts, wolf girls, fairies, and evil bunnies.

I recently sang Kelly’s praises over at The Film League, as part of our month on Dawn of the Dead:

There isn’t a lot of gore in a Kelly Link short story.  Nor is there a lot of blockbuster style action.  And yet, for my money, no one gets closer to capturing the unmitigated eeriness of Romero’s zombie-infected world.  These stories belong to the slowly lurching black and white nightmare of Night of the Living Dead, or the bizarre and panicked newsroom and the ravished tenement building of the first act of Dawn of the Dead.

Though I didn’t know it when I wrote that article, the connection has been made at least once before: WPR opened a horror segment, featuring Kelly, with a radio advertisement for the movie.

If you ask me, Kelly’s work deserves much more attention than it currently gets. Unfortunately, there was a break in her publishing — you can ready why here — and only a few stories have recently trickled out.

Many of Kelly’s stories are available to read for free at her site; I highly recommend “The Hortlak” and “The Faery Handbag” (which was, incidentally, the first Kelly Link short story I ever read, and the one that made me fall madly in love with her writing). Kelly is a champion of Creative Commons licensing, and has released several of her pieces, including her entire first story collection, Stranger Things Happen, for free online. (It no longer seems to be available through the website — possibly a technical difficulty that never got resolved — but if you hunt around the internet you can find it.)

She also runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, which has released some great books.

Loving and hating John Ruskin

Oh, Ruskin.  What’s a modern girl to do with you?

I don’t know that a work has ever enthralled and infuriated me like Sesame and Lilies did.  One part paean to a thing I love, reading books; one part social critique that still rings true today; and two parts essentialist Victorian hogwash that very nearly strains credulity.

Okay, the book is actually two lectures Ruskin gave in Manchester in 1865: “Of King’s Treasuries,” about the necessity of instructing (male) students in literature so that they may be better citizens, and “Of Queen’s Gardens,” about the proper ways to educate female children so that they may serve as support and moral compasses for men.

Beginning with the first lecture and then getting the shock of the second was difficult for me.  I am, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, and I could read for hours about the pleasures of reading and the proper means for engaging with a literary education.  I am also, as a feminist child of the 20th century, accustomed to reading things directed solely at men and shifting them around in my brain so that they’re directed at me too.

Ruskin’s exhortation to students to read the best books they can during their short lives struck me in a particularly powerful way:

But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.

Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men:—by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short. You have heard as much before;—yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow?

Oh goodness, I thought, Ruskin is right!  I have to stop wasting time on the internet!  I’m losing the ability to experience books!

After this startling revelation of education advice, the second lecture came as quite a disappointment.  The problematic gender essentialism is rather too tricky to get into in a short blog post — scholars have been arguing Ruskin’s intentions and the proper feminist response pretty much since it came out — but it gave me enough pause that I felt I must mention it.

There is, we acknowledge, a severe danger in delineating male and female spheres of life and action, as well as a wildly unfair burden in asking women to be the moral standard for men and then holding them accountable when men fail. And yet, there is also something revolutionary in calling for parents to stridently educate their female children.

And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity.

His preferred method of educating girls is one I would have delighted at:

Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

Victorian conceptions of gender aside, something happens when you exhort young girls to read and take education seriously: some of them do so.  And some of them take it far beyond what Ruskin counseled or intended, and we have them to thank for suffrage, the ability to wear pants, and any other good thing that has happened in the intervening 150 years.