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.

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”?