Monday, February 28, 2011

For the Record

Years ago, I heard a charismatic Marxist professor give a lecture on modernism, the General Strike of 1926. One of the main points he made was an anti-Woolfian one: how could people claim such great political credentials for a woman who barely wrote a thing about the General Strike?

In fact, Woolf did take notice of the strike. More than that, she supported the miners and the workers striking alongside them. More than that, she bicycled around London (no buses or tube, of course, for it was a strike) collecting signatures from other artists and writers in support of the strikers.

But that, for this Marxist critic, was not enough. Clearly he was wrong, but I was shocked to think of all the world events that some (narcissistically imagined) future biographer would be able to claim I had shockingly failed to take an interest in. It’s a distressing standard.

In my head, I can compose the self-condemning judgments: “In spite of Fernald’s commitment to feminism/Africa/workers, she had surprising little to contribute to the discussion of how the revolutionary changes in North Africa/Wisconsin might affect women’s rights/political freedom/economic stability for the working and middle class…”

Let me just say, for the record, that my feelings about these exciting changes are about as complex as the complexities of the situations require. I have no insights. I have many fears. I have great hopes that the downtrodden and disempowered will retain and regain the dignity that we all deserve.

I know my house is glass; I cast no stones.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pearls and Power

There was a dust-up on the Woolf listserv over the weekend.

Someone posted, innocently enough, “Did Virginia Woolf own pearls?” To be honest, when I first read the post, I thought that we had reached a new level of triviality in Woolf studies, wondering about every last little detail of her life. What, I thought, can come of this?

The answer is: a lot.

The first few answers came in as references—Vita Sackville-West had pearls, Orlando wears pearls, have you read the articles by Reginald Abbott and Kathryn Simpson?—and, once again, a tiny detail revealed itself as utterly interesting. Immediately, a strong theme of female sexuality emerged, linking pearls to the clitoris. I had forgotten that. The conversation ranged around, with eight or nine people chiming in with thoughts, suggestions and references. That’s high volume for the Woolf listserv. Even with nearly 500 subscribers, it can go days with only a message or two. The original questioner mentioned that her interest arose from Leonard Woolf’s involvement with the Sri Lankan pearl industry.

Then, someone wrote in to assert the link between pearls and power, linking Vita’s pearls with those of Queen Elizabeth I. For neither woman, this poster suggested, did pearls signify anything as tedious as the clitoris.

That got us off to the races.

A passionate advocate for lesbian and queer studies posted simply “Ah, the tedious clitoris.” That made me laugh. Then, a man posted, with equal brevity, his surprise that anyone would ever find that part of the anatomy remotely tedious. That made me laugh even harder.

But suddenly, it seemed, lines were drawn, and those who took an interest in power and trade stood on one side while those who wanted to see the pearl as sexual on the other: I began thinking of them as the “No sex, please, we’re British” camp versus the acolytes of the clitoris. I checked my email from time to time as temperatures rose, and when the attacks got personal, I intervened as “owner” of the listserv (the so-called “mistress” of the list—that would be me--had already been “tsk’ed” by one irritated member).

But why did temperatures rise so heatedly on the signification of pearls on the listserv? I’m not sure. Listservs are funny things. I think of them as strange eddies in the currents of new media. Among the first ways we made community in the digital age, they persist but are strangely private compared to blogs, facebook, twitter, and tumblr. Because a post to a listserv only goes to subscribers, one can feel perhaps a little too comfortable that everyone in the conversation is like-minded. This particular manifestation still strikes me as a little quaint, a battle of first wave feminism with the Vassar alums tossing their pearls in the faces of the dungareed co-eds from the public university down the interstate.

Still, resistance and offense-taking are interesting. One posts that she never confuses her pearls with any part of her anatomy and that the metaphor strikes her as specious. (For the record, I have never thought cigars or carrots were perfect representations either.) But that's beside the point. Such refusal seems to fly in the face of aphrodisiacs 101: Oysters anyone? More to the point, the refusal struck me--and others--as an attempt to deny that the metaphor could work sexually when it plainly does, often, in Woolf and elsewhere. I kept my counsel, but I could feel my own irritation growing and I expected some other poster would turn that grain of insult into a pearl of a post. Soon enough, another poster struck back, accusing the first of denying the work of great lesbian and queer scholars.

Once attacks become personal—and only then—do I step in to moderate. And I did. The personal attacks have subsided for the moment, but the discussion has broadened out to jokes about Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe and reference to Ariel’s song in The Tempest. Fascinating to remember how much literature still matters, how it can move us to passion, to rage, to work, to insult, to rethink what we thought we knew.

(Want in on the listserv conversation? Email me--fernham AT gmail DOT com & I can sign you up or subscribe directly by sending the message SUBSCRIBE VWOOLF [email] [name] to listproc AT

Saturday, February 19, 2011

AROHO Retreat for a Disabled Woman Writer

Thanks to the very generous donations of many, the A Room of Her Own Foundation--a very Woolfian nonprofit--has a fellowship, honoring my friend the writer and disability activist Kenny Fries, to fund a disabled woman writer's attendance at a retreat.

If you are or know a disabled woman writer, please encourage her to apply!

Deadline for Kenny Fries Fellowship for a disabled woman writer to attend the A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) Retreat this summer is March 1. For more info click here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

NYPL Research Fellowships

I’ve written here about how transforming my space in the Wertheim Study of the New York Public Library has been. I have use of that spot till the end of May and, believe me, as soon as I finish a few pedestrian errands, I’m heading right over there for a quick Friday research fix.

Jay Barksdale, the wonderful librarian who manages the Wertheim and Allen Rooms sent along this link about short term fellowships for scholars. If you live far from New York and have research that depends on the collections at the NYPL, why not apply?

A few preliminary details, more at the website:
The New York Public Library is pleased to announce the availability of 20 fellowships to support visiting scholars conducting studies in the Library’s unique research and special collections between June 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012. The Fellowship stipend is $2,500. Scholars from outside the New York metropolitan area engaged in graduate-level, post-doctoral, or independent research are invited to apply. Applicants must be United States citizens or permanent residents with the legal right to work in the U.S. Applications must be received by April 1, 2011, in order to be considered. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Room at Women's Project in March

Three years ago, I took students to a wonderful production of Woolf's only play, Freshwater, at the Julia Miles Theater. Now, the Women's Project is back with an adaptation of A Room of One's Own. It should be wonderful! I'm taking my students--though they don't know it yet! 
based on the writings of Virginia Woolf
directed by Anne Bogart
adapted by Jocelyn Clark
starring Ellen Lauren

Harvested from a lifetime of Virginia Woolf's writing, Room traces the movement of a creative spirit in exquisite crisis, an artist in a pressure cooker of articulation who seeks room to move, room to breathe, and room to imagine. The New York Times calls it “a theatrical representation of the writer's mind, an abstraction painted with theater's animated tools.” And the L.A. Times raves “Ellen Lauren's masterly economy of movement, combined with Anne Bogart's unerring compositional sense, is breathtaking.”
Only 16 Performances!
MARCH 12-27, 2011
Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:00
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 3:00 & 7:30 
Exceptions: Matinee only--no 7:30 show--on Sunday March 13.

Join Anne Bogart & Ellen Lauren for a post-performance discussion on Tuesday, March 22nd & Wednesday, March 23rd. 
Julia Miles Theater
424 West 55th Street, just west of 9th Avenue, New York City

Tickets on Sale 
Call 212.239.6200
Regular Tickets = $60
Premium Tickets = $75 
Groups = $25/ticket for 9+ at 212.765.1706 or "tickets at".

Monday, February 07, 2011

Re-reading, Richardson & Lawrence

At the moment, I’m not reading anything new. Instead, I’m re-reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa for the Dalloway edition and re-reading Women in Love for teaching. Both are such intense experiences.

I read Clarissa in the first weeks of graduate school, in Patricia Spacks’ 18th century novel class. We used to hole up on the big orange blocky chairs at the back of Cross-Campus Library with the huge Penguin edition and read for hours, checking in with each other: “What letter are you on? Are you at volume 4 yet?” I remember the book as a hazing ritual. I didn’t like it or understand it that well. It was a torture to me, though I remember loving—and writing my seminar paper in part on—Anna Howe, Clarissa’s best friend.

Now, reading it a second time (on my Kindle, not on this massive Penguin that gives me flashbacks), I am amazed, again and again, by how sadistic it is. Knowing how brutally it will end, it’s hard to understand the depths of Richardson’s depravity, setting up this appealing, annoying chatty girl for humiliation after humiliation.

But then, it is so amazingly well-written. It’s just incredible how Richardson manages to convey the voices of writer after writer. When Lovelace’s uncle pops in with his tired sermonettes and aphorisms, it’s fantastic comic relief. So the writing—and my own project on Woolf—keeps me going even as I feel more outrage and wonder than ever at how cruel Richardson is. It is an amazing document and I don’t expect to ever read it again in this lifetime.

Women in Love, by contrast, I might read many times more, but reading it, too, brings back such memories. I was working on Lawrence—on the essays he wrote alongside Women in Love—when I fell in love with my husband and so much of that urgent sincerity in Gudrun and Ursula feels like myself to me (for better and for worse, as I’ve often recognized).

I’m off  to Macy’s tomorrow for some purple and orange tights. It’s just not right to teach Lawrence with legs entirely clad in black.

(Janeite Deb is reading Clarissa for the first time at her mostly Janeite blog: worth a click!)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

New Essay Up Elsewhere!

I wrote an essay about my Yankee grandmother and her love of Virginia Woolf. It's been published by Open Letters Monthly & you can read it there, if you like.