‘Such Friends’:  Dallowday, Blogging Woolf, and me

I said I would buy the lunch myself.

As I recommend to all my visiting American friends, time your train trip so you can take along some lunch from M&S Simply Food, ubiquitous in train stations here. My preference is carrot sticks with reduced fat humous and salmon pasta salad. Yum.

So I stocked up and took off for London a few Saturdays ago to take part in my first ‘Dallowday,’ commemorating the day on which Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is set. The Irish all over the world have been celebrating ‘Bloomsday’ based on James Joyce’s Ulysses for over 50 years. Now it’s Virginia’s turn.

mrs dalloway original cover

Original cover of Mrs. Dalloway, designed by Vanessa Bell

The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain has sponsored this day, which includes a walk through some of the novel’s settings, a discussion of the book, and a 1920s party at the Bloomsbury Waterstones. I signed up for the whole package.

On one of the hottest days of the year, I took the train from Birmingham New Street to Euston station, and then the Underground to the appointed meeting place, outside the Regent’s Park Tube.

Waiting for the Underground lift, literally a breath of fresh air came wafting through. The woman next to me, about my age, said, ‘Oh! That feels great. It’s so hot.’ I nodded in agreement.

Watching her walk up the stairs in front of me, I realized she was wearing a blue flower print dress and lovely straw hat. Aha. Another Dallowday participant, I surmised.

As we reached the street at the top, we both laughed. Standing just a few feet away was a gaggle of Dallowday fans. About 20 women ‘of a certain age’ in flowered dresses or skirts, straw hats—they all looked just like me! No trouble finding this group.

The walk was led by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who obviously was a lot more familiar with the book and Virginia than I am, having read it years ago as part of my research. I actually have much more vivid memories of the Vanessa Redgrave film, which I’ve used in my presentations.

Jean was dressed in the full Dalloway, including a vintage dress and hat, complemented by darling low-heeled black shoes with straps. Very 1920s. She’d obviously done this many times before.

Jean pointed out that there is debate as to when Dallowday actually is. Whereas Joyce clearly set Ulysses on 16th June, 1904, the day of his first date with his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle, Woolf ‘s novel says ‘mid-June.’ However, by lining up events in the book with cricket games and the Ascot races, most scholars have settled on June 20th. But—this year, it’s Saturday, 17th June. So more of us can come.

The unusually warm weather—it’s actually been hot; Miami hot, not just England hot—didn’t slow us down a bit. After a stop in Regent’s Park, Jeanne walked us over to Fitzroy Square, where Virginia lived from 1907 until 1911 with her brother Adrian. Their sister Vanessa had married art critic Clive Bell and kicked the siblings out when the newlyweds took over the Gordon Square house, where we headed next.

My own Bloomsbury walk actually takes the reverse route, starting in Gordon Square and then over to Fitzroy Square.

Here’s me pointing out the house at #29 where Virginia lived:

29 Fitzroy Square and me

At Waterstone’s, we sat in a circle, sipping refreshing flavoured ice water. Jean and Maggie Humm of the Woolf Society led us through an interesting discussion of the book. My research was on the relationships among the creative people in the Bloomsbury group, but wasn’t focused on their works—books, paintings, etc. This discussion brought new insights about the connections for me to incorporate into my future presentations.

And I learned that there is a website that maps all the walks of the characters in the book—Clarissa, Peter, Septimus and Rezia—showing how they interconnect.

For the 1920s party, I was planning to switch to Dorothy Parker mode, and so had tucked my red feather boa into my travel bag. But not many others were quite so dedicated to the flapper look, so I decided to stay in Bloomsbury garb.

Just this past week, I had another tax-deductible reason to go to London. Paula Maggio, better known to many of you as ‘Blogging Woolf’ was visiting from the States to attend the 27th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf. We made plans to meet up and she wanted to try the Dalloway Terrace at the Bloomsbury Hotel. We had a fabulous lunch of pasta and prosecco, treated ourselves to dessert, and took a peek at the 1920s-style Bloomsbury Club downstairs.

Dalloway Terrace at Bloomsbury Hotel

Dalloway Terrace at the Bloomsbury Hotel, photo by Paula Maggio

Paula had also heard about a life-size statue of Virginia at Kings College, where Woolf had studied classics in her early days. A bit of Googling and walking led us to the Woolf Building. A sign said it was locked due to increased security, but when the guard saw our noses pressed against the glass, he let us in.

There she was, encased behind plexiglass, big as life, holding a copy of A Room of One’s Own, in a wardrobe that was, as Paula said,

a closet of her own.’

Surrounded by large quotes from Virginia’s works, and photos of her, it makes a fitting entrance for the College’s School of English.

Virginia Woolf statue Kings College

Virginia Woolf statue, Kings College, photo by Paula Maggio

I would definitely add both of these places—Dalloway Terrace and the Kings College statue—to my Bloomsbury walk. Here’s a review of the restaurant by one of last year’s conference participants..

Heading back towards Euston station, Paula and I stopped by Woburn Walk, where the poet William Butler Yeats lived at the same time that Virginia and her siblings were moving into Gordon Square, just a few blocks away.

These intersections of time, place and characters are what interest me most. I can picture an aerial view of north London in 1907, as the Irish poet walks past the Stephens sisters, on their way over to enjoy a stroll through Regent’s Park.

Might make an interesting structure for a biography. Watch this space.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

To read about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

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‘Such Friends’: Woolf Works

When the Royal Ballet premiered Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works last year, I left it too late, and by the time I tried to book it was sold out. Bummer.

So when it came around again, I was determined to get in early. Got tickets for the first matinee, first day. Off to London.

Having never been to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, I allowed plenty of time to get there. And it’s a good thing because the refurbishment construction leads to signs and arrows pointing you to the main entrance, outside Covent Garden.

Once I found it, the search for lunch began. It’s usually best to head away from the theatre, but right next door was a lovely French-looking restaurant, La Ballerina, with a set price menu that included salmon. Sold.

Lunch doesn’t usually start until 1 pm over here, so when I poked my head in ten minutes before noon, I had the place all to myself. But the closer it got to show time, the more it filled up.

After a lovely light but filling lunch, I joined the queue to find my way to my seats up in peanut heaven. Thank God there was a lift.

Part of the attraction of this trip was a chance to see the Royal Opera House for the first time. I can report that it looks exactly like a very royal opera house. More surprisingly, my cheap seats turned out to be relatively comfortable, and gave a clear view of the ornate ceiling, the filled seats and, most important, the stage.

royal-opera-house

The Royal Opera House from the other side

Although about half the audience was the usual stale, pale and female arts matinee crowd—including me—I was thrilled to see so many who didn’t fit any of those demographics. On either side of me were Asian university-age students. A quick scan of the house showed a younger average-age crowd than I had expected. Was the attraction Virginia Woolf’s works? Or the original score by Max Richter? Or was this the usual Royal Ballet Saturday afternoon audience?

Although everywhere I had been on this London weekend was freezing cold, inside and out, here, settling in for a three-hour ballet with two long intervals, the theatre was a bit warm. And you who know me know, I’m never too warm.

The first piece—I Now, I Then—was based on Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, one of my favorites. As in the novel and film The Hours, Clarissa and Virginia were merged into one. The movement between the younger and older versions of Virginia in print dresses and her husband Leonard in tweedy suits visually echoed the novel.

leonard-and-va-woolf-works

I now, I then, Act One of Woolf Works

During the 30-minute interval—intermission to my fellow Americans—I tried to read the detailed program [£7; you can order ahead with your tickets]. Was the tiny type another way to attract a younger audience? Because anyone over 40 wouldn’t be able to read that in any light.

The middle piece—Becomings—based on Orlando, Virginia’s 1928 tribute to her lover, Vita Sackville West, started off quite darkly. And stayed that way. I could see the dancers who were downstage in spotlight, but there were others back in the shadows. Not waiting to come on dancing, but dancing. Why, if we can’t see them? This was contrasted with the amazing laser effect at the very end. Could have spread that illumination out a bit more, if you ask me.

Between the warmth and the darkness, I could feel my eyelids doing that dip they do when you’ve been driving too long. The second interval allows 30 minutes to get up and walk around. A chance to see the building and have a shot of that standard British theatre-accompaniment, a yummy, tiny tub of ice cream.

Back in our seats a half hour later, the young ones around me were pulling up reviews of the ballet on their phones. Thank God they haven’t been looking at them during the show.

The final section—Tuesday—based on The Waves, opens with a huge video mural across the length of the stage of…waves. It’s quite effective, but the waves seem to stop waving after the first few minutes.

the-waves-woolf-works-dance-009

Tuesday, Act Three of Woolf Works

In this piece, the dancers are much better lit. And the voice of Gillian Anderson gives an emotional reading of Woolf’s last writing, the note she left behind for Leonard before walking into the River Ouse in Sussex:

…You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came…’

But if you are that happy, why take your own life? Why? I’m sure Leonard asked the universe this same question when he read that note. Now we can understand this as an indication of how mental illness is indeed a ‘terrible disease.’

As the dance ends, the audience bursts into applause. Unlike the earlier pieces, the finale includes bows from all involved. First the young kids. Bow. Then the members of the company. Bow. Then the principals. Bow some more. Then everybody! More bowing. More clapping. A bit more bowing. Did we forget anyone? More bowing.

Done.

A lovely afternoon in a beautiful theatre, with enthusiastic companions, and beautiful art.

Woolf Works is going to be broadcast to theatres in the UK later this month. But I highly recommend taking in real, live, theatre.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

woolf-works-poster

Woolf Works poster