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An Outstanding Collection, A Remarkable Woman

By Trinity Peacock-Broyles

Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest writers of 20th-century literature, wrote in a 1921 letter to a friend that she wanted all women to learn to write. Those sentiments inspired Frances Hooper ’14 to give her collection of Woolf manuscripts and correspondence to the college in 1986, in the hope that Smith students could improve their writing techniques by studying the documents. So began the outstanding collection that turned the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith into a primary research site for Woolf’s original letters and manuscripts as well as illustrations and rare copies of her work.

Smith students pursue many of the issues that Woolf tangled with her entire life: women’s education, class and money, feminism, pacifism and family life. Woolf would probably be pleased to know that many Smith students enhance their education by using the original materials that she labored over.

When they look at original drafts of Woolf’s essays and books, Smith students have a unique opportunity to see how her revisions shaped what thousands of readers have enjoyed. Because of Hooper (and the gifts and bequests of such alumnae as Bloomsbury scholar Elizabeth Power Richardson ’43 and noted bibliophile Ann Safford Mandel ’53), Smith now has significant and unique collections of materials from Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group -- a collective of writers, artists and intellectuals who lived in the Bloomsbury district of London in the early 20th century.

As Karen Kukil, associate curator of Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room writes in a recent essay (Smith College News from the Libraries, spring 2002), “Most academic institutions have special collections, but few integrate them into the curriculum as successfully as Smith.” Although many of the Woolf documents have been published, much more can be learned from being able to hold the actual manuscripts in your hand.

For example, at a recent conference on Woolf, scholars wondered about what implements Woolf used. Kukil was able to report that Woolf did indeed use pencil, because Smith owns two of Woolf’s letters written in pencil. She could also discuss the kinds of paper that Woolf experimented with. Working with these primary documents, Kukil says, “is one of the great advantages of being at Smith.”

Smith students, writes Kukil, “learn to appreciate the value of revision after examining two of the 15 known drafts of Woolf’s short story ‘The Searchlight.’ They also trace the first draft of her essay ‘The Patron and the Crocus’ through its various printed incarnations in The Nation and The Common Reader. The one substantive revision in the proofs for this essay states that ‘a writer has no gender.’ This emendation by Woolf...always sparks spirited discussion, especially in women’s studies classes. In addition to the annotated page proofs of Woolf’s first collection of essays, The Common Reader, the Hooper collection includes proofs of Orlando. This fictional biography of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, is often the focus of gender studies research, since the main character changes sex several times in the narrative.”

By studying some of the 140 letters written between Woolf and writer Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, Smith students learn about the power of correspondence and effective editing. As Kukil points out, “Even though a selection of the 140 letters [...] was published by the Hogarth Press in 1956, students discover new information when they examine the originals.”

Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts and correspondence are not the only unique aspects of the Woolf and Bloomsbury collections. Woolf scholar Stephanie Schoen ’91, also associate director of stewardship in Smith’s advancement office, says a highlight of the Bloomsbury Iconography Collection is the photograph album compiled by Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen; it was bequeathed to the Rare Book Room in 1985 by alumnae Elizabeth Richardson and Phyllis Cooley Paige ’80. Kukil says the album was “compiled in 1895 to mourn the death of his wife [and] includes early pictures of his youngest daughter, Virginia Woolf.” The album is labeled in Leslie Stephen’s handwriting. Kukil writes, “The Stephen family album along with annotated page proofs of To the Lighthouse (Woolf’s novel about her parents) are often used in history and comparative literature courses to examine everything from Victorian mourning to sexual politics.”

For interested art history students, the Smith College Museum of Art houses original paintings by Bloomsbury artists, particularly those of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. In addition to paintings and drawings by the Bloomsbury Group, Smith owns a number of their original illustrations and designs, many of them commissioned by Woolf for her book covers. Altogether, the Woolf and Bloomsbury collections offer a unique perspective on a fascinating writer and her connection to a prolific group of authors and artists.

Virginia Woolf Scholars to Gather

Casual readers and scholars alike will gather at Smith College for the Thirteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf: “Woolf in the Real World” from June 5 to 8.

Since a significant collection of Woolf’s work is housed in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College is a logical location for the 2003 international assembly on Woolf. The collection of Virginia Woolf documents, including drafts of Woolf’s short story “The Searchlight,” proofs of Orlando, annotated page proofs of To the Lighthouse, and a family photo album, provides an extraordinary resource for the conference.

Woolf led a multifaceted life as a writer, journalist, publisher, teacher and feminist. In cooperation with the International Virginia Woolf Society, the conference will concentrate on these “real world” aspects of Woolf’s life. As Karen Kukil, associate curator of Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, says, “The point of the conference is that Woolf is still influencing the real world.”

Woolf conference steering committee member Stephanie Schoen ’91 states, “The conference is a way to bring attention to the Woolf and Bloomsbury collections at Smith, which are truly unique.” Woolf and Bloomsbury materials from the Mortimer Rare Book Room and the Sophia Smith Collection will be on display at the conference. The Botanic Garden will also present an exhibit on the gardens of Virginia Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury group. More than three hundred international scholars are expected to attend. In addition to highlighting the Woolf collection, the conference will feature special panels addressing such topics as Bloomsbury iconography in photographs and film; the material reality of book arts, printing and publishing; Woolf’s influence on Sylvia Plath; and electronic and primary resources for research and teaching.

Among the many renowned plenary speakers on the program are Smith College President Carol T. Christ and former president Jill Ker Conway. More information can be found at www.smith.edu/woolfconference.


 

 
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