2016 was a sh*t year for many reasons. But one brilliantly shining light was the lainch of the new Woolf Zine. Editor Séan Richardson is a first year PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, working on queer writers and Modernism, and he runs the Modernist Podcast. His love for Virginia Woolf led to the desire to create a new zine that explores the lady, her writing and her life from academic, popular and non-traditional angles. In Issue 1, the ‘ramblings, responses and ruminations on Virginia Woolf’ are literary, artistic, visual and varied. There’s Charlie Wayne’s computer generated image project, Erica Waters, Harriet Rose Heath and Lucy Dunn look at literary tattoos, Alice Lowe remembers her pilgrimage to Monk’s House, Drema Drudge writes a short story, Sarah Cavar considers how Mrs Dalloway disrupted literary expectations, I share a book review, and it’s all beautifully illustrated by Phyllida Jacobs.
But why, in a paperless postmodern world would not only someone decide to create something as archaic as a zine, but would so many people get involved?
I decided to find out, and Séan was gracious enough to indulge my curiosity and let me know…
Why did you decide to create the zine?
Simply? A real love of Woolf, that has continued from my teenage years.
There is so much admiration for Virginia in the air, she’s like an electric current that crackles through academic dialogue and cuts into the bedrooms of moody teenagers with equal fervour. She’s an impasse, a connection, an inspiration. I wanted to bridge that gap, to make scholarship more accessible for everyone and to platform those who don’t have access to journals or conferences, their words are just as important. I wanted a big, exciting, fresh discussion of Woolf, that helps us think about her in different shades, as well as reminds us of the original colours which stamped her so deeply in our memories.
What has the response been like? Is it varied and a large community?
The response has been heart-warming. In just over a month the zine is fast approaching 1,000 followers on Twitter, and has a healthy readership. The community is rich in texture, lots of Modernists; some of my own personal academic icons have spoken about it, which has left me a little struck for words. Apart from that, it has brought the Woolfians out of the woodwork from all over the globe. Younger critics, older story tellers. The discussion is really open, and I am particularly proud of some of the non-traditional responses: the art, the reviews, the poetry.
What is your personal fascination with Woolf?
Woolf writes beautifully, first and foremost. Her work makes the everyday a spiritual experience, and I find that taps into how I think somehow – the way she sees the world as fragmented, broken, up for revision and interpretation. I also find Woolf’s politics interesting, and drew a lot of strength from her words as a teenager. Being queer and young is strange, because adults don’t often talk about gay people to children. Reading about intimacy between her characters helped me touch a history that was hidden from me, made me feel like part of something bigger. If Chloe likes Olivia, that is one thing. If you are given the opportunity find out, it’s quite another.
When did it begin and why?
Around 15. I was a very awkward teenager, as you might be able to tell. My English teacher, Mr Simpson, encouraged my love of reading and brought my attention to Woolf (for which I am very grateful). From there I found Ezra Pound, Mina Loy and H.D. – I was hooked, and now I’m working on a PhD in Modernist studies.
As you note in your introductory letter in the first issue, it’s been over a century since the first novel, The Voyage Out was published. Why do you think Virginia Woolf continues to resonate?
Perhaps people will discourage me from saying this, but I don’t think there has been an English language writer as important to our literary cultural heritage as Shakespeare apart from Woolf. She is an institution. Multiple, difficult, readable, slippery, gifted. She tore at the fabric of writing and put it together in this ridiculously beautiful tapestry. We work and rework her constantly. This is especially interesting, considering her relatively early death. She wrote scored and scores, it’s almost unfathomable. Apart from this weight, her command of words is incredible, she writes in a way people can engage with, it’s aesthetic and meaty, a stellar rendering of some of our hardest feelings, she sets the complex in amber.
Does she speak to wider society, or is her role more for creative people, or those feeling marginalised in someway, such as due to mental health or gender?
Woolf is there to be read, if you like her. There is no point in making someone an untouchable idol, she has a lot of issues: tensions of classism, antisemitism, and so forth. But there is something compelling about her work, and we must take the golden nuggets of truth where they fall, to lean on a reference. I grew up working class and relished her books, so I don’t think she is posturing in an inaccessible way, only open to academics or creatives.
Gender-wise, we must remain pithy. There are some amazing truths in Woolf that still ring clear, but society has moved and many of her lessons need to be expanded to include women she herself could marginalise: working class women, black women, Jewish women. If we see her as part of a longer, developing discussion however, she remains vital and useful. Read her with contemporaries such as Sojourner Truth and Nella Larsen, as well as with more modern writers like Judith Butler and bell hooks. Feminism challenges itself to be better all the time, Woolf did that in the early 20th century as she is challenged now.
I usually avoid a discussion of Woolf’s mental health problems too much. I don’t like to romanticise the death of people who are mentally unwell, especially considering the allegations of sexual abuse. I do think people can gain strength from her writing though. Reading about Septimus Smith helped me think about my own mental health at a young age, and he is a character I draw on whenever I feel at a loss even now. And, it was inspiring that a woman who struggled and faltered could still produce this amazing work, she pushed through and persevered.
What’s your favourite novel?
Of all time, D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. If you haven’t read it, do. People think it’s mawkish, but I think it’s brilliant. Of Woolf’s, To The Lighthouse. I have the parenthesis from the line about Mrs Ramsay’s passing tattooed on my hip, it’s haunting in some ways, but it really reminds me to focus on what is important, especially little things, which I tend to forget about. Everything passes, so we have to enjoy it while we can.
Read the zine here, and look out for the second issue, Woolf and Others, in February. And ponder your submissions for Issue 3, Woolf and Politics.