A week with Virginia Woolf

I spent last week in Cambridge, where I stayed in a charming room in Newnham College. Not only did I have a room of my own, but I co-hosted two events for the Festival of Ideas, which are described in the previous post. I rode my Vespa, right through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, where I may have developed black lung from petrol fumes, through London, up through Bishop’s Stortford, past Audley End House (haha, ‘house,’ right,) which nearly made me fall off the scooter it was so gorgeous, and to Cambridge.

The Discussion Panel went very well indeed: about 23 people attended, and the evening was covered by Kat Austen for New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog. We recieved support from the Arts Council England which helped us hold the event. I’m very grateful for the support of Anglia Ruskin University, the Arts Council, and the Whipple Museum – and especially for the hard work and organization of Laura Dietz, my co-organizer. Many thanks to everyone who participated on the panel, and to those in the audience who contributed their thoughts and challenges.

Newnham College is one of the women’s colleges where Virgina Woolf gave her famous series of lectures resulting in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own,‘ so I was especially delighted to be accommodated there for the week of science-and-literature events. The college is made up of a series of red brick buildings linked with long window-lit halls, reminiscent of my alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. I felt I’d come home. The bannisters and stairwells were polished wood; parquet floors squeaked comfortingly and dry heat blasted from every radiator. Walking repeatedly through what ‘has now become the longest continuous indoor corridor in Europe’ (according to Basil Champeney’s design and Wikipedia’s reporting,) I looked out across the lawns in the mornings to watch lacework mist rise off the landscape and slowly unravel in the rising sun.

Nick identifying a fungus for us. Photo: Caitlin Wylie.

The Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, of which the Whipple Museum is part, holds an annual Fungus Hunt in the autumn. This is an historic outing led by Nick Jardine, fungus expert extraordinaire. It had been an uncommonly dry few weeks, so fungi were few and far between, but the group (30, 40 people) managed to find a few. I was chuffed to finally make it to the hunt – going on 3 years as the Whipple’s Writer-in-Residence, this is the first time I’ve made it!

I’ll use Nick’s words on reporting the afternoon, as they (and he) are emblematic of the Department’s style:

Dear Annual Fungus Hunters and others,
Despite the sad dearth of fungi, we had a most enjoyable expedition thanks to David and Allison’s provision of learned guidance round the splendid gardens, designed by Humphry Repton, and tea…

In fact there were some fungi. Lots of earthballs (Scleroderma), a few Stalked Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme), some rotten Wood Woolly Foot, Buttercap and Toughshank (species of Collybia) and Brittlegills (species of Russula). More interestingly, on an old cow pat Allison found the pretty little reddish-orange Coprobia granulata and on old grass stems Ramona Braun and A.N.Other found, respectively, the tiny Goblet Parachute (Marasmiellus vaillantii) and yet smaller Ivory Bonnet (Mycena flavoalba).

What we want now is some serious rain and no frosts, then there will be a real fungus season.

Other events during my stay in Cambridge included dining with Elsa Streitman, an absolutely delightful lady whom I met at the Whipple when Lesley Saunders came to read her poetry. Elsa is Vice President of Murray Edwards College, where Lesley completed one of her poetry projects, and Elsa has been kind enough to introduce me to the college’s wonderful New Hall Art Collection. I met Sarah Greaves, who looks after the collection and runs the temporary exhibitions: right now she’s compiled the most amazing series of film clips by female filmmakers called ‘Mirror/Lens’. Lunch included a fabulously inspiring discussion with two of the college’s (male, I find it relevant to add,) post-doctoral Research Fellows about The Gothic, wax models, Frankenstein, the trope in literature & art of turning women into furniture, and related ideas of constraint and bondage. Only in Cambridge?

On Friday, I walked to Grantchester with friends Caitlin Wylie & Richard Barnett: all of us were either recovering from colds or coming down with one, but it was a clear, muddy day, and no doubt the fresh air did us good. We walked to The Orchard for – what else? – scones and tea. On the way, we passed a flat along a pretty, tidy street where Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath lived for a time.

A dramatic sky at Knole.

The tiny village of Grantchester is famous as the haunt of Rupert Brooke – a booklet from The Orchard tea rooms announces: He had moved out of Cambridge, hoping to escape his hectic social life there, but in vain. The charismatic young Brooke drew a constant stream of visitors, and eventually became the centre of a circle of friends, later dubbed by Virginia Woolf the ‘Neo-Pagans.’

I daresay the charismatic young Brooke enjoyed being the centre of attention, and had he truly wanted to escape the social milieu, he would have gone further afield than Grantchester…

‘The Grantchester Group’ is listed as including E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John, Maynard Keynes, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

On our walk back to Cambridge I confirmed an edit and the final line (over the phone; not very pastoral,) of my first review of a play. I reviewed ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ for New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog. You can read the review here.

I also found out that a review I’d written for the Journal of Literature and Science had been published. I reviewed the article ‘The Comedy of Nature: Darwinian Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts.’ You can read the review here: scroll down to ‘Article Reviews’ and click to open the PDF.

I rode my Vespa back to London, and, to continue the Virginia Woolf – themed week, I visited Knole in Kent the following day.

2 thoughts on “A week with Virginia Woolf

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