Virginia Woolf, the academic

Thursday 10 February 2011

Contrary to the popular belief that she was largely uneducated, Virginia Woolf studied a range of academic subjects at degree level, according to new research.

'Vanessa' and 'Virginia' (played by Sarah Fullager and Kitty Randle) during rehearsals at The Byre.

‘Vanessa’ and ‘Virginia’ (played by Sarah Fullager and Kitty Randle) during rehearsals at The Byre.

In a decade-long study of the renowned English modernist writer, a University of St Andrews academic and her team of editors have made a range of exciting discoveries. These have led Professor Susan Sellers to put forward a new slant on Virginia Woolf and her intensely passionate relationship with her artist sister, Vanessa Bell.

The remarkable story of the two rival sisters will come to life this weekend (Friday 11-Saturday 12 February 2011) with the Scottish premiere of a play based on Professor Sellers’ work.

The play, taken from Professor Sellers’ novel Vanessa and Virginia, is a partly fictional account informed by years of painstaking research. The novel has won an Arts Council Award and is being translated into a dozen languages. Sellers’ recreation of Woolf’s life sheds new light on the most famous member of the infamous Bloomsbury Set and author of works such as Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. It appears in the year that marks the 70th anniversary of the death of the author, who drowned, aged 59, in 1941.

Professor Sellers, Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews, commented, “Thanks to funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, my co-editor, Dr Jane Goldman, Reader in English Literature at the University of Glasgow, and I have been able to dedicate time and resources to thoroughly research Woolf, her work and her entourage.

“For the last ten years, I have been puzzling over many questions about Woolf’s life and work. For example, why did Woolf drown herself in 1941 when she was almost sixty? She had after all successfully survived other bouts of illness and difficulty in her life.

“We have looked more closely at Woolf’s work as a publisher – she was responsible for publishing many important writers such as Katherine Mansfield, TS Eliot, and the first English translation of Sigmund Freud. She was also passionately interested in politics.

“We also discovered through the work of one of our team that Virginia Woolf attended university, studying degree level courses in a variety of subjects including German, history, and the classics. So we have finally laid to rest the myth that Woolf was formally uneducated!”

The play Vanessa and Virginia (based on Professor Sellers’ book of the same name), is the theatrical debut of fellow Woolf scholar and St Andrews’ graduate Dr Elizabeth Wright, now Senior Lecturer in English and European Literature at Bath Spa University. It comes to The Byre Theatre in St Andrews following critically acclaimed performances throughout Europe.

Central to Professor Sellers’ novel and the resulting play is the intensely passionate, devoted and rivalrous relationship that existed between Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell.

Speaking ahead of the play’s opening, she commented, “My novel addresses questions and gaps in the historical record such as Vanessa’s extraordinary hand in Virginia and Leonard’s sexless marriage.

“And why did Vanessa, commonly regarded as the more beautiful of the two sisters, and whose art suggests great sensuality, fall irrevocably in love with a man who could never return her feelings – the homosexual painter Duncan Grant?”

The play also coincides with the launch of the Cambridge Virginia Woolf edition, a project that Professor Sellers, Dr Goldman and their team have been working on for nearly a decade.

The two performances of Vanessa and Virginia will take place at the Byre Theatre on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th February. The play starts at 7.30, and tickets cost £15 / £13 / £8. Both performances will be preceded by a book signing with Professor Sellers, and followed by a Q&A with the novelist, playwright and cast of the play.

On Saturday 12 February, the University’s School of English will host a one-day symposium, Virginia Woolf in the 21st Century, which will include talks by the novelist and director, a workshop with the actors, and a playwriting workshop. This will be held in The Lawson Room in Kennedy Hall, The Scores, St Andrews, from 10.30am – 4.45pm. Admission to this symposium is free and open to all.


Note to Editors

Professor Susan Sellers is available for interview: email [email protected], tel 01334 462666 or 07932 680961.

A clip from the play, featuring Jeremy Thurlow’s original music, can be viewed here:

For more information on the original novel, Vanessa and Virginia, visit:

Vanessa and Virginia – Byre poster (PDF, 399 KB)

Category Research

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