Arriving home today after four days at the 2012 Woolf conference was disorienting. This was only partly because Veronica and I drove for about an hour through heavy rain, and then came up on a slightly higher plane and a sudden shift to playful cumulus clouds who let sunshine fall through in shards and fragments. Still, when I arrived home it was in sudden mid-afternoon darkness, coming into my unfamiliar kitchen whose shape has changed almost daily and whose periwinkle blue walls are less than a week old. Home? This was home? I asked of the unfamiliar dark. The hungry cats didn't answer.
The Woolf conference itself and the Saskatoon weather must bear some responsibility for my disorientation; it wasn't simply the weather and an identity crisis caused by months of renovations. Those of us at the conference lived in the heady world of ideas, only to walk along the river back to our impersonal rooms in glorious sunshine or through grey curtains of rain, not knowing when we felt most substantial: when we were immersed in ideas or when our wet feet reminded us of our bodies. What can I tell you of the conference? First, that anything I say will be partial and incomplete. There were 42 sessions, most of these with three papers each, and five plenaries, as well as evening events. Sometimes I took notes; other times, I simply took in ideas in great draughts, luxuriating in the clearly-articulated path the reader/writer had taken. But I could say several things without feeling they were dishonest.
During the opening plenary on interdisciplinarity, Mark Hussey rightly pointed out that Woolf herself had no boundaries: she read everything, and that enormous mental library makes her work one of the richest, most complex nodes in the modernest web (to borrow a metaphor from her). There isn't anything an examination of her work won't illuminate: ethics, history, the reading of newspapers, weather, the human relationship to the environment in the early twentieth-century, the visual arts, her scientific contemporaries, human subjectivity. In that respect, this conference topic gave us particularly fertile ground to explore.
The papers I heard--written by graduate students and emerita professors--were all wonderful. So I can tell you that there is an up-and-comiong generation of young Woolf scholars who give Woolf the close readings she deserves, and pay careful, inventive attention to context. One young scholar, Sarah Dunlop, in an essay titled "Ecological Thinking in Mrs Dalloway" examined the ways Woolf critiqued outmonded scientific practices of her time. Sarah productively looked at the role of Miss Parry, who has written a book on the orchid, and noted that Clarissa's aunt is losely based on Mary Ann North, whose autobiographical Recollections of a Happy Life Woolf had read. But where Miss Parry dug orchids up to bring back, Mary Ann North drew them in situ, which implicates Miss Parry (like many of Woolf's characters) in the colonial project. Marlene Briggs from UBC looked at the motif of shoes in To the Lighthouse and connected it to a wider practice of using shoes as emblems of trauma that runs from Van Gogh to Holocaust Museums: Woolf provided a place from which we could move outward--which she would have loved. Eleanor McNees looked carefully at the way characters in The Years read newspapers. By finding the original headlines and articles, Eleanor could see how thoroughly Woolf filtered the news through character.Woolf's readers don't simply get gobbets of information to place us historically; rather we get the individual's reaction to historical events. Lesley Hankins put Lily's aesthetics side by side with snatches from Emily Carr's diaries to give us a portrait of the young modernist artist as she tries to understand her own practice. I have given these thinkers their names not particularly to draw attention to them, but because these ideas belong to real people--something I have to respect, even in a blog. That doesn't mean that there aren't dozens of unnamed people whose work has excited and inspired me. So the second thing I can say truly about the Woolf conference is that remarkable work is being done.
The third thing that was almost universally true was that papers and panels and plenary speakers were given the full support of their audience and had the value of their work described. "Thank you for that wonderful....." was often the beginning of a question or a comment. Which I think is the best way of keeping the fine work coming. This was the first Woolf Conference in Canada, and Ann Martin and her cohort of volunteers--which included quite a number of cheerful and helpful students--are to be congratulated for their fine job. Next year in Vancouver at Simon Fraser!