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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1046-1048

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Book Review

Virginia Woolf Icon

Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe

Brenda R. Silver.Virginia Woolf Icon. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. 353 pp.

There was a time, not too long ago, when any scholar working on Shakespeare had to have a ready answer to the question "Did Shakespeare really write all those plays, or was it Francis Bacon?" Like Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf has captured the imagination of academics, intellectuals-at-large, and common readers. And, like those stubborn questions common readers ask about Francis Bacon, the questions that excite readers outside university walls tend to be very different from those that excite academics. So, Woolf scholars tend to stutter when asked the inevitable "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

As the source of much popular "knowledge" of Woolf, Edward Albee's 1962 play has infuriatingly too little--and too much--to do with Woolf, as Brenda Silver demonstrates. Virginia Woolf Icon takes the different versions of Woolf as its subject. In doing so, the book offers a comprehensive chronology of Virginia Woolf's transformation into an icon. Considering that Woolf was only firmly admitted onto elite college syllabi a decade ago, this iconicity and Silver's admirable study of its history are noteworthy in themselves.

For Silver, the process began in 1953 (a dozen years after Woolf's suicide) with Leonard Woolf's publication of A Writer's Diary, a selection [End Page 1046] designed to focus attention on the writer's craft (over and indeed nearly to the exclusion of her private life and her feminism). The family's attempt to manage Woolf's image was shattered in 1962 with the first production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nephew Quentin Bell's 1972 biography attempted to restore the "official" image of the genius of Bloomsbury. Popular culture struck back when the first Virginia Woolf T-shirt appeared in 1973, making Woolf's face a declaration of feminist allegiance. But the establishment of Woolf as an icon was not only a tug-of-war between the family and pop culture. From 1983 to around 1990 the New York Review of Books used David Levine's caricatures of Woolf and Shakespeare as subscription bonuses: a version of Woolf signifying intelligence. The NYRB dropped Woolf from its ads at just about the time of Laura Hotchkiss Brown's banner protesting the absence of women writers from Columbia University's Lit. Hum. class, and Woolf's subsequent appearance on the syllabus for that course. Virginia Woolf Icon contributes not only to Woolf scholarship, but also to feminist theory and cultural studies. Silver investigates the anxieties that strong women provoke; she explores the strange, fractured relationship between the academy and the intellectual press; she revisits the debate between postmodernity and authenticity and vividly makes her case for the merits of postmodernism; she explores the cultural prestige of literary allusions, and, most surprisingly (and perhaps most valuably) she carefully and without prejudice examines the transatlantic nuances of Woolf's iconicity.

Conversely, in its attempts to redress "the lack of exchange between the academy and the self-styled 'intellectual' media," Virginia Woolf Icon is only partially successful. Silver scrutinizes what's not in the film version of A Room of One's Own and how few reviewers considered the omission of "what it means to think back through one's mothers or what it means to write as a woman or even what it means to be a woman," thereby watering down the book's feminist point considerably. She also diagnoses what's missing in Sally Potter's flat adaptation of Orlando: "the space for disruption, risk, or change." However smart these arguments are (and they'll be useful to scholars and teachers working with these texts), they do not intervene in the public debate--it's simply too late for that. Popular culture moves at lightning speed and a reasoned consideration of the 1992 movie, while excellent scholarship, won't much affect the reception of the film. [End Page 1047]

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