- Figuring Woolf
Pity they can't see themselves. . . . Mutoscope pictures in Capel Street: for men only. Peeping Tom.—James Joyce, Ulysses 13: 792-794
I. Mutoscope Pictures
"To be happy see what every married woman must not avoid" urges the sign on the mutoscope displayed in the "mechanical museum" downstairs at the San Francisco restaurant, Cliff House. The mutoscope was all the rage at the turn of the century, although, as Leopold Bloom reflects in the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses, its history was part of the larger history of the specularization of women. Using pictures taken by a mutograph, the mutoscope, invented in 1895 by W. K. L. Dickson, is a viewing machine,
manufactured by the American Mutoscope Company, beginning in 1895, which created the illusion of movement by employing the "flicker book" principle. The apparatus contained a series of continuous photographs arranged on a horizontal axis. When a customer dropped a coin into a slot, he was able to operate a hand crank, leafing rapidly through the pictures to create the illusion of movement. [End Page 1] Mutoscope Parlors sprang up all over America in the late 1890s. For many years the machines remained in operation in peep show galleries and some are still around in the older establishments.
Objects in this particular mutoscope that every married woman must not avoid and that can be viewed for a dime are piles of laundry and ironing growing ever larger. Thus the objects of household drudgery comically deflate—even as they themselves swell—the aroused expectations of the viewer, coded as male. The oval photograph on the sign, placed between "Married Woman" and "Must Not Avoid" and encircled by aqua clouds that repeat the color of the mutoscope frame, is the famous 1902 G. C. Beresford photograph of twenty-year old Virginia Stephen.
What is the "beautiful daughter of the beautiful Julia Jackson Duckworth Stephen" (to quote Brenda Silver) doing on a mutoscope that well may have resided in a less than respectable abode before landing in a mechanical museum in the basement of a San Francisco restaurant? Why does her photograph grace an advertisement imploring us to "See What Every Married Woman Must Not Avoid" in order "TO BE HAPPY"? And why does an upper-middle class Virginia Stephen preside over ever swelling loads of laundry?
Of course the photograph could have been placed on the mutoscope sign at any time during the ninety-year span between 1902 and 1992. Indeed, its provenance on the sign probably owes more to the status of Virginia Woolf as camp cultural icon than it does to her status as sexual object, even if Sammy, in Hanif Kureishi's 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, does answer his wife's query about who he'd rather sleep with, George Eliot or Virginia Woolf: "On looks alone, I'd go for Virginia." Rosie's question may well play off the 1980s advertisement picturing both Shakespeare and Woolf in the New York Review of Books that exhorts readers: "Here is your chance to sport your literary preferences." But a male sporting a sexual preference for Woolf, going for Virginia on her looks alone, may not solicit quite the desired response from her: surely the joke of her photograph on a mutoscope that promises a peep show of what every married woman must not avoid in order to be happy is Virginia Woolf's "frigidity." Read from a heterosexual perspective, Woolf is found wanting in the sexual department. But as Sammy is well aware, looks alone are what a male heterosexual can fetishize in a lesbian Virginia Woolf.1 The photograph of Woolf that figures so prominently in Sammy [End Page 2] and Rosie Get Laid, taken by Lenare in 1929 at Vita Sackville-West's request, also figures prominently in photographs of her lover's own writing desk at Sissinghurst Castle.
An earlier contest, in a 1937 cover article in Time magazine, pits Woolf against Margaret Mitchell and advises that for literary brokers Woolf is the preferred option for a long-term investment in the literary stock market. In the excellent article that opens this special issue, "What's...