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Monica Latham, Caroline Marie and Anne-Laure Rigeade, eds., Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature

Olivier Hercend
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Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature, Monica Latham, Caroline Marie and Anne-Laure Rigeade, eds., New York: Routledge, coll. Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory, 2021 (294 p.), ISBN 9780367701147

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1The centennial of the modernist annus mirabilis of 1922, coupled with the tail-end of the Covid pandemic, have made 2022 a year of celebrations among modernist scholars. Homages, reappraisals, rediscoveries and other sums have abounded, recontextualising yet also by their very nature confirming the central place of the canon in modernist studies. In this broader movement, Monica Latham, Caroline Marie and Anne-Laure Rigeade’s Recycling Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature takes a very original stance. As a scholarly gesture, recycling certainly is not the most expected, and perhaps not the most deferential, but the authors and contributors of this compelling sum make the educated guess that Woolf herself would have approved of their creative irreverence. In any case, what they propose is worthy of the full attention of Woolf scholars and anyone looking to understand the resonances of modernism today. Perspectives intertwine, pooling together the scholarly, the pedagogical and the artistic, the highbrow and lowbrow (even perhaps that evil which Woolf so acutely diagnosed, the ‘broad-brow’), the theory and the practice of recycling, to delineate a constellation of active, concrete responses to Woolf’s legacy, which provide a better panorama of her place in contemporary culture than any talk of ‘influence’ or simple ‘intertextuality’ ever could.

2Indeed, the collection’s stated goal is to offer an overview of what Mark Hussey, in his foreword, terms the practices of ‘ingestion, absorption, repurposing’ at the core of contemporary artistic and literary encounters with Woolf. In that sense, recycling is understood primarily as a form of praxis, of creative response, and the introduction states very clearly that eco-criticism in particular is a secondary question in the endeavour. Even in this metaphorical sense, however, the notion of recycling shines a surprising light on Woolf’s work, bringing out what Kabe Wilson, in his interview with Susan Stanford Friedman, calls the ‘smell, unpleasantly healthy’ of compost as a ‘rejection of sterility’ in these canonical texts. It follows in Woolf’s own footsteps by breaking down the statuesque aura of authorship, ‘de-authorizing’ her words and her image, combining them in unexpected ways, sometimes indeed very ‘rich and strange’.

3The first strength of this collection is how it makes its case for Woolf’s own interest in the kinds of practices that the authors encapsulate under the name of recycling. Though she herself never used the word, it is undeniable that Woolf eschewed abstractions and intangibles in favour of the earthly and malleable, the a-temporal in favour of the cyclical. In that sense, the book deals another great blow to the already old-fashioned but enduring idea of Woolf as the frail, upper-class ivory-tower intellectual, who sneered at Joyce’s brutish interest in the body and the soil. Supriya Chaudhuri’s conception of recycling as ‘theory in the mud’ resonates with the worlds of snails and snakes that haunt Woolf’s fiction from ‘Kew Gardens’ to Between the Acts. Ideas of spawning, of the interaction around books being like ‘laying an egg in the reader’s mind’, remit to conceptions such as that of dissemination, and compellingly describe Woolf’s own practices as a reader, taking up and presenting an English literary tradition ‘nurtured by its own part-decomposition into a rich, rank, fertile humus of texts’. Christine Reynier insists on the political and cultural value of such a stance, by exploring the metaphors through which Woolf expresses her ideas of the commons, both as a ‘common ground’ and as a ‘common pool’, and deftly articulates the different relations that this creates to legacies and to knowledge – itself a form of commons. Indeed, while ‘common grounds’ recall the English history of land ownership, of private property and its leftovers, the ‘common pool’ is a place of ‘pooling’ and access, wherein appropriation does not risk taking the form of enclosures, pointing instead towards other visions of commonality.

4As the analogy unfolds, however, a couple of points may appear more debatable. The first concerns the idea that these acts of recycling bring about an ‘upcycling’, that is a change into a better-quality product. However impressive some of the endeavours may be, it is perhaps a little strong to imagine them besting the work that they draw from, which in any case does not seem to be the artists’ idea. More generally, there are few attempts at adopting a critical view towards recycling, in its aims or processes. Let us remember that recycling as an industry, even though it is very necessary, has had its share of problems and inequalities, and partakes in the ills of globalized capitalism. To be fair, some authors provide insights into that complexity, yet it could have been treated more head-on. Deeper insights into the economics of what is in the end a form of ‘business’ of Woolf, both within and outside academic and artistic circles, would have brought a more rounded perspective, on matters like editorial trends in literature, cinematic adaptations, and even tattoo practices (especially in relation to the circulation of images in social media). Indeed, Cristina Carluccio’s chapter on Woolf as an icon in online astrology circles goes so far as to describe its subject matter as ‘a non-economic form of consumerism’, which probably requires qualification, as confirmed even by a cursory glance at the many adverts on the forums and websites quoted or used. A certain sociological analysis of commonality and the different ways in which it is enacted, especially under capitalism, is part and parcel of the reflection on recycling.

5However, it is in its practice of commonality that the book comes together: in the vibrancy of initiatives that it presents, wherein the scholarly, the pedagogical and the creative feed into each other. Far from being a simple analytical or descriptive account of what others do with Woolf, the book itself makes its points and showcases the creativity which it praises. This is evident in Kabe Wilson’s interview with Susan Stanford Friedman. Wilson’s work, Of One Woman or So by Olivia N’Gowfri, and the staged ‘Dreadlock Hoax’ which accompanied it, are sterling examples of recycling as creativity: taking up each and every word of A Room of One’s Own and of the essay ‘Craftsmanship’, as well as the elements of the infamous ‘Dreadnought Hoax’, and rearranging them into new coherent wholes. Although the creation remains a feat in itself, Wilson’s dialogue with Friedman, as well as the subsequent chapter by Valérie Favre, highlight how its relation to Woolf’s words goes far beyond the simple re-use. As Favre remarkably argues, the fact that Woolf’s own name is absent from the text, though she is at the heart of Olivia N’Gowfri’s musings, endows her with a spectral presence, which she would certainly not have disowned. But perhaps even more interesting to the academic reader is Wilson’s vibrant homage to the developments of Woolf scholarship during his own lifetime. Throughout the book, scholarship informs and interacts with creative gestures, analysis and reflection shape imagination. This conjunction underlies Elisa Bolchi and Pascale Sardin’s interpretations of the ways in which contemporary dramatists and choreographs take up Woolf, both as author of a given corpus and centre of a complex web of emotions and cultural legacies. It is at the heart of Monica Latham’s chapter on Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived, a ‘bio-bibliomemoir’ with its specific blend of critical rapport towards the text and process of self-discovery and literary therapy, and it is cogently questioned in Bethany Layne’s analysis of the different layers, of research and at the same time reinventions, that have informed our understanding of one of the most unreachable yet pivotal points de fuite in Woolf’s legacy: her suicide.

6Furthermore, the collection itself intertwines the work of analysis of the Woolfian corpus with gestures and proposals of further interactions. Gérard Lebègue and Anne-Laure Rigeade’s collaboration on the article ‘Recycling Virginia Woolf’s Remembrance’ delves into the photographer’s creations for the symposium in Université de Lorraine, both as a process of relating to Woolf and as a broader experience of exploring literature in transmedial initiatives. Jean-Rémi Lapaire’s account of his methodology for studying Woolf through dance is both a compelling prospection in terms of what can be done to teach the very complex texts in ways that go beyond the confines of traditional pedagogical methods, but also a very vivid description of a praxis, for teachers and students alike, that embraces its own theatrics and takes the reader on a very interesting journey, from classroom to classroom and through varied experiences. Caroline Marie’s archive of tattoo images, scoured through the vast space of social media, resonates with Christine Froula’s creative writing endeavour, repurposing Woolf and Iranian author Golshiri to produce what is both a thought-piece and a work of its own. Beyond a mere addition to Woolf scholarship, the book proposes a thorough exploration of its possibilities, and a compelling look into what can be done with canonical authors, bringing them into new cycles rather than just celebrating the ones that have passed.

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Olivier Hercend, « Monica Latham, Caroline Marie and Anne-Laure Rigeade, eds., Recycling Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Art and Literature »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Olivier Hercend

Université Paris Nanterre (CREA – EA 370)

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