Book Review: Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Essays on the Self is a fascinating new collection of Virginia Woolf essays recently published by Notting Hill Editions.

The book explores the idea of the self in a very thought-provoking way and is a real treat for Woolf fans who like to analyze the more complex themes and ideas in her works. The introduction, written by Joanna Kavenna, is very academic and a bit existential but it’s nothing that Virginia Woolf fans aren’t used to. In fact, I think that’s what the publishers of the book were counting on when they put this book together.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction:

“Virginia Woolf {1882-1941) wrote scintillating prose on a variety of themes, but I have chosen to focus this selection on the ‘self.’ So the question I should immediately answer is why? Why not choose the rights of women or the revolutions of modernity or the phases of the novel? Why start grappling with the finite and possibly illusory self? Why drag Woolf in as well? What is the self? What does it mean? Whose definition? The self of the artist, or their social self? The self of the individual coerced by ordinance, the self behind the mask? Yet where does mask end and self begin? One self, or an inestimable quantity? Shifting, or indivisible?

The essays in this collection are, of course, not merely concerned with the self. Woolf does also discuss the rights of women, the revolution of modernity, the past, present and future of the novel. She is eloquent on social inequality and the agony of war. She is a robust literary antiquarian, she rakes through the past in search of treasure. She is transfixed, as well, by the aesthetic contests of the present, the dynamic incompleteness of her era. She fights with local demons, she mocks those who mock her, and generally prevails. The essays I have chosen were written between 1919 when Woolf was 37 and 1940 when she was 58. During this time, Woolf changed, many times over, her opinions changed, her circumstances too; she was not a fixed entity, reiterating a rigid and immaculate position each time she picked up her pen.Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Yet, in answer to my self-imposed questions; the question of the self is central, in some way, to every essay in this collection. Woolf is transfixed by the nature of the finite self (‘Who am I? ‘Who is everybody else?’) and how individual self is anyone, everyone, and yet each self is utterly distinct. Each self exist once on earth, in one moment of collision with everything around – Reality, Society, the beauty, ecstasy and tragedy or ordinary life. Each one of us speaks of ‘myself’ and ‘yourself,’ distinguishing the lone self from a bewildering array of other selves. Yet, as Woolf acknowledges, this is also the enterprise of any writer: to discern the self in a crowded room, to isolate a single vantage point, to communicate this vantage point to others. How to express the perceptions of this self, in received language, within the baggy old conventions of the novel, and yet without sacrificing any trace of authenticity or personal realism? – this is the dilemma of any writer who is not enslaved by choice or compulsion to an overarching ideology. The originality of the self is the one certain route to originality in art; the self, undisguised and unbridled, is inevitable distinctive.”

The introduction is written by British novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna, whose other works include The Ice Museum, The Birth of Love and Inglorious. She’s also had short stories and essays published in The New York Times, New Yorker, The Guardian and The London Review of Books.

Essays on the Self is available on Amazon and on the publisher’s website at

Book Review: The Other Shakespeare by Lea Rachel

The Other Shakespeare is a new novel inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. As anyone who is familiar with A Room of One’s Own knows, it’s a nonfiction essay about women writers which introduces a fictional character named Judith Shakespeare, sister to William Shakespeare. The essay argues that there are many women like Judith out there, women who have dreamed of becoming writers but had their dreams dashed by a society that is unreceptive to women writers.

The novel’s subject matter alone will be of interest to both Shakespeare fans and Woolf fans. Much like novels such as Grendel and March, which both build upon another writer’s character, The Other Shakespeare brings Judith Shakespeare to life in her own story. In doing so, the novel weaves together history, fiction and social issues in an interesting way.

The Other Shakespeare shines a spotlight on Judith Shakespeare as she struggles to develop her writing skills and find acceptance in a society that expects women to be nothing more than housewives. She’s denied an education and many other opportunities that are readily available to her brothers and must make difficult decisions to get what she wants.
The Other Shakespeare by Lea Rachel
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the concept behind it. I also enjoyed Lea Rachel’s prose and felt it was quite impressive for a first novel, especially considering the difficulty of trying to make Old English easy to understand for modern readers. My only complaint is that The Other Shakespeare is a bit heavy-handed at times. The author has a habit of spelling things out for the reader and I felt the novel could be improved if the point she was trying to make was a bit more subtle. This is just a minor complaint though and I don’t feel it detracts too much from the novel as a whole.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

“Mary looked from the hornbook to her daughter and back again, and as realization dawned she asked softly, ‘Know your letters?’
Judith nodded and a long-taut spring snapped in Mary.
‘Useless child! Why do you do such things? Why do you insist on Latin and letters and stories of make-believe played in the forest? It’s inappropriate! ‘Tis isn’t right. You -‘ She advanced a step towards Judith, her fists clenched. ‘You put the boys up to this, didn’t you? You stole the hornbook from them, to add to your lists of sins.’ Mary’s eyes widened in understanding. ‘Asips, Asops, whatever it was called, that book of fables that disappeared last year, was that you too?’
Judith felt a sting of pleasure in righting this wrong at least.
‘Yay. It fell into the Avon. ‘Twas entirely my fault.’
‘This – it’s -‘ The words stumbled together as Mary fought to straighten them out. ”Tis awful. ‘Tis wrong. ‘Tis against the natural order of things. Why must you insist on putting on such airs?’ Mary turned and held her hands up to the rafters. She took a deep breath and declared, ‘It is true, there is an evil presence in this house.’
Judith felt a chill run up her spine. In spite of herself, she defended her actions. ‘Nuns can read.’
Mary turned to look at her daughter. ‘What are you going to do,’ she asked. ‘run off and join a nunnery?’
Judith didn’t answer and Mary crossed herself.
‘You don’t join a nunnery to read, child, you join because you love God.’
At that moment Judith desperately wished that she loved God as much as her mother did. Maybe then everything would be easier. Maybe then what she was supposed to do would be clear, her mixed up thoughts and mixed up desires would make sense. Judith wasn’t trying to upset her mother, she didn’t want to be a bad daughter, she just couldn’t help being who she was. She just couldn’t help wanting to read.”

The Other Shakespeare is Lea Rachel’s first novel. Her first published work was her personal memoir I Promise. Rachel is an economics professor at the University of Missouri.

The Other Shakespeare is available on

Get email updates (it's free!):
Email *

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a 1962 Broadway play about the troubled marriage of a middle-aged couple named Martha and George. The play critiques the idea of the perfect American family and challenges social expectations about life, love and family.

Who Wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”:

The play was written by American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee, whose other plays include the Zoo Story, a Delicate Balance, Seascape and the Sandbox. Albee’s plays are considered critiques on modern society and often highlight the growing pains and disillusionment of the 1960s.

Since the play first premiered in 1962, the title has confused many and made people wonder if the play was actually about Virginia Woolf. Author Caroline Zoob, who wrote a book titled “Virginia Woolf’s Garden” about her years as a caretaker at Virginia Woolf’s country home, Monk’s House, stated that one of the most frequent questions she overheard visitors ask when touring the house was: “So why were people so afraid of her then?”

Although the title does reference Virginia Woolf, the play is not about her at all. Yet, there are still a number of connections between the two. The title itself is a play on words that Albee saw scrawled on a mirror in a Greenwich Village bar one night in 1954, according to an interview with Albee in the Paris Review:

“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

The original title of the play was Exorcism and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was just a line in the play. Albee later adopted it as the subtitle of the play and then some time after that decided to make it the main title.

Martha sings the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in the play and in the 1966 film but in live stage productions the song is usually changed to “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” due to licensing restrictions.

Similarity to Lappin and Lapinova:

Around 1962, Albee wrote to Leonard Woolf and asked if it would be okay to use Virginia’s name in the title. Leonard gave his permission and when the play came to London, he went to see it with his friend Peggy Ashcroft. He later wrote to Albee, praising the play and suggesting a possible connection between it and a similar story Virginia once wrote:

‘We both enjoyed it immensely. It is so amusing and at the same time moving and is really about the important things in life. Nothing is rarer, at any rate, on the English stage. I wonder if you have ever read a short story which my wife wrote and is printed in A Haunted House? It is called ‘Lappin and Lapinova.’ The details are quite different but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play.”

Albee never claimed to have read the short story but the plot is somewhat similar. In Lappin and Lapinova, a married couple having trouble coping with a dreary childless marriage invent a secret fantasy world where both the husband and wife are rabbits.

Virginia and Leonard never had children themselves, upon the advice of Virginia’s doctors who said her mind was too fragile to cope with motherhood, and it was the Woolf’s marriage, or perhaps marriage in general, that may have inspired the short story, according to the book “Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf”:

“Susan Dick posits that ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ is the work alluded to when Woolf wrote to Vanessa Bell on October 24, 1938 that ‘marriage, as I suddenly for the first time realised walking in the Square, reduces one to damnable servility. Cant be helped. Im going to write a comedy about it.’ The story is about a young wife, Rosalind Thorburn, who attempts to mitigate the dreariness of her marriage by engaging her husband in an elaborate narrative about two rabbits. Rosalind’s Shakespearean name name links her to Orlando; but ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ is, in fact, a kind of reverse Orlando, in which the marriage of two utterly dissimilar people depends entirely on the painstaking creation of a ‘little language’ that inevitable collapses.”

Like the two main characters, Leonard and Virginia also had animal nicknames for each other. Virginia’s nickname was “Mandril” and Leonard’s was “Mongoose,” which they would use in letters to each other, such as in a letter Leonard once wrote to Virginia where he stated: “I hope the Mandril went to its box early and isn’t worried by anything in the world.”

Although Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf doesn’t involve animals, the two stories otherwise share a similar plot about a couple trying to avoid reality by living in a fantasy world.

Plot Summary of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is set on the campus of a small New England University. Both the play and the film have three acts, titled Fun and Games, Walpurgisnacht and The Exorcism. As the play opens, the two main characters, Martha and George, who Albee named after the famous first couple President George Washington and his wife Martha, are coming home late from a faculty party. Martha is the daughter of the president of the university and her husband is a history professor. Martha tells George she has invited some guests over, a young couple named Nick and Honey, for a few drinks. From the very beginning it’s clear Martha and George have a very rocky relationship.

Act One: Fun and Games
In Act One, Martha and George spend most of the time taunting and humiliating each other. George makes fun of Martha because of her age and drinking problem while Martha repeatedly berates George for his failures in life. Martha and Honey then excuse themselves so Martha can show Honey to the bathroom. Nick and George talk for a while until Honey returns and immediately asks George about his son, whom Martha had just told her about. George turns around, surprised, and asks “She told you about him?” and then glares upstairs in Martha’s direction. When Martha returns, she continues to point out George’s shortcomings, such as the fact that he has never been promoted in the history department despite the fact that Martha’s father is the president of the university, all while openly flirting with Nick. When Martha begins to tell an embarrassing story about how she once sucker punched George in front of her father, George appears behind her with a large gun. When he fires it, an umbrella pops out of the end of the gun. Martha continues to berate George, who reacts angrily by smashing a bottle. Honey, who’s had too much to drink and is upset by all the fighting, runs to the bathroom to vomit.

Act Two: Walpurgisnacht (Night of the Witches)
In Act Two, George and Nick sit outside and discuss personal details of their lives. Nick tells George that the only reason he married Honey is because he thought she was pregnant. He says he later found out it was a hysterical pregnancy and she had just imagined it. George tells Nick a story about his old friends from high school, one of whom accidentally killed his parents.

Nick and George rejoin the women inside and before long, begins seductively slow dancing with Nick in front of both George and Honey. Martha continues to humiliate George by mentioning another one of his failures in life, his novel. The novel was autobiographical and is about a boy who accidentally kills his parents. It becomes clear that George was talking about himself when he told the earlier story to Nick. Martha then reveals that her father wouldn’t allow George to publish the novel and burned it in the fireplace. George becomes so angry that he tries to strangle Martha in front of both guests.

George then announces that it’s time to play a game and that this one is called “Get the Guests.” During the game, George reveals Nick and Honey’s secret about her hysterical pregnancy, which prompts Honey to run to the bathroom again and vomit. In an attempt to get back at George, Nick and Martha decide to make out in front of him, although he calmly reads a book and pretends he doesn’t care. At the end of the act, Martha and Nick go upstairs together and George throws his book against the wall.

Act Three: The Exorcism
Martha appears in the living room after some time and calls for everyone to join her. Nick shows up and then George appears at the door with a bouquet of snapdragons in his hand. The two argue about whether the moon is up or down, with George insisting that it’s up and Martha stating that she didn’t see it from the bedroom window upstairs. This then leads to a discussion where it is revealed Nick was too drunk to have sex with Martha. Because of his inability to perform, Martha now begins to berate and humiliate Nick.

George asks Nick to find Honey so they can play a final game called “Bringing Up Baby.” George says Martha has an overbearing attitude towards their son and then makes her talk about him. After the two tell their son’s life story, George announces that a telegram came while Martha and Nick were upstairs. The telegram said that their son was killed that afternoon in a car accident when he swerved to avoid a porcupine in the road.

Martha then screams that he’s not allowed to kill their son and it becomes apparent to Nick and Honey that the son was a fictional character all along. George decided to “kill” their son because Martha broke a rule about never speaking of him to others. Unable to cope with their disappointing lives and with no real bond between them, the couple apparently made up a fictional child to help them deal with the harshness of reality. Yet, the bitterness and hatred Martha and George have for each other ultimately destroyed this illusion.

The play ends with George singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which Martha answers “I am, George, I am.”

Critical Reception:

The play won the 1962-63 New York Drama Critics Circle award and the Tony Award in 1963.

In 1966, the play was made into a movie, written by Ernest Lehman and starring Elizabeth Taylor as Martha and Richard Burton as George. The movie was a box office success and was nominated for 13 academy awards, of which it won five. It has since become a classic and is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most memorable roles.

“Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf”; Natania Rosenfeld; 2000
“Edward Albee: A Singular Journey : a Biography”; Mel Gussow; 2012
Psychology Today; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Dr. Anne Malave; Dec 18 2012:
The Paris Review; The Art of Theater No. Edward Albee; William Flanagan; Fall issue; 1966