Monday, May 4, 2009

Mrs. Ebury, A Footnote

I love fashion. I also love London. I'm still trying to decide which I love more and if such a decision is even possible. Because of these loves, my ears perked up at the name Mrs. Ebury--a very, very minor character in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. Mrs. Ebury, mentioned only once, "had forbidden Fanny to act because of the nettle-rash" and with that, had completed her role as concerned townsperson. She might be completely forgettable, except for her name...Ebury. I'd heard that name somewhere before.

Ebury Street is the name of a street in London. But more importantly, Anya Hindmarch, one of my favorite British designers, had named a handbag after the street. I think that the handbag reference is what made the name stick. It really is a great bag, sturdy and classic, there's even a "bespoke" version that can be made in the buyer's (or recipient's) choice of leathers and then inscribed with a note, in the buyer's handwriting, above where the inside lining begins. I dream of having one of these bags given to me. But I digress.

The bag was named after a street and I wondered what significance the name might have for Woolf. Several of Woolf's characters, particularly in Mrs. Dalloway, seem to have names that are anything but random. Septimus Smith--a common surname, combined with a first name that bears the weight of the world. Septimus is every young man in England that was lost or damaged by World War I. Clarissa's last name, Dalloway, is perhaps a play on "dally"--she takes her time with everything, dallying in flower shops as well as her past. So, I figured I'd have a look around and see if Ebury Street could mean something special for Virginia Woolf. And it looks like it just might.

First of all, Ebury Street is located in Westminster, London. Nothing particularly special there, except that Clarissa Dalloway lived in Westminster. Perhaps Woolf, by using Mrs. Ebury as the character who takes Fanny out of the show because of nettle-rash, is making a comment on the upper-class Londoners who inhabit Westminster--maybe they're too cautious, unfair, or just not very much fun. I think that might be stretching it a little. Of more interest to Woolf, I think, is the person in her life who lived on Ebury Street: Vita Sackville-West.

Sure, Mozart lived on Ebury Street for a few months when he was writing his first symphony. Alfred Tennyson, a poet laureate who ran in Woolf's parents' social circle, also lived on Ebury Street--apparently spending much of his time there smoking shag tobacco and drinking port as well as writing Maud. However, it's no secret that Vita Sackville-West held a special place in Woolf's heart--their love affair lasted from sometime in the early 1920s until Woolf's death in 1941. I'm fairly confident that Mrs. Ebury was named after the street that Sackville-West (and her husband, Harold Nicolson) called home and a place that Woolf certainly visited more than once.

Call me crazy, maybe I am looking too far into this. I still can't figure out why Mrs. Ebury is the one to pull nettle-rash Fanny (that particular reference a blog post for another day, perhaps) out of the show and Googling "Sackville-West afraid of germs/contagions/rash" does no good at all. Regardless, though, I know two things for sure:
1. There's something there--it seems impossible that Woolf would name a character after the street her lover lived on purely by coicidence.
2. I want the Ebury birthday's right around the corner..I'm just sayin'.

Go Fish: Marriage!

This is my sixth semester as an Undergraduate and I still don't know the most efficient way to study for an English final. While I love compressing semesters into index cards that I then can neatly file away after finals, the index card is not compatible with Woolf's winding prose. I've also given up on the idea of rereading everything on the syllabus before even attempting to tackle this insane plan. Perhaps blogging will help? 

If it wasn't for the very end of Between the Acts, I would have hated Oliver and Isa's marriage. Isa and Oliver both lust after other people; their marriage seems limiting and rather Victorian throughout the majority of the novel. 

I began thinking of Isa and Oliver as a Victorian couple while reading Woolf's description of their initial meeting. The two were fishing when their lines got tangled so Isa gave in to her position as an inferior woman to the superior man by letting him take over. The fishing scene and the motif of fish in Between the Acts reminded me of the hacked fish that fascinates James and Cam Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The hacked fish, which makes its appearance in between Lily's thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay, and all the numerous references to fish in Between the Acts present fish as a symbol for past, or Victorian, notions of traditions, marriage and family. For instance, Oliver follows Mrs. Manresa like a "fish on a line" (p. 74) after the narrator presents Oliver's infidelity as an accepted component of his and Isa's marriage. The fish in Between the Acts are consumed, caught, killed, and ordered for the traditional community play. Woolf presents fish as they are dieing or already dead, implying that Victorian notions of a proper family and marriage hinder modern men and, in particular, women.

While Woolf presents Oliver's infidelity as something Isa is forced to accept, Isa is not passive about the issue after Mrs. Manresa leaves. Isa rejects and insults Oliver during the rather phallic presentation of a fruit: "Giles offered his wife a banana. She refused it." (p.145) Isa remains quiet until she is left alone with her husband. Woolf presents Isa and Oliver on equal footing in a rather tender foreshadowing of their night. Oliver and Isa as husband and wife must openly present their qualms with one another before they can become intimate. Woolf presents the act of creation as one that requires the blending of two essences. Thinking of the girl and guy getting into the cab in A Room of One's Own led me to think that it is the sexual act between a male and female who are open with each other that seems the most balanced and, ironically enough, androgynous for Woolf.  

The audience in Between the Acts cannot identify itself during the silent interval that Miss La Trobe labeled as "The Present Day" in the program. Even identifying what the members of the audience are not like proves unsuccessful: "they were neither one thing nor the other; neither Victorian nor themselves." (p. 121) While the audience is uncertain as to who they actually are, they are also unsure whether they are or aren't similar to the Victorians. This passage seems to capture a major Woolfian theme: the transition from the Victorian marriage and family structure into... 

Well, that's left as a source of conflict for many of Woolf's female characters. Lily Briscoe triumphantly finishes her painting after feeling validated that the Rayley's marriage fails but her thoughts are paired with tears in To the Lighthouse. In Mrs. Dalloway,  Clarissa thinks fondly of Peter Walsh and Sally Seton while married to Richard.  

Isa and Oliver's marriage is unique in Woolf's body of work because the lasting impression Woolf leaves on the reader is a unity achieved through a harmonious action: "They spoke." (p. 147) Woolf concludes Between the Acts by describing an England beyond the reach of history books. The Victorians and the entire history of the British notion of marriage is wiped away; Isa and Giles become the model for husbands and wives in a new era of marriage.