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Getting Virginia Woolf’s Goat

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2021

Gerri Kimber
Affiliation:
University of Northampton
Todd Martin
Affiliation:
University of Huntington, Indiana
Christine Froula
Affiliation:
Northwestern University, Illinois
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Summary

This transcript of a talk given by Ali Smith at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 23 October 2014 is published here for the first time. A recording of the talk may be heard at https://soundcloud.com/npglondon/ getting-virginia-woolfs-goat-a-lecture-by-ali-smith

‘Well it is five minutes to ten: but where am I, writing with pen & ink? Not in my studio.’ No, unusually, in this diary entry from May 1932, Woolf is miles from home and miles from England, a foreigner on holiday in Greece, sitting in a dip of land ‘at Delphi, under an olive tree […] on dry earth covered with white daisies’. Leonard is next to her. His holiday reading is a Greek grammar. She sees a butterfly go past. ‘I think, a swallow tail.’ It's all part of the desire to catalogue where we are. She describes simply for her diary what's around her: the bushes and rocks and trees, the ‘huge bald gray & black mountain’, the earth, the flies, the flowers, the sound of goat bells.

She is travelling with Leonard and Roger and Margery Fry, who are sketching right now, have been sketching everything they can, stopping every time they chance on a village in their deserted landscape and getting the paintbox out. Right now they’re all close to the home of the oracle of Apollo, where, legend has it, the words carved into the temple walls all the centuries ago were: know yourself, no extremes and if you make a solemn commitment, then expect a bit of trouble.

Woolf has found herself transformed in Greece, quite physically, by the heat and the sun and the driving from place to place they’ve been doing: ‘how one's lips swelled & blackened & cracked & one's nose peeled, & one's cheeks were hot and dry as if sitting unshaded by a hot fire […] one is becoming a peasant’. After ‘four or five days of the peasants & their solid draped beauty’, she notes here the little ‘start of joy’ she's had just at seeing a ‘tolerably well-dressed woman’ drinking with a gentleman in a hotel. Safe to say she's missing home comforts, though all the same she's very drawn to the way the Greeks have survived by the skins of their teeth the rough living in this climate, not only now but over all the centuries, which have, she says,

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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