Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Wedding Rituals: Julia Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Viola Tree

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Wedding Rituals: Julia Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Viola Tree

Article excerpt

I. Introduction: "a ... remarkable acidulated story"--V. Woolf

Although weddings transform people's identities, human tendencies to thwart perfection often mar these rites of passage, the past remains ever-present, and the unpredictable realities of married life lie ahead. The Hogarth Press, itself one result of Leonard and Virginia Woolf's own wedding, became over the years increasingly heterogeneous in its interests and more likely to blur boundaries between so-called "highbrow" modernist and "middlebrow" writing. (2) Between 1928 and 1937, for instance, the Press published three very different books by women writers, all of whom undermined or revised one important aspect of the traditional marriage plot--the culmination of courtship and fulfillment of desire in an idealized wedding. The book that caught my eye was a 1932 first edition of Julia Strachey's satirical novella called Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. (3) Strachey's focus on a wedding day called to mind a more familiar 1928 precedent, the verbal tour de force that is the wedding scene in Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography. Although Woolf constantly interrogates the ambiguities of both unmarried and married states throughout her fiction, Orlando contains the only on-stage wedding ceremony Woolf published during her lifetime. (4) Then, in 1937, actress and writer Viola Tree bookended Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding with examples, opinions, and often amusing, common-sense advice about weddings in Chapter V of another Hogarth publication, this one an unusual hybrid of autobiography and advice called Can I Help You? Your Manners--Menus--Amusements--Friends--Charades--MakeUps--Travel--Calling--Children--Love Affairs. (5) Julia Strachey's novella, indeed each of these distinctive treatments of weddings, takes on new resonance in the context of the other two. Together, they accept the wedding ritual and, at the same time, criticize it in ways that suggest the need for change.

To Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf described Julia Strachey's manuscript as "a very cute, clever, indeed rather remarkable acidulated story" (L5 27). To Carrington, who had painted her friend and Lytton Strachey's niece in 1928, (6) Woolf wrote early in March 1932 that the manuscript was "astonishingly good ... extraordinarily complete and sharp and individual" (L5 29). Hoping to distract Carrington from her grief after Lytton's death, Virginia tempted her with "scenes that want illustrations," possibly "woodcuts in the text" to ensure the book's success (L5 29). Sadly, her effort failed to prevent Carrington's suicide. (7) With no other illustrators in line for the job, (8) Duncan Grant, Julia Strachey's cousin, agreed to design a jacket [Figure 1] (9). Although Grant thought it "poorly lettered," in need of Vanessa Bell's color sense, and somewhat "vulgar," Frances Partridge thought it "entirely appropriate" (Spalding, Duncan 317), and James Beechey calls it one of Grant's "most fluent" (19). The eye-catching cover focuses, as Strachey does, on the bride. On the back is a floral bouquet with a bright rose-colored bow. On the front, title and author frame a white-gowned and veiled bride with downcast eyes. The background is bright rose, as are the bride's lips and necklace, and the dots and lines forming her hair and outlining her veil are blue. A blurb on the inside flap markets the author as the late Lytton Strachey's niece. It is Julia's text, however-what Leonard Woolf calls "the immaterial inside of a book"--that evokes a mixture of absurdity and despair in the face of social expectations (Downhill 80). (10)

What attracted Woolf, as fiction reader for the Press, to Strachey's story? Rather like Julia's bride Dolly Thatcham, young Virginia Stephen had thought she and her sister seemed fated to wed. When Vanessa, whom Virginia recalled as both "reluctant and yielding," said, "'Of course, I can see that we shall all marry,'" Virginia felt "a horrible necessity" that would "descend . …

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