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Virginia Woolf and the cricket connection

Virginia Woolf © Getty Images
Virginia Woolf © Getty Images

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a woman, a pioneer of modernism who – amongst many things – played cricket.

Adeline Virginia Stephen (Woolf) perhaps needs no introduction. Few people have revolutionised the language of English to the extent Woolf has, and the legacy she has left behind can be compared to few. While her first novel The Voyage Out became a craze, winning hearts of the classes and the masses at the same time, she is more renowned for Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.

The names of a few books, however, can hardly do justice to Woolf’s legacy: volumes have been written on her contribution to literature and other aspects of life— perhaps influenced by Henri Bergson more than by Friedrich Nietzsche, Woolf was one of the pioneers of modernism in British literature (along with, perhaps, James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson).

A Room of One’s Own is generally accepted as one of the works that triggered the feminist movement in English literature (something that was probably started by Rebecca West); three decades after she had passed away, Woolf’s works suddenly became a phenomenon with the growth of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s.

We live (and have forever lived in) an age where cricket has been heavily gender-biased: while the media, boards, and fans have been blatantly biased against women’s cricket and cricketers play their role in sexism of the worst sort, we could have done with the presence of another Woolf. She might have shredded the bigots to pieces with her pen. After all, she was also a cricket enthusiast.

Woolf was a keen cricketer, especially in her early days. Woolf wrote in a correspondence with “Scenes, I note, seldom illustrate my relation with Vanessa [Virginia’s sister]; it has been too deep for ‘scenes’. Vanessa and I were what we call tomboys; that is, we played cricket, scrambled over rocks, climbed trees, were said not to care for clothes and so on.”

Vanessa looks focussed on the ball while Virginia is probably dreamier than she should have been behind the stumps. St Ives, circa 1896. Picture Courtesy - The Paris Review
Vanessa looks focussed on the ball while Virginia is probably dreamier than she should have been behind the stumps. St Ives, circa 1896. Picture Courtesy – The Paris Review

Vanessa Stephen Bell was, of course, a renowned painter and interior designer, a member of the much-acclaimed Bloomsbury Group — of which Virginia herself was a key member. One must remember here that the sisters often clashed on their cultural differences in their later years — but at heart they remained cricketers.

As Dan Colman wrote in Open Culture, “As adults, they both [Vanessa and Virginia] had a lot of cultural clout. But during another time — during their ‘tomboy’ years — they were just kids looking for a good game of cricket.” Virginia’s cricket ‘career’, however, had started much earlier: by four she had been at it with his younger brother Adrian (renowned author and one of the earliest British psychoanalysts).

Their father, Sir Leslie Stephen — a famous historian, author, critic, and mountaineer — later wrote in his memoirs: “We made what we called a ‘lawn tennis’ ground on the most level bit, where the children delighted in playing small cricket every evening.”

With the chasm between the sexes in the sport increasing by the day one can do with a legend like Woolf— especially given the fact that she was a keen cricketer.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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