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A Course of its Own

Food may not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Virginia Woolf, still it was the topic du jour at a sold out international women’s day event in Trondheim. Over a three course meal at restaurant alma’s, professor of literature Britt Andersen discussed Virginia Woolf’s 45-page depiction of the evening’s menu, while addressing why the author was so fascinated with parties and having a room of her own.

“And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savory brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine and thought, This will celebrate the occasion…”

I enter the café at campus Dragvoll, a part of ntnu, Trondheim’s premiere university. I used to spend at lot of time in this café, both as a student and as an employee at the Department of Foreign Languages, and I still remember the barista’s full name. If I hadn’t already placed my order, she might have served me my regular cortado just by seeing my face. I sit down and not long after I spot Britt Andersen, the professor of literature whom I’m here to meet. Britt confesses she’s a coffee lover; and by funny coincidence, she actually used to be a weekend regular at the place I worked at back in the day.

She orders a latte and pulls out the lunch she brought with her, or “matpakke” as us Norwegians would say. She is a middle-aged woman, with short grey hair and pink-ish lipstick. Her presence is warm and welcoming, and she artfully manages the balance between enthusiasm and pensiveness. We immediately hit it off and start chatting about the recent Virginia Woolf event hosted by Litteraturhuset i Trondheim. The house of literature has been hosting a series of events combining literature and food, many of them sold out. Much to my disappointment, but to any literature lovers’ delight. When I decided to attend the International Woman Day’s event, all tickets were already gone, with an impressive 50+ people on the waiting list. Still, I was lucky to get a seat at the bar where I could listen in on Britt’s inspiring talk, while the friendly bar staff kept serving me coffee.

– That was my first encounter with this course, Britt tells me.

Did it meet your expectations after reading about it? I ask. Yes, yes! The food was very good! I can’t believe so many people came to the event, especially considering it clashed with the opening night for Trondheim’s International Film festival Kosmorama, with the premier of “Carol” just a couple of blocks away. Luckily, I got to see the movie later. Cate Blanchett is such an amazing actress! We both agree that her performance as Bob Dylan in I’m not there was impressive.

How was the evening put together? Trond Åm, the project manager at Litteraturhuset in Trondheim contacted me and invited me to speak about Virginia Woolf and food. I hesitated at first, because Virginia isn’t exactly known for her culinary depiction or appetite.

Yes, although it’s been many years since I saw the movie The Hours, based on Virginia’s life and work, I remember this detail where her husband has lunch brought up to her room and at the end of the day she hadn’t touched any of it. Yes, Virginia was at times very fragile and sick and unable to take care of herself sometimes. She was quite the opposite of (the Norwegian writer) Alexander Kielland, who was the theme for an earlier event. Did you know he ate himself to death? So they had a lot more to choose from when putting the menu together then. But I remembered this one course. Boeuf en Dabue, which I had been writing about before. The menu was put together by the chef Trond Åm (yes, they’re both named Trond Åm!), inspired by Virginia’s preferences for both French and traditional English food.

But she wrote a lot about parties, in both To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway? Yes, she uses these settings as a frame to discuss interaction, not only between people but also the conversations happening on the inside. The things that no one says out loud. She uses the characters as doppelgängers, mirroring inequalities, who we are and what we try to hide from each other. In Mrs Dalloway, the main character Clarissa is hosting a dinner party, which makes her think of some incidents that happened 40 years ago. There is this woman named Miss Kilman, who is described as a big ugly woman, who makes Clarissa feel uncomfortable and threatened. Miss Kilman brings up forgotten and oppressed feelings about her relationship with her friend Sally, who she was in love with. And there’s this character Peter, an old friend, who sees through her and confronts her about her own bourgeoisness. So there are these two characters who try to make her throw away her mask, confronting her with both who she wanted to be and what she has become.

What do you think Virginia intended to tell us by writing this 45-page depiction of the course?
I’ve written about this course and about the poetry of suffering. Virginia didn’t go to therapy, but she was familiar with psychoanalysis because her brother and her sister-in-law were both psychoanalysts. Virginia and her husband also ran a press called Hogwarth Press where they published works by Freud, Melanie Klein, Carl Jung. Did you know she actually met Freud one time? He gave her a white lily, a narcissus, because it is believed that melancholia and narcissism is closely knit together. So this part is a comment to Freud and psychoanalysis, I think. In psychoanalysis the theory is that a person who has lost someone, or something, wants to remain the object a part of themselves. Not letting it go. And by not eating, but taking it in, you can keep it inside. Freud mentions this process as some sort of cannibalism. And Virginia had lost many family members. She lost her mother early, and then her brother and her father died. A famous author called their home the home of death.

In To the Lighthouse it is the mother who prepares and hosts the dinner, and I read it as a symbol of her serving herself. I think a lot of researchers have missed the point, that it’s a mock with Freud’s theories on sorrow and melancholia, which he actually wrote very well about, he was a melancholic himself and identified with this issue. It can also be seen as a comment to his opinion that women lacked something (a male genital). By serving herself, Virginia showed that women have something else, compassion and empathy.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa were a part of what was known as The Bloomsbury group, which includes many interesting and fascinating characters. Yes! This was originally a “boys club”, with writers, artists and intellectuals. There are many theories about how and when this group came together, one theory is that they gathered around for “reading groups” in the siblings’ house in London’s Bloomsbury district after their father had passed away. Their brother was their ticket inside this group, and this is where they got the education their old-fashion father didn’t want the girls to have. So she educated herself in the library of her father, who had been an author and a critic, and discussing with the other scholars who frequented their home. One of the things that were important to her was women’s right to education, their own money and a room of ones own, which she wrote an essay about. She stated that she was the only woman in England who could write freely about what she wanted. She was ahead of her times. Do you think women can write freely about any subject now? No, not entirely. Although women today are much more self-conscious and can allow themselves more, they are still exposed to sanctions at a larger extent than men. Especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. Try to think about how this is silencing women in other parts of the world!

Virginia Woolf has been held as a symbol for gender equality, homosexuals, races, and the working class. Alongside Marilyn Monroe, she is arguably the world’s leading female icon. In fact, one of her most famous quotes reads: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

I am feeling confident this night would have lived up to those words!


THE MENU

Starter
Fish and chips with champagne
(Fried plaice, chips and remoulade)

Main Course*
Boeuf en Daube
(Ox from Trøndelag braised with orange, garlic and bay leaves served with mashed potatoes)

Dessert
Spotted Pudding
(Citrus salad)

*The main course is the based on the recipe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Boeuf en Daube is a classical French dish.