On Emancipatory Legacies: A Séance

Christine FroulaNorthwestern University
Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2005), 231-240.

Set in the Tuscan-gardenlike heaven for lovers of reading that Virginia Woolf evokes in “How Should One Read a Book,” this one-act play in honor of pioneering American feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun—also known as the mystery writer Amanda Cross—takes form as a Dantesque dream vision. Woolf’s Septimus Warren Smith conducts Heilbrun/Cross’s fictional professor-detective, Kate Fansler, from her New York apartment, where she mourns Carolyn’s suicide, to this circle of heaven. Here an array of historical and fictional characters converse about life and death: Septimus, the Great War veteran of Mrs Dalloway (1925); Woolf’s family friend Kitty Lushington Maxse (1867-1922), Clarissa Dalloway’s inspiration; Judith Shakespeare, William’s not impossible genius-sister, whose aspiring life and death Woolf narrates in her path-breaking A Room of One’s Own (1929); Percy Bysshe Shelley, English Romantic poet and radical thinker, whose death-embracing elegy for Keats Kitty/Clarissa knows by heart; Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, whose noble suicide culminates Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; and Woolf, who, having “done my share, with pen & talk, for the human race,” took her life during the Blitz. Besides a love of reading, these dramatis personae have in common the fact that they have all fought death and been vanquished.

This article is part of a special issue of personal and scholarly reflections on the life of Carolyn Heilbrun.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]