Virginia Woolf Icon

The University of Chicago Press is publishing Virginia Woolf Icon by Brenda R. Silver. In this new web-exclusive essay Silver extends the analysis in her book to a tour of the many points of presence Virginia Woolf icon has established on the worldwide web.

About the book:
"Edward Albee asked but nobody, until now, really answered the question "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Silver offers up a response: we all are, sort of, she says. Sure, Barnes and Noble's got her likeness silkscreened onto a couple million canvas bags, and the British National Portrait Gallery sells thousands of Woolf postcards a month. Still, Silver argues, her face and her name were associated with fear long before and long after Albee titled his play. And as a result, Woolf is a useful guide for cultural critics: the fears we've ascribed to her tell us a lot about our own fears--about gender, race, feminism art, politics, anger, fashion . . . and, of course, death."—Library Journal Academic News Wire

Click on the icon for info on buying the book:

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Technical note:
To assist you in navigating the many sites linked in this essay, each link opens a new browser window. Close the new window when you finish exploring the link.

Image credit:
Except for the book jacket, images are courtesy Elisa Kay Sparks

World Wide Woolf

by Brenda R. Silver, author of Virginia Woolf Icon

What do Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, stand-up writing desks, and the Cosmic Baseball League have in common?

Links with Virginia Woolf on the web.

Just one more confirmation of the fact that Virginia Woolf is everywhere.

This assertion is not new for me; it's the direct outgrowth of the materials I accumulated while writing my book on the construction of Virginia Woolf as cultural icon. But it took on a deeper resonance when I turned my attention to Virginia Woolf's multiple appearances in the place where icons have a whole other meaning: the worldwide web.

How, I found myself asking, does Virginia Woolf's extraordinary visibility—her celebrity, her status as star—translate to the web, where e-zines and chat rooms make it easy for fans to share their interests and anyone can have their say? Do her appearances reflect the diverse and often conflicting images of Virginia Woolf icon found in the intellectual and popular media I explored in my book? What patterns, if any, are generated in cyberspace by following the random links activated by Virginia Woolf? And how does the crossing of cultural icon and computer icon apparent in her new incarnations reconfigure the cultural terrain?

The Virginia Woolf I began looking for on the web, Virginia Woolf icon, has, I knew, a life independent of the writer or her works; she also has a long history of disrupting boundaries. Multi-faceted, contradictory, incessantly mobile, she can be evoked to support or attack any number of disparate cultural positions; seemingly there wherever one looks, she endorses in true celebrity style whatever intellectual or material product we are being asked to consume.

Sometimes she appears as a name, the name that Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of . . . ? made "part of the coinage of everyday speech."1  More often she appears as a face, the face in the widely reproduced photographs by Beresford, Lenare, May Ray, and Gisèle Freund. But whatever the representation, she consistently destabilizes categories such as gender or cultural class, undoing distinctions that our culture dearly likes to keep in place. She may be featured in the "high" culture associated with academic and intellectual life (#1 on a list of "What's In" at the MLA; poster girl for the New York Review of Books), but she's equally at home in popular or mass culture, where she makes numerous cameo appearances in plays, films, TV sitcoms, fashion magazines, and ads.

As I soon discovered, Virginia Woolf icon's presence on the web graphically illustrates her multiple personae. In this sense she enacts the cross-overs among contemporary meanings of icon itself: a revered symbol, a sign that stands for something else, a superstar or idol, and the small symbolic picture on your computer screen that you click on to make a move. 2  To put this another way, if Virginia Woolf has the star quality that motivates her fans to make her an icon on the web, her appearances can also be read as embodiments of the medium itself. When Virginia Woolf goes hypertextual, her proliferation and diversity become one with the connections, disjunctions, juxtapositions, and interactions that characterize the web.

For one thing, like the web, Virginia Woolf icon is global. The most extensive network of sites, the Virginia Woolf Web, originates in Japan, which, along with Great Britain and France, has its own Virginia Woolf Society. Each of these has a web page that can be reached through the International Virginia Woolf Society, whose web address is in Toronto; the IVWS also directs users to the VWoolf listserv. Another multi-site web, the Virginia Woolf WebRing, has a ringmaster in Sweden and articles that haven't yet been translated into English. The Virginia Woolf Web is the place to start, especially if you're looking for the literary or scholarly Virginia Woolf, for words not images. But it is not the only place; enter "'Virginia Woolf'" into AltaVista's search engine, for instance, and you'll get 17,266 listings.

What will you find when you begin to surf? It depends on the paths you take. My interests governed my choices: the translation of Virginia Woolf icon onto the web and the possibilities offered by the medium. I've come nowhere near a "comprehensive" viewing of her appearances; make your own choices and you'll find other patterns. I'd love to know your results.

Here are some of the things that I've discovered:

Not surprisingly, a large number of sites are devoted to Virginia Woolf's writings, including at least two discussion groups where anyone can participate. (According to the Detroit Free Press, Virginia Woolf appears as number 5—and is the only woman—in HotBot's list of most actively sought writers; the others are Joyce, Orwell, Steinbeck, Hemingway, London, Kipling, Baldwin, Conrad, and Kerouac.) You'll also find a lot of e- bookstores., for instance, will gladly sell you any book mentioned on the Virginia Woolf on Women and Fiction site, produced by Cygnet Education and Information Services, which benefits financially from your purchases.

As always, Virginia Woolf sells more than books. Want a stand-up desk? Try the Virginia Woolf model, promising, should you desire it, "an antique reproduction look that will impress even the most discriminating executive."

Discussion groups and Woolf's online texts are often part of rings or pages with links to distinctly non-scholarly locations. Jacqueline's Virginia Woolf Links, part of a site assembled by Orlando Books in Canada, has the usual literary connections, but it also links you to the Cosmic Baseball Association. Here, we discover, Virginia Woolf was an active player (second base, infield/outfield) from 1985 to 1997 (there are contradictory lists), playing for the Bohemians and the Vestal Virgins until she had a fight with Virgins manager Erica Jong and was transferred to the Paradise Pisces. The most extensive "plate" on Virginia Woolf (1997), which includes three photographs of the player, informs us that she is not only "another icon of the modern and postmodern belief that madness and art are inextricably linked," but that she "remains a potent figure today. An icon claimed by feminism, the avant-garde, mental health advocates, bisexual activists, and young women and men seeking identities outside the collapsing walls of the once great land of 'normalcy.'" Links include the roster for the Paradise Pisces, the Virginia Woolf Web, a psychiatric profile, paperback book covers of Orlando, the words to the Indigo Girls' Virginia Woolf song, and the Virginia Woolf Society.

Or consider Arm in Arm: An Online Tribute to Virginia Woolf, which has a link to Woolf Humor. Here you'll find a Dave Letterman-like list of Top Ten Plausible Reasons for No (Overt) Sex in To the Lighthouse; you'll also find a link to the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum, where, in a list of "Famous Users and Photos of Antiques," we find the Coronet Beauty Patter assigned to Virginia Woolf. The Good Vibrations site is also noteworthy for repeating one of the most disconcerting aspects of Virginia Woolf icon: her uncanny link to Marilyn Monroe (presented as another "Famous User"). Norman Mailer seems to have been the first to make the Woolf/Monroe connection, evoking "another woman who committed suicide" in his biography of the actress; 3  other comparisons have emphasized their shared iconicity. But none is as graphic—or problematic—as the life-size photomontage that combined Virginia Woolf's head with Marilyn Monroe's body. One of several hybrid figures created for the opening of the Hardback Cafe in Chapel Hill, NC, this image, unlike the others, infuriated viewers; unfortunately, it no longer exists.

Virginia Woolf and Marilyn Monroe also intersect on another site, reinforcing the uncanniness: the entry for November 25 in Aroundmanitoba's "This Week in History." Looking at "Born on this Day" we find both Leonard Woolf, described as "the English publisher who was married to the novelist Virginia Woolf," and Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankee baseball player who, we are told, "became the second husband of Marilyn Monroe." (Leonard is accompanied by a picture of his wife.) At this point I did more that marvel at the cross-overs between the two women or wonder about Virginia Woolf's links to baseball; I began to worry about the fact that I shared the two men's birthday . . .

Virginia Woolf's face on this page, as on so many others, illustrates perhaps the most significant aspect of her iconic incarnations on the web: visual images rule. Virginia Woolf is an icon's icon. Want to see a picture of her? Easy; go to one the many galleries. Want to navigate or join the Virginia Woolf WebRing? Click on the famed Beresford profile of the young Virginia Stephen that serves as the ring's icon. Want to send an e-card of the Beresford? will oblige. Particularly interested in Gisèle Freund, whose 1939 photographs of Virginia Woolf are almost equally well-known? Go to the online catalogue of an exhibit of her images and find the one of Virginia Woolf, accompanied by one of Freund's aphorisms: "The photographer has to read a face like a book. She also has to decide what is between the lines." Want to see how other artists have used her image? Check out the collages in the Gallery of Images Connecting Virginia Woolf and Georgia O'Keeffe.

While many of the images of Virginia Woolf appear on web pages located in colleges or universities (my favorite is the photomontage that has Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain tubing on the Boise River), many, like those used by the Cosmic Baseball League, do not. Nor does a specific search for Virginia Woolf images produce only portraits of the writer; instead, it illustrates the associative nature of the Web. One image that turned up showed two houses; clicking on it catapulted you into the realm of gay Brighton (UK), on the Local Art History page, where virtual pink plaques are attached to the houses of "queer interest" in the area. One of these was occupied by Virginia Woolf.

An image search also illustrates the literalness of the web, inevitably bringing up pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg; both actresses won awards for playing Martha, the scary protagonist in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Albee's play brings me to my final point: that in stark contrast to her representations in other media, on the web no one seems to be afraid of Virginia Woolf. Fans dominate the scene. The more participatory, user-friendly nature of the Web clearly makes a difference here. No one appears to have created a page that denigrates the writer, her writings, her popularity, or her fans. And if they did, what authority would it have? It's hard to assert ownership of her image or her meaning in this environment; what's to stop someone from linking your page to their own contestatory representation? In this sense nothing stays fixed on the web; subsequent linkages remap the terrain. Those who worry about the loss of clear distinctions between high and popular culture—about the iconization of Virginia Woolf, her role as revered symbol—may well be distressed by this mobility; those who claim to know the "real" or "authentic" Virginia Woolf will probably join them. But for those who recognize the power of the associative process to trace connections and communities, following the links of the hypertextual Virginia Woolf icon can open up spaces to define culture anew.

By the way, if you want to vote for Virginia Woolf for Time's Person of the Millennium, click here. . . .


  1. Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 3.
  2. See William Safire, "Many Icons, Few Iconoclasts," New York Times Magazine, 24 November 1996, 42, 44. For the article on Virginia Woolf as icon in this issue, click here.
  3. Norman Mailer, Marilyn: A Biography (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973), 17-18


Copyright notice: © 1999 by Brenda R. Silver. This text appears on the University of Chicago Press website by permission of the author. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law and agreements, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that Brenda R. Silver and the University of Chicago Press are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Brenda R. Silver.

Brenda R. Silver
Virginia Woolf Icon
Cloth $65.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-75745-2
Paper $22.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-75746-9
©1999, 376 pages, 35 halftones

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Virginia Woolf Icon.