In her famous essay on the middlebrow, Virginia Woolf memorably bemoans the “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calf’s foot jelly” that is middlebrow writing. Nauseating as it might be, the image speaks to the social function of food as a mediator of classed experiences and aesthetics, as does her follow-up suggestion that her “friends the lowbrows” ought to invite Hamlet to tea. Taking that suggestion perhaps dangerously literally, this essay considers the effects of inviting Alice Toklas—via The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook—to tea, or to any other meal. This is not to say that the “battle of the brows” will be resolved by inviting anyone to tea, but rather that it might be re-imagined. Indeed, Toklas herself takes an invitation to lunch as an occasion to demonstrate the permeability of class categories, comparing the menus of two lunches she was served in the same French home, one “whose food was famous.” The first—a formal nine-course meal with fresh silverware and plates for every course—began, appropriately enough, with a jellied meat that is inarguably highbrow, an “Aspic de Foie Gras,” and continued with equal complexity and extravagance, while the second—a family dinner—opened with the more prosaic “Lentil Soup” and extended over only six courses, all relatively simple. Between courses, the family members “methodically . . . wiped their knives and forks on pieces of bread” (Toklas, Cookbook, 11, 13, 14) For Toklas, as for her readers, these meals are “a revelation of the way life was led in a French family of fashion” and a reminder that behaviors (like menus, and jellied meats) can both reinforce class boundaries and cross them (14). Following Toklas’s example, a literary reassessment of the “battle of the brows” might be accomplished by attending to the ways in which middlebrow writers of the early twentieth century—as well as their “high modernist” counterparts—used the discourse of gustatory taste to negotiate and theorize questions of literary and aesthetic taste. Scholars of the middlebrow are accustomed to thinking of taste as a cultural and institutional force that structures the literary field; food studies offers a reminder that taste is also subjective, bodily, and often surprising. Even calf’s foot jelly is someone’s favorite food.
In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf famously writes, “Chloe liked Olivia,” a line that anticipates, and even directs, feminist literary scholarship through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Woolf’s modernist feminism, in A Room and a range of other literary essays, calls for a female literary lineage as well as histories of the anonymous women whose stories have never been told. How then, after almost a century, has Woolf’s vision fulfilled itself? In what ways has her work reached global and contemporary audiences, and how have these audiences used modernist feminism to talk about their current political and cultural circumstances? How do we begin to construct a female literary canon that is based on the affective responses of one writer to another? The overwhelming international popularity of Elena Ferrante’s metamodern Neapolitan quartet, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Lost Child (2014), illustrates the affective impact of Woolf’s feminist ideas. Ferrante does in fiction what Woolf calls for in theory as she amplifies the implications of female friendship, matrilineal lineage, women’s anger, and anonymity. Through an appropriation of modernist feminist tendancies, both in content and form, Ferrante explores the psychological and subterranean currents of female consciousness and gives voice to Shakespeare’s sister, the female writer who comes into existence through the work of anonymous women. Ferrante, herself one of those anonymous women, continues the female lineage Woolf argues for. The inner worlds of the women in Ferrante’s realist prose remind us of Woolf’s call to remember the interior lives of women; yet Ferrante’s novels are very much products of post-fascist Italy and 1970s Italian feminism.
Alice Walker began 1982 with Virginia Woolf. Walker would spend the year recording events, plans, and phone numbers in spiral-bound pages of a calendar she had acquired filled with photographs of Woolf and her contemporaries. As Walker crossed out days, her purple ink seeped through one page, partly obscuring Woolf’s photograph on the verso. The lines meet Woolf’s likeness, a purple X just passing her eye. The range of inks that Walker used throughout her calendar suggest that this was chance, but the ink also recalls Walker’s novel published the same year, The Color Purple; likely unbeknownst to Walker, it was also a color in which Woolf preferred to write. It is the materiality of circumstance that makes this artifact a vestige of mass culture, everyday life, and artistic creation.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
It runs like this: First, a film has to contain two female characters; second, they have to talk to one other; third: they have to talk about something besides a man.
Who today hasn’t heard of the Bechdel test? Having gone viral, it increasingly serves as a litmus test in class discussion for marking outsized gender bias in texts. The test provides a handy algorithm, generating a consistent output: a fundamental feminist insight that far too many texts do not contain women who talk about anything besides a man.