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Shakespeares Sister Virginia Woolf Essay On Being Ill

Not to be confused with A Room with a View.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929,[1] the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled "Women and Fiction", which was published in Forum March 1929,[2] and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction.[3] The essay is generally seen as a feminist text and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.


The essay was based on a series of lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. She stayed at Newnham at the invitation of Pernel Strachey whose family were key members of the Bloomsbury Group and was also Newnham's principal.[4]


Women's access to education[edit]

The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction".[5] Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble".[6] The title also refers to any author's need for poetic licence and the personal liberty to create art.

The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.

Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting. Woolf lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society.

Judith Shakespeare[edit]

This article is about the fictional character. For the real-life individual, see Judith Quiney.

In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school."[7] Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.

Building a history of women's writing[edit]

In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison.[8] Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar… J ---- H---- herself".[9]

Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'".[8][10] Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, though Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women".[11] Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage.[12] The essay quotes Oscar Browning through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham:[13] "'… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that…the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'"[11] In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.

The Four Marys[edit]

The narrator of the work is at one point identified as "Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael", alluding to the sixteenth century ballad Mary Hamilton.[8][14] In referencing the tale of a woman about to be hanged for existing outside of marriage and rejecting motherhood, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. It is important to note that Woolf's heroine, Judith Shakespeare, dies by her own hand, after she becomes pregnant with the child of an actor. Like the woman in the Four Marys, she is pregnant and trapped in a life imposed on her. Woolf sees Judith Shakespeare, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, as powerless, impoverished women everywhere as threatened by the spectre of death.


In another section, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women."[15][16] Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness published in 1928. Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator, has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you..."[15]

Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it."[17] Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic." Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.


In this paragraph, Woolf sums up the stark contrast her research has uncovered between how women are idealised in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life:

Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.


Woolf's famous demand on behalf of the hypothetical female author, narratively framed by the Four Marys, is articulated in the line:

Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.[18]

Inflation-adjusting £500 in 1929 to the present (2013), gives about £25,000 (about US$43,000) (using inflation of the cost of goods) or about £75,000 (about US$130,000) (using inflation of people's earnings).[19] Converting £500 in 1929 to 1913 yields £230 to £310, which is below the group that George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier (published in 1937, but describing pre-War life in this passage) as the lower end of the upper-middle class:

To belong to this class when you were at the £400 a year level was a queer business, for it meant that your gentility was almost purely theoretical. You lived, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously. Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, at most, two resident servants. Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant. Theoretically you knew how to shoot and ride, although in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot over.

The £500 was just enough to live on without employment but without any extravagance. This (minimal) independent wealth introduces a socio-political element into Woolf's argument which speaks not only to gender dynamics but to divisions in social class. This element of Woolf's argument has been addressed in a number of scholarly and literary attacks.[citation needed]

Alice Walker, to the subject of much criticism, demeaned Woolf's essay for its exclusion of women of color, and women writers who do not have any means for obtaining the independence of a room of their own. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes: "Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day."[20]

Walker recognises that Wheatley is in a position far different from the narrator of Woolf's essay, in that she does not own herself, much less "a room of her own". Wheatley and other women writers exist outside of this room, outside of this space Woolf sets asides for women writers. Though she calls attention to the limits of Woolf's essay, Walker, in uniting womanist prose (women's writing) with the physical and metaphorical space of "our mothers' gardens", pays homage to Woolf's similar endeavour of seeking space, "room", for women writers.


It was adapted as a play by Patrick Garland who also directed Eileen Atkins in its stage performance. The television adaptation directed by Patrick Garland was broadcast on PBSMasterpiece Theatre in 1991.

Cultural references[edit]

Feminist and LGBT bookstore A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin, was named after Woolf's essay. Canadian literary journal showcasing the work of women writers and visual artists, Room of One's Own, now Room, was also named for Woolf's essay. The Smiths' song "Shakespeare's Sister" is named after a section of the essay. The group Two Nice Girls' third album was called Chloe Liked Olivia. The women's coworking space in Singapore, "Woolf Works", was named after Virginia Woolf as a response to this essay.

See also[edit]


  1. ^"FAQ: A Room of One's Own Publication History". Virginia Woolf Seminar. University of Alabama in Huntsville. 20 January 1998. p. 1. Archived from the original on 24 December 2012. Retrieved 24 December 2012. 
  2. ^Orlando, Cambridge.org
  3. ^Lavender, Catherine. "Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)". Archived from the original on 29 July 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2013. 
  4. ^Rita McWilliams Tullberg, ‘Strachey, (Joan) Pernel (1876–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 6 March 2017
  5. ^Woolf, p. 4.
  6. ^Woolf, p. 52.
  7. ^Woolf, p. 47.
  8. ^ abcWoolf, Virginia (1929). Shiach, Morag, ed. A Room of One's Own: And, Three Guineas. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192834843. 
  9. ^Woolf, p. 17.
  10. ^Woolf, p. 35.
  11. ^ abWoolf, p. 53.
  12. ^"The Friendship Between Churchill and F.E. Smith". The Churchill Center and Museum. Archived from the original on 31 July 2013. Retrieved 21 July 2013. 
  13. ^Moad, Rosalind (21 March 2003). "A list of The Papers of Oscar Browning, held by King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge". Archived from the original on 23 December 2012. Retrieved 1 June 2007. 
  14. ^Woolf, p. 5.
  15. ^ abWoolf, p. 82.
  16. ^Cramer, Patricia (2005). Jane Harrison and Lesbian Plots: The Absent Lover in Virginia Woolf's The Waves. University of North Texas. Retrieved 21 April 2010. 
  17. ^Marcus, Jane. Virginia Woolf, Cambridge and A Room of One's Own: 'The Proper Upkeep of Names.' London: Cecil Woolf Publishers, 1996. 33.
  18. ^Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 20 November 2013. 
  19. ^"Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound Amount, 1270 to Present". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  20. ^Walker, Alice (2004). In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 235. ISBN 9780156028646. 


  • Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989.

External links[edit]

The story of the body's life, and the part the body has to play in our lives, is one of Virginia Woolf's great subjects. Far from being an ethereal, chill, disembodied writer, she is always transforming thoughts and feelings and ideas into bodily metaphors. She writes with acute - often extremely troubling - precision about how the body mediates and controls our life stories. Body parts are strewn all over her pages. Rage and embarrassment are felt in the thighs; a headache can turn into a whole autobiography; dressing up the body is an epic ordeal; and a clenched fist, feet in a pair of boots, the flash of a dress or the fingertip feel of a creature in a salt-water pool, can speak volumes.

Nowhere is her attention to body parts more eloquent and intense than in the essay "On Being Ill". It is one of Woolf's most daring, strange and original short pieces of writing, and it has more subjects than its title suggests. Like the clouds that its sick watcher, "lying recumbent", sees changing shapes and ringing curtains up and down, this is a shape-changing essay.

Illness is one of the main stories of Woolf's life. The breakdowns and suicide attempts in her early years, which can be read as evidence of manic depression, led, in the 30 years of her adult writing life, to persistent, periodical illnesses, in which mental and physical symptoms seemed inextricably entwined. All her life, severe physical symptoms - fevers, faints, headaches, jumping pulse, insomnia - signalled and accompanied phases of agitation or depression. In her most severe phases, she hardly ate, and shed weight frighteningly. Terrible headaches marked the onset of illness or exhaustion.

The link she makes in the essay between "fever" and "melancholia" was well known to her. Her jumping pulse and high temperatures, which could last for weeks, were diagnosed as "influenza". At the beginning of 1922 these symptoms got so bad that she consulted a heart specialist, who diagnosed a "tired" heart or heart murmur. Teeth-pulling was recommended as a cure for persistent high temperature - and also for "neurasthenia". She had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms and infuriating restrictions all her life. But, in her writings about illness there is a repeated emphasis on its creative and liberating effects. "I believe these illnesses are in my case - how shall I express it? partly mystical. Something happens in my mind." "On Being Ill" tracks that "something" in the "undiscovered countries", the "virgin forest", of the experience of the solitary invalid.

The immediate story behind the writing of "On Being Ill" begins with Woolf falling down in a faint at a party at her sister's house in Charleston on August 19 1925. The summer had been going swimmingly up till then. Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader were published earlier in the year, and whenever she "registered" her books' "temperature" they seemed to be doing well. She was full of ideas for starting her next novel, To the Lighthouse, and she was at the most intimate stage of her absorbing, seductive relationship with Vita Sackville-West. But then, "why couldn't I see or feel that all this time I was getting a little used up & riding on a flat tire?" The faint led to months and months of illness, and her letters and diary, from September till the new year (when no sooner did she start to get better than she contracted German measles), are full of frustration and distress.

Why has illness not been as popular a subject for literature as love, she asks in the essay? (This question could not be asked now). Why has the "daily drama of the body" not been recognised? Why does literature always insist on separating the mind, or the soul, from the body? Perhaps because the public would never accept illness as a subject for fiction; perhaps because illness requires a new language - "primitive, subtle, sensual, obscene". But illness is almost impossible to communicate. The invalid's demand for sympathy can never be met. Besides, illness really prefers solitude. "Here we go alone, and like it better so."

This loose improvisation is netted together by a complex pattern of images, drawing on water, air, earth and fire, desert wastes and mountain peaks, deep forests and vast seas, clouds, birds, leaves and flowers, as though through illness a whole alternative universe is created. As the images cohere, a satire on conformity begins to emerge. The ill are the deserters, the refuseniks. They won't accept the "co-operative" conventions. They blurt things out. They turn sympathisers away. They won't go to work. They lie down. They waste time. They fantasise. They don't go to church or believe in heaven. They refuse to read responsibly or to make sense of what they read. They are attracted to nonsense, sensation and rashness.

On the other side of the glass is "the army of the upright", harnessing energy, driving motor cars, going to work and to church, "with the heroism of the ant or the bee", writing letters to the Times, communicating and civilising. Her prototypes for these good citizens, snatched rather wildly from the newspapers she happens to be reading at the time, are the Bishop of Lichfield, and Samuel Insull, who, before his collapse and disgrace in the depression years, was co-founder, with Edison, of the General Electric Company, head of the Chicago empire of utility and transportation companies, and the bringer of electrification to "the cities of the Middle West": a wonderful embodiment of productive energy. There is a faint suggestion that in separating themselves from the army of workers, the ill are like pacifists or non-combatants, unconscientious objectors who nevertheless have their own battles to fight.

At the centre of the essay there is a description of what it feels like to be lying on our back looking upwards. What do we see?

"Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible... Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different... that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! - this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and wagons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away... One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house."

Woolf's vision of clouds is a modern, technological vision, a "gigantic cinema". It is also a theatrical spectacle, ringing up and down its curtains of light and shade. And it is closely connected to the theme of reading that runs through the essay. A few paragraphs later, these insubstantial structures - "rock ramparts" being created and wafted away - are implicitly contrasted with the solid structure of long prose works - "arches, towers, and battlements" standing firm on their foundations - which are not, she says, what we want to read in illness.

What we might want to read is Shakespeare, if we can shake the "flyblown" dust of criticism off him and read him fresh. "I read Hamlet last night," she wrote to Sackville-West on September 23 1925. Hamlet is in the essay from the beginning, in her reference to the "undiscovered countries" of illness, and in her use of the phrase "shuffled off". "To be or not to be", Hamlet 's meditation whether we should make our own way into that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns", is lurking in the margins of the essay. Would the Christian faith, she asks suddenly in the middle, give its believers enough conviction "to leap into Heaven off Beachy Head?" Under its playful surface, there is a muffled, anguished debate about whether illness can take one so far out to sea, so high up the mountain peak (like Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway), so apart from "normality", that suicide might seem the only escape.

There's a strong presence in the essay, too, of the Romantic writers Woolf read throughout her life - who themselves were steeped in Shakespeare. Her title is like one of Hazlitt's, who called his essays "On Going on a Journey", or "On the Fear of Death". Shelley, Keats and Coleridge are mentioned or quoted; De Quincey, Charles Lamb and Wordsworth are all in play. That cloudscape of Woolf's, with its "incessant making up of shapes", shows how deeply absorbed she was at this time in reading De Quincey. She published an essay on his work, called "Impassioned Prose", in the same year as "On Being Ill".

De Quincey often writes about cloudscapes, or invokes Shakespeare's cloud language. In an extraordinary passage in his autobiographical essay "Suspiria de Profundis", he writes about himself as a child, in deep grief after the death of his sister, sitting in church and looking out of the window. The "white fleecy clouds" that he sees shape themselves, in his "sorrow-haunted eye", into "a vision of beds" full of sick and dying children, "tossing in anguish, and weeping clamorously for death". In "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", he describes the terrifying and stupendous architecture of his dreams under the effects of opium, and compares these architectural dreams to cloudscapes.

Like Wordsworth, whom she often read, Woolf finds no consolation for the human condition in her cloudscapes. Wordsworth wrote in a sonnet of 1807 ("Those words were uttered as in pensive mood") on the changing beauties of cloudscapes as "unstable as a dream of night". They "find in the heart of man no natural home". It's the same idea, in different words, as Woolf's on the "divine heartlessness" of that spectacular vision of clouds in "On Being Ill", which has "nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit". Woolf, like Wordsworth, is asking that most serious question under the light surface of her essay: where do human beings find consolation or sympathy for their anguish?

Not in the sky: and not, according to her, in any idea of anything beyond the sky, any "undiscovered country" of immortality or afterlife. What consolation or freedom or escape we have is going to be found here, in language and writing and the work of the imagination. The shifting clouds in the sky are alien to us, ultimately no use to us. They just go on playing to an empty house. But what the imagination can do with them - especially when released by the reckless, anarchic permission that illness seems to provide - is of immense use to us.

In "Impassioned Prose", Woolf describes De Quincey making "scenes" in his writing. One of those she cites is of "Lamb asleep in his chair". In this touchingly evocative reminiscence, De Quincey remembers how his friend Charles Lamb - the essayist, poet and dramatist - would always fall asleep in his chair after dinner, with a seraphic expression on his face, "a repose affectingly contrasted with the calamities and internal storms of his life".

Lamb's history is one of the stories of anguish invoked in "On Being Ill". The most peculiar and painful quotation in the essay is from a letter from Lamb to the Quaker poet Bernard Barton, written on July 25 1829, in great despondency. Lamb's sister Mary - as she intermittently had to be, after she killed their mother in a fit of mania - was confined in an asylum. Lamb was staying in London, not at his country home in Enfield, and was feeling a terrible sense of solitude. He had given up the dull, routine, rather oppressive job he had done for more than 30 years, as a clerk in East India House, three years before. At first he had felt a great sense of relief; now he felt - as he often did - a terminal depression: "I pity you for overwork, but I assure you no-work is worse. The mind preys on itself, the most unwholesome food. I brag'd formerly that I could not have too much time. I have a surfeit. I have killed an hour or two in this poor scrawl. I am a sanguinary murderer of time, and would kill him inchmeal just now. But the snake is vital." "Who shall explain the delight?" adds Woolf, quoting these phrases.

Two of Lamb's essays are echoed in "On Being Ill". One is a piece called "The Convalescent", where Lamb describes, just as she does, the peculiar state of mind that comes over the sick person who has a "nervous fever". Like her, he writes on the "supreme selfishness" and self-absorption of the sick person, on how he becomes "a world unto himself - his own theatre". The other essay she must have had in mind is called "Popular Fallacies: That We Should Rise with the Lark", which is close to Woolf's satire on "the army of the upright". Much better to stay in bed, says Lamb, just like Woolf: "While the busy part of mankind are fast huddling on their clothes, are already up and about their occupation, content to have swallowed their sleep by wholesale; we chose to linger a-bed, and digest our dreams." After all, why should we get up? "We have nothing here to expect, but in a short time a sick-bed, and a dismissal."

It's his profound melancholia and terror of insanity that is part of Lamb's attraction for Woolf, and which explains his presence in "On Being Ill". But what she admires him for, above all, is the imaginative energy with which Lamb transforms himself from melancholic depressive into "Elia", dazzlingly playful and inventive essayist. In "On Being Ill" there is a passage on the possibility of living out the lives which in childhood we think we might have, until we settle into the confines of the one life we are going to lead. It's a passage which anticipates Orlando, the next novel she will write after To the Lighthouse, and after that The Waves, in which Bernard ends the novel thinking of all the unlived selves he might have been: "those old half-articulate ghosts who keep up their hauntings by day and by night; who turn over in their sleep, who utter their confused cries, who put out their phantom fingers and clutch at me as I try to escape - shadows of people one might have been; unborn selves."

In "On Being Ill", she writes:

"There is no harm in choosing, to live over and over, now as a man, now as a woman, as sea-captain, or court lady, as Emperor or farmer's wife, in splendid cities and on remote moors, at the time of Pericles or Arthur, Charlemagne, or George the Fourth - to live and live till we have lived out those embryo lives which attend about us in early youth until I 'suppressed them'."

For Woolf, as for some of the great writers she reads and makes use of on her sick-bed, writing - and reading - can shape and keep those possibilities of alternative, imaginary lives, which otherwise are lost to us for ever, like dreams, or clouds.

· This is an edited extract from Hermione Lee's introduction to "On Being Ill", reprinted by permission of Jan Freeman at the Paris Press, and included in Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing, by Hermione Lee, published by Chatto & Windus on January 6, price £20

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