A Report from Dominic Davies
This Day Symposium, hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford, marked and celebrated the centenary of the publication of Leonard Woolf’s path-breaking first novel, set in then Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913). It explored the novel from a number of different critical and informed angles, all of which addressed and emphasized its richness, complexity and importance as a piece of literature. The Symposium was well attended, with over 60 delegates engaging with the various presentations, lectures and papers in the rich discussions that followed them.
After a short introduction from Professor Hermione Lee, the President of Wolfson College and Director of Oxford Centre for Life Writing, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford and the Symposium Convenor, the opening keynote was given by Chandani Lokuge. An Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia, Chandani’s lecture gave a comprehensive introduction to, and analysis of, the novel. The new perspectives that she offered stimulated some productive discussion in the questions that followed.
This was followed by a roundtable discussion that drew on a varied selection of writings by and related to Leonard Woolf, including excerpts from Woolf’s short stories, his later political writings and extracts from Virginia Woolf’s work, as well as from The Village in the Jungle. These passages were selected by a range of academics from universities across the UK, each of whom introduced their choices and drew out some interesting points from them. The discussion that followed emphasized the complexity and breadth of Leonard Woolf’s literary output, as well as exploring several of the novel’s thematic concerns. The Symposium was further enriched by the presence of a fascinating display table, kindly put together by Nathan Sivasambu, that included a number of articles, etchings and books related to Leonard Woolf.
After lunch, four papers were given as part of a panel discussion entitled ‘Perceptions of the Jungle’. These papers expanded on various aspects of Woolf’s novel on both a textual and historical level, and traced some of the various critical receptions that it has received. The panel was followed by another engaging question and answer session, before prize-winning biographer and novelist, Victoria Glendinning, gave the closing plenary. Victoria gave a rich account of the biographical period during which Woolf produced The Village in the Jungle. In the conversation with Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, that followed her lecture and that was also opened up to contributions from the floor, this biographical context was explored further to bring the life of Leonard Woolf to the fore.
The Symposium concluded with a series of readings from three contemporary writers: Roshi Fernando, Roma Tearne and Romesh Gunesekera. The writers offered some thoughtful responses to Woolf as well as reading some superb extracts from their own work, and the return to literature provided a productive and enjoyable conclusion to the day.