Woolf, rooks, and rural England

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Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) are an integral part of the English rural landscape. As Mark Cocker has observed, their ‘very presence . . . is directly attributable to our own activities: without agriculture such birds of open country would not be here at all’ (Birds Britannica, 2005, ix). Woolf refers a number of times in her letters and diary to the antics of the rooks at Rodmell; in Three Guineas, she writes of ‘some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree.’ What is more, it appears to have gone unnoticed that rooks feature in every one of her novels. They are there as a fertile source of imagery: consider the courtroom and opera house scenes in The Years, where first Eleanor and then Kitty compare the people present to ‘rooks swooping in a field, rising and falling’; or the Rev. Streatfield in Between the Acts, looking like ‘a rook [who] had hopped unseen to a prominent bald branch.’ They also have significant cameos: think of Ralph Denham’s pet rook in Night and Day; or Joseph and Mary in To the Lighthouse; or the rooks ‘whirling and wheeling’ overhead as Orlando races towards her first meeting with Shelmerdine. With reference to the work of earlier nature writers, such as Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson, this paper situates Woolf’s writing on rooks within the wider context of her well-informed but often overlooked writing on English rural life.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWoolfian Boundaries
Subtitle of host publicationSelected Papers from the Sixteenth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf
EditorsAnna Burrels, Steve Ellis, Deborah Parsons, Kathryn Simpson
Place of PublicationClemson
PublisherClemson University Press
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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