It was 1988, and my first summer conference as a newly-appointed lecturer. I arrived late at the venue, one of those new English Universities, all breeze-block in open fields. I walked to the student residences — the accommodation for the week — dumped my luggage and made for the campus building. The introductory session had already begun in the main lecture theatre. I felt weary and awkward, so, instead of disturbing proceedings, I asked a loitering janitor where I could find a bar. He directed me to a gloomy Student Union facility with worn upholstery on the benches, and no carpet on the floor. The only other customer, a bearded man in his fifties, overweight and sour of expression, was wedged into a corner seat. He was drinking scotch. I bought a pint of bitter and, feeling an obligation to be sociable, caught his eye.
“Here for the conference?” I asked.
“If I could find an excuse to be anywhere else in the world, I’d use it,” he growled. “God-forsaken hole of a place to be stuck for a week. Seven days of poppycock and balderdash I’ll be bound.”
“Oh it won’t be so bad,” I said, without enthusiasm. “Lots of interesting papers.”
“Women, queers and fellow-travellers,” he snorted.
I wondered in which category he placed me. I did not share with him that I was there only because they had accepted my paper on “Powerful Women in Contemporary Speculative Fiction,” and my Head of Department had hinted that I needed to improve my publications and conference appearances. Secretly, I was concerned about the quality of the conference, not least because my paper, cobbled together at the last minute and less than insightful, had nevertheless been accepted. Even the title of the conference, “Words from the Womb: Women’s Fiction towards a New Century” did not fill me with hope. But everything seemed to be about gender in those days, and I had my career to think of.
The bearded man was still speaking as if to himself, not looking in my direction, but allowing his voice to rise in volume and take on a declamatory tone.
“Thirty years I have given to the study of literature, only to end up ordered to attend this pantomime at the world's end. Ordered! I’m a renowned academic in the field of English Studies, and some jumped-up child, hardly finished with her own degree, gets herself appointed Dean and demands that I bring myself up to date. Says I must teach a course in Contemporary Women’s Literature next session, and have to be au fait with the latest theoretical perspectives.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. He finished his whisky and fetched another from the bar. He also brought a pint, waved it in my direction and signalled for me to join him. Warily I did so, and he continued with his complaint.
Listening to him (I had little opportunity to speak) I realised that he was perfectly familiar with current feminist perspectives in literary studies. It was simply that he treated them with contempt. He systematically rubbished a list of fine, contemporary women novelists, but saved his bitterest comments for feminist theorists and academics who, he insisted, were destroying literary studies as a discipline, and reducing it to “personal anecdote and pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo.”
He had downed two more double whiskies when the opening session broke up, and delegates began to crowd the bar. Apart from a few men who stood uncomfortably on the fringes, the delegates were women, of a range of ages, but all displaying a confidence and social ease that made me nervous.
Not so my companion, whose volume increased, and whose criticisms grew ever more vitriolic. I sensed that bystanders could hear him, and I tried to move him off his preoccupation.
“Are you presenting a paper yourself ?”
He paused and looked at me with bleary eyes.
“Bloody well have to, don’t I? Dean insisted. Told her I never read women’s writing, and she subjected me to an hour of squeaking rage. I was a dinosaur. Throwback to the dark ages. Misogynist. So on. Offered to co-write a paper with me that she felt sure would be appropriate for the conference. Patronising harpy.”
“So what did you do?”
“Stuck together some old tosh about Virginia Woolf. They love that stuff, this mob.”
A group of women standing near to our table turned their heads towards us and I thought it best to remove myself, before the force of his views and volume precipitated unpleasantness. I excused myself on grounds of travel fatigue. As I walked away, I could hear his continuing, morose monologue, and I resolved to steer clear of him for the rest of the week.
• • •
Next morning, continental breakfast was served in the campus dining room. There was no sign of the bearded man, whom , in ignorance of his name, I had taken to thinking of as “The Angry Professor.” This was perhaps just as well for, once the day's proceedings began, the discussion quickly became animated. A postgraduate from Wales, not in the least unnerved by the presence in her audience of a number of senior academics, read a section from her dissertation-in-progress, launching a withering attack on gender bias in literature teaching in British universities. She was warmly applauded by the mainly female audience, but a young man from one of the newer Scottish institutions took it upon himself to challenge a number of her key assertions, and immediately became the focus for a storm of vituperation from radical women in the room.
Some of the aspersions cast upon him were, in my view, unreasonably personal, and I considered pitching in on his behalf. However, when I looked around, I noticed that the four or five other men in the audience seemed to be shrunken in their seats, inspecting programmes, making jottings in small notebooks or simply examining their footwear. A tone had been set.
At lunch, the Professor emerged from the self-service area carrying a loaded tray, his conference papers jammed under one arm. He shuffled between tables, looking to left and right. I kept my head down, hoping that he would not notice me, but after an interminable time, he arrived, grunted a greeting and sat down.
“Didn't make it to breakfast,” he said, transferring plates of soup, stew and sponge pudding from his tray to the table. “Bit of a skinful last night, I'm afraid. Still, slept well and it stimulates the appetite.”
We had no further conversation while he emptied the plates, then wandered off to find himself a coffee. On his return, he angled himself in his chair and began to interrogate me.
“Anything worthwhile this morning?”
“Well,” I said, “bit of a dust-up over gender bias.”
“Any blood spilled?”
“Nothing serious,” I said, “but the ladies carried the day. Some poor chap was roundly trounced, and no one lifted a finger to help him.”
“Take my word for it,” he said, “that's how it will be all week. They'll rant on about the exploitation of women, the glass ceiling, the undervaluing of female writers and . . . oh, you know, all the same old stuff that they've been getting away with for years. The spineless men who are only here to suck up to them will either agree with everything they say, or keep quiet.”
I felt that I was being enlisted into a fighting force whose aims I could not really endorse, but since the Professor seemed to consider me an ally, and I did not know enough about him to gauge whether it would be in my interest to develop my acquaintance with him, I kept my views to myself. One never knows who might turn up on an appointment panel, or be asked to peer-review a submission for a journal.
• • •
The conference director interrupted lunch to announce “a wonderful addition to the programme.” The planned afternoon session was to be replaced by a presentation from a group of American academics engaged in “a revolutionary area of research.” This was to be their first conference presentation in Britain, a prospect which, we could tell from the director's flushed appearance, excited her intensely. The announcement generated a hum of conversation but from the Professor only a snort of derision.
“Bloody revolutionary area of research,” he said. “That means there's money involved, take my word for it.” “We could all do with extra funding these days,” I said. “Worth finding out what they're up to.”
“Overpaid and over here,” he growled.
• • •
The Americans' session started late. So large was the turn-out that the planned venue proved too small, and we were required to troop across the campus to a more commodious lecture theatre. I felt obliged to stick with the Professor and, since he deigned to hurry, we ended up in the front row next to an exit. Time passed without the arrival of the speakers, and I sensed waves of irritation emanating from my acquaintance.
“If we have to wait any longer, I'm clearing off,” he said, but just then the swing doors opened, and a beaming course director ushered in a trio of women.
The leading figure was a tall, handsome woman of perhaps thirty-five, dressed in a tailored suit of white silk. Her chestnut hair was pulled back from her face in a loose ponytail. In one arm she carried papers, and in her other hand she held a wooden-shafted golf club.
Next came a smaller woman, who looked barely old enough to be a graduate, never mind a researcher. This impression was made stronger by the fact that she wore denim shorts, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with what I took to be the name of a group of musicians. Her feet appeared unnaturally large because of her fluorescent green training shoes which squeaked on the floor as she walked. Her blonde hair was cropped so closely that her head seemed too small for someone of even her diminutive stature. In her hands, held before her like a chalice, was a cap woven from white material. She was unable to take her eyes from it.
The third in the group was, at first, partly obscured from view by the large video camera which she carried on her left shoulder, although it could be seen from the arm and hand that steadied the appliance that she was African-American. She wore a flowing sleeveless dress decorated with large, brightly coloured flowers. It reached almost to the floor. Her sandals, made from woven strips of leather, showed off her scarlet-varnished toenails. When she turned the camera to take in the audience, we were treated to the sight of a stunningly beautiful young woman, her face revealing intense concentration as she panned across the room.
“Looks like an outing of the Liberal Democrats,” the Professor said. However the rest of the audience seemed enthralled by this transatlantic deputation, and conversations faded to an expectant silence. The white-suited woman began to speak.
“Ladies,” she paused and looked around the room, “and gentlemen, I shall forego introductions for reasons that shall surely become clear when I explain to you all the nature of the special project which brings my colleagues and me to your beautiful country.”
Her accent was hardly noticeable, except that her use of the first-person pronoun sounded like a sigh, a soft sound hinting at an origin somewhere in the southern states.
“For the duration of this conference, I shall be known as Amy, my young friend shall go by the name of Beatrice, and our official camera-person shall be called Celia. Not our real names. We are all associate professors at an American university. Our institution last year received a truly bounteous bequest in the will of a graduate who had gone on to gain success in a highly lucrative business. She laid down detailed conditions as to how the money was to be used, including specific instructions about the research that was to be conducted, the type of staff who were to carry it out, and the degree of confidentiality that was to be preserved throughout the process.”
She had the audience in the palm of her hand. I could see them beginning to lean forward in their seats, eyes growing wider as she spoke. It was as if they were imagining how delicious it would be to participate in such an undertaking: handed lavish funding and instructed, from beyond the grave, to undertake a secret task. This was research as adventure. The room awaited her next utterance with held breath.
“Our benefactor had a lifelong devotion to women's writing, but had, in her later years, become irritated by feminist criticism, which she found to be full of abstraction, difficult to follow, and hardly illuminating about the works of great female authors. She had hoped that her wealth might be used to acquire original manuscripts for the University’s library, but watched with dismay as the money paid at auction for such documents spiralled ever upwards, until only the wealthiest institutions could afford them. She realised that even with a bequest as large as the one she was planning to give, we were unlikely to be able to afford a worthwhile collection.
“At this time, I had begun my work on the significance of everyday and domestic objects in the lives and works of women novelists, and our benefactor happened by chance to come across my paper, ‘The Handkerchief and its Significance in the Juvenilia of Mrs Gaskell.’ This so excited her that she approached me, suggesting that our institution could gain a worldwide reputation by gathering a collection, not of manuscripts, but of actual artefacts which had played crucial roles as inspiration and stimulus to the writers she so admired.
“We discussed the feasibility of this and agreed that, in order to avoid the preposterous price inflation which had taken place in the market for literary manuscripts, it would be essential to keep the auction houses from becoming aware of our project, and of the funding we would have available. I am sure I do not have to spell out to you all that the information I am sharing with you needs to remain confidential, not only for the sake of my institution, but for the sake of the feminist research community at large.”
In the seat next to mine the Professor 's breathing becoming deeper. In the midst of an enthralled audience, he alone seemed to be experiencing a negative reaction. I caught his eye. His lips were pressed together in a tight line and his brows were lowered.
“I can't believe what I'm hearing,” he said, in a stage whisper which must have been audible to everyone within five yards. “She is talking about collecting junk and calling it research.”
He seemed ready to embark upon another diatribe, but the speaker was continuing her address, and from all around came sounds of tutting and shushing.
“My colleagues and I began our work some months ago, in the States, and we have already made remarkable acquisitions linked to the writings of Eudora Welty and Sylvia Plath. We have now come to England to extend our endeavours to include the proto-feminist authors of your wonderful land.
“Some of you may already have been wondering about this object.” She raised the golf club in the air, as a victorious knight might flourish a sword. “Only yesterday we were able to complete a deal for the purchase of this club from the estate of Muriel Spark. Our studies have provided irrefutable evidence that her devotion to golf, which included her use of this very mashie-niblick, was essential to her work on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. You will all, of course, recall the highly significant golfing scenes in that wonderful novel.
“And if I can draw your attention to what my young colleague has in her hand . . .” she gestured towards the woman with the cropped blonde hair, “you may recognise the headgear worn by Jane Austen in the only verified portrait in existence, the sketch by Cassandra Austen. I am unable to share with you how we were able to acquire this precious garment, but once again I can assure you of its absolute authenticity.”
At this point, the Professor stood up, pushed past me into the aisle and made a noisy exit. The speaker hesitated for a few moments, her eyes following him until the door swung shut behind him; then continued:
“I can see that some of our more . . . traditionalist colleagues may be surprised, or upset by our innovative, even revolutionary approach. All I can say, in an attempt to allay anxieties, is that since the Middle Ages, new ways of reading, and of understanding what we read, have led to ever-deeper, ever-wider knowledge within the discipline of literary studies. I hope our departing friend will come to realise and accept this truth.” She motioned with the mashie-niblick towards the door through which the Professor had departed. The audience broke into spontaneous applause.
• • •
The week continued. Presentations were given, visiting celebrity lecturers spoke on their pet topics, occasional spats took place between ageing liberal feminists and young radicals. For two days, I saw little of the Professor. He turned up at mealtimes, sometimes sitting beside me but saying little, sometimes sitting alone at an empty table. He never seemed to be present at the delivery of papers, and as I had not learned his name, I was unable to identify which of the numerous presentations concerning Virginia Woolf on the programme was his. On the occasions when he ate at my table, my attempts to enquire when and where he would be speaking were met with a mysterious expression and tap on his nose with his index finger, as if he were guarding some secret that could not be voiced in a public place.
I did not grieve over the loss of his companionship. I made the acquaintance of a group of young women from a redbrick establishment in the North of England, and spent most of my free time in their company. They were bright, ambitious and funny, not taking the proceedings particularly seriously, and amused to have me in tow as a butt for their banter about the ineffectual nature of men. I found myself increasingly drawn to one of them, a dark-haired, slim specialist on 19th century women novelists. She had brown eyes that seemed to twinkle when she was being ironic or mischievous, and which were as deep and dangerous as those peat-coloured moorland pools into which a man might tumble and disappear without a trace. She was called Doris.
The Americans had quickly attained the status of celebrities, always surrounded by enthusiasts and acolytes, warding off questions about their past researches and future plans with kind but firm refusals to give details. My northern friends were interested, but only mildly so. They seemed to regard the Americans with a degree of respect tinged with amusement, and kept up a stream of running jokes about the hockey stick and its place in literature.
When the time came to present my paper, I was relieved to find that I was scheduled to speak in a small classroom, at the same time as an open forum on post-modern poetry was taking place in the main auditorium. I was certain that I would not attract much of an audience in comparison, and so it proved. My brown-eyed friend was one of only nine listeners in the classroom as I began my talk and, by the time I had finished, Doris was one of the remaining four. I was relieved, for I did not feel that my paper had much to commend it, but I was also disappointed that I had not given a strong performance. She waited while I gathered my notes, and accompanied me as I left the room.
“My God,” she said, “you're only marginally less boring than postmodern poetry,” and smiled in a way that made her eyes sparkle.”
“Maybe you just need a drink,” I suggested.
“Too early. I'd rather go for a walk,” she said, and slipped her arm through mine.
• • •
On the Wednesday, the weather became suddenly hot, and all vestiges of formality in dress vanished like the clouds in the sky. During the day, women turned up for the sessions in shorts and T-shirts, or in floral dresses, depending on their age or orientation. The men also sought to attire themselves in suitably summery garments – grotesquely patterned shirts and cotton trousers of varied garish colours. I had packed an inappropriate range of clothing, and had to take the morning off to go into town, where I bought a top and trousers that would be comfortable in rising temperature, while preserving my dignity as an academic.
I had just come out of Marks & Spencer's, my purchases under my arm, when I noticed the Professor. He was on the opposite side of the street, gazing into the window of an antique shop. I was surprised to see him. He had not struck me as the type of person who would be attracted to shopping as a leisure activity, nor did I think that he would be, like me, seeking an outfit for the hot weather. In fact, he was wearing a lightweight linen suit and a Panama hat, and did not seem out of place amongst the lightly-clad tourists and shoppers who crowded the street. Perhaps, I thought, he was looking for a decent bookshop or something similarly professorial.
Although I did not have any desire to join him in his expedition, I was nonetheless intrigued to see him thus occupied, and lingered on my side of the street to watch what he would do next. After a thorough inspection of the antique shop window, he slipped nimbly inside, where he disappeared from my view.
I loitered, keeping an eye on the shop. I could not have explained why I was so interested in his behaviour, except that I had categorised him, in my mind, as a genuine eccentric. However, it was a long wait, and I began asking myself what on earth I was doing spying on this curmudgeonly but essentially harmless old man. What did I expect him to be doing? I could not for the life of me imagine any nefarious activity that he might be conducting in a grubby antique shop.
I had just decided to return to the University when he emerged carrying a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, such as would have been unremarkable in the nineteen-thirties, but which was noticeably out of place in the last quarter of the twentieth century. What on earth had he purchased? I moved into the shade of a doorway, ensuring that he would not notice me, and waited until he had wandered off. Then, still feeling slightly ashamed, I returned the way I had come, leaving him to continue as he saw fit.
• • •
I had arranged to meet Doris at lunchtime so that she could appraise me of the morning's presentations, but of course I felt it necessary to tell her about my expedition, and the strange behaviour of the Professor. She listened politely for while, but I could see from her expression that she was becoming puzzled as my story continued.
Finally she said, "Which professor are you talking about? I can’t think of anyone who fits the description you've given.'
“Well, I don't actually know if he is a professor,” I admitted. “I fell into the habit of calling him that to myself because I felt that he seemed . . . well, professorial if you know what I mean . . . with the beard and the belly, and his superior attitude. I haven't been able to learn his name, so I can't check from the program who he actually is, but the way he talks, he certainly sounds like a senior academic, maybe even from Oxbridge.”
I stopped my explanation, realising how lame it sounded. Doris was unimpressed. She rolled her eyes upwards and sniffed.
“It's not unusual,” she said, “for men to speak in the manner of the person they would like to be, rather than who they actually are. I think the technical term is ‘bull-shitting,’ and there's a great deal of it about.”
I could feel myself beginning to look sheepish. She went on.
“It seems to me that not only have you constructed a persona for this gentleman, but you have gone on to start constructing a narrative about him, a sub-Buchanesque thriller involving a clandestine rendezvous and a mystery package. Tell me, do you lead a quiet life? Is being out among other people quite an adventure for you?”
Despite my feelings towards her, I thought Doris was going a bit far, and I was about to tell her so when the subject of our conversation entered the dining room. He was no longer encumbered by his parcel, and went straight to the serving area from whence he emerged with a heavily-laden tray. He spotted us and made his way to our table.
“Time to find out more about this old codger,” Doris whispered, and the moment that he sat down, she began to question him.
“Not at the presentations this morning? Have you found somewhere more entertaining to be?” She adopted a bright, bantering tone, and her questions seemed not to disturb him in any way.
“Just popped into town for a bit,” he said. “Needed to pick up some resources for my talk. I'm planning a little something that may impress our American colleagues.” He chuckled.
“What is your topic?” Doris asked.
“A little-explored aspect of Mrs Dalloway.”
“Yes,” Doris said. “I'm familiar with the novel.” Her smile remained, but now seemed somewhat fixed.
“Ah yes,” he said, “but I wonder how familiar. I think I have stumbled across an area of neglected significance. You'll hear all about it when I give my talk.”
Doris continued her investigations. “Do you have a particular interest in women writers, or is it modernism that attracts you?”
“Oh I'm a pretty general kind of chap.” He smiled. “I've covered many a field over the years. I've picked up on the old girl for the coming session because my new commandant has chucked me into that particular swamp. No trouble to me, you understand. Still, there are other topics I'd rather be engaged with. Used to teach a damned good course on the representations of war in English fiction, but the power-that-is has slung that out, so it's the lady scribblers who are in fashion at the moment. No doubt it'll be something else next year.”
“Where do you teach?” Doris said.
“Nowhere that you'd recognise, I'm sure, my dear. In the Midlands. Used to be a Poly. Calls itself a University, but so does everywhere nowadays. I'm really just marking time until I retire. Not like Oxford, you know, but I was foolish enough to leave a damned good post there because I fell out with the prof. Had to take what I could get out in the wilderness.”
He dipped his head towards the plate which held his main course, and began shovelling. Doris turned towards me with an expression of mock astonishment. We sat in silence while he dispatched the contents of his plate, and then she continued
“I'm afraid I haven't caught your name,” she said.
“Quentin Protheroe,” he said.
“Is that Professor Protheroe?”
“No,” he said, looking less amiable.
“Just plain Mister. Can't be doing with all this hierarchical crap,” he snapped, and began to attack his steamed pudding. By this time I was beginning to feel distinctly uneasy and, as usual in such a situation, I excused myself.
“Got to be off now. Some papers to sort out before the afternoon presentations. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about Mrs Dalloway.” I smiled weakly at Doris as I stood up to go, but she grimaced in undisguised annoyance.
• • •
Somehow, the word spread that something unusual was going to take place at the Professor's talk. (Even though I knew him to be plain Mr Protheroe, in my mind he was still the Professor.) I saw him engaged in animated conversation with the American women, and he dined with the conference director on more than one occasion. After I had abandoned Doris at the lunch table, she started to spend more time with her own colleagues, but I did manage a brief chat with her, and ask if she was planning to attend Protheroe's talk, hoping that she might agree to accompany me there.
“Certainly, I wouldn't miss it for the world,” she said. “He wouldn't give anything away the other day, but he was being mysterious about it, and chuckling to himself. He seems to think that he is going to be the big hit of the conference. But that's men for you, isn't it?”
Then off she went. I didn't get a chance to make an assignation, and ended up attending the talk on my own.
• • •
The lecture theatre was so full that the janitors had to fit in extra chairs. I couldn't find a place near to Doris; I had left it too late. I tried to catch her eye, but she seemed unaware of my presence.
The Professor had clearly been in earlier to prepare the room. An overhead projector was already switched on, displaying the title of his talk on a screen. On a table at the front sat a large holdall. At precisely the advertised time, he entered and took up his position, placing a thick sheaf of papers on the table. Seating himself on a high stool, he began his presentation.
He opened predictably, outlining the early life of Virginia Woolf and explaining how she had gained fame as a modernist and feminist writer. He then focused on her novel, Mrs Dalloway, with some dismissive asides about the critical consensus current amongst what he called “the doctorate of the distaff side.” This received a muted reaction from the audience, midway between a gasp and a groan. The Professor seemed pleased. Then, suddenly he steered his talk in a different direction. Instead of discussing the novel as published, he made the astonishing claim that he had discovered several notebooks containing early handwritten drafts. These revealed a powerful symbolic structure which had been abandoned in the final manuscript, and raised questions about what had caused the writer to change direction in this way.
“We know that in her later writing, Woolf made a plea for every woman to have ‘a room of one’s own’ as a space for privacy and creativity. These notebooks show the inception of this idea, not by allowing Mrs Dalloway a room of her own, but rather by granting her a locus for her secret inner life in the form of . . .” Here he paused and lifted the holdall. Slowly, he opened the zip and, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he held aloft his surprise object, naming it in declamatory style as he did so: “a handbag.” His words drew an immediate burst of laughter from the audience, but he continued to brandish the handbag on high, and shook his head at the audience's reaction.
“In the draft material that I have rediscovered, Woolf refers again and again to Mrs Dalloway's handbag as a place ensuring her privacy — letters received, letters half written, invitations to clandestine meetings, notes to herself about her most secret yearnings — all of these things are secured within the handbag, granting the novel's protagonist a safe, personal space. It is my contention that this space,” he placed the handbag on the table before him, “is the origin of that longed-for space she wrote about some years later, the room of one's own.” His words were almost drowned out by the continuing laughter, now mixed with disbelieving groans, but he went on with his next astonishing revelation.
“The source of my discoveries is a fascinating one. A girl employed as a maid in the Woolfs' home at the time that Mrs Dalloway was being written became engaged to be married. Virginia tendered her congratulations, and asked the bride-to-be what she would like as a wedding gift. The girl had always admired a handbag that Virginia habitually carried, and asked if she might have that as part of her going-away outfit. Virginia duly obliged, forgetting that she had left precious notebooks inside the bag. She only became aware of her loss after the wedding had taken place, and the newlyweds had embarked for a new life in Australia.
“The notebooks came into my possession when a former student of mine was the beneficiary of the will of her Australian great-aunt. Among the possessions shipped to her were the notebooks, and, amazingly, the very handbag in which they had been contained. A letter written by the great-aunt – who was, of course, none other than the maid who married – told the story of Virginia’s gift, and explained that she had not, at first, understood that the notebooks might be valuable. She had kept them as mementos of a much-loved employer, and, having little interest in literature, had only discovered late in life how famous Virginia had become.”
Here he paused and, lifting the handbag above his head as a successful sportsman might lift a trophy, he raised his voice and proclaimed:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hold before you Virginia Woolf’s handbag, in which she concealed the notebooks of her innermost thoughts, the very handbag that played a secret but crucial part in the creation of one of the 20th century's most influential novels.”
The listeners were shocked into silence, except for the Americans, who immediately leaned together and engaged in animated whispering. It was at this point that I managed, at last, to establish eye contact with Doris, and was amazed to see that her left hand was clasped across her mouth, and her shoulders were rising and falling rhythmically. With the index finger of her other hand, she touched her right temple in the time-honoured signal that the speaker was insane.
Protheroe, satisfied with the reaction he had elicited, gathered together his papers and the handbag, placed them in the holdall and made a rapid exit. Some members of the audience called after him demanding that he answer questions or give a fuller explanation of his discoveries. A sort of genteel uproar began, with academics trying to outdo one another in voicing their reactions to those sitting nearby. Except for the Americans. When I looked again towards where they had been seated, I saw that they had already left the room.
Doris, to my delight, made her way through the crowd towards me, her contained laughter now reduced to a wide grin
“What an old rogue,” she said. “Did you ever hear anything so preposterous in all your life?”
“I don't know about that,” I said. “Stranger things have happened. I mean . . .”
“You mean, like The Hitler Diaries?” she said. “I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink. Coming?”
I wished no further arguments and, with happy heart, followed her to the student bar.
• • •
Protheroe was the sole topic of discussion for the rest of the day. Over the evening meal, in the bar afterwards, and late into the night for the more excitable of the company, people felt it necessary to voice their opinions: whether there could possibly be any truth in his assertions; how exciting it was that these notebooks should surface after all these years; where the evidence could be found within the novel-as-published for the deleted references to the handbag; whether the handbag was beautiful enough to have met the refined aesthetic taste of the famous author. One young academic wept intermittently, and explained to anyone who would listen that the revelations had completely negated the work she had recently completed for her PhD and that her life was now ruined.
Doris and I sat in the bar, listening to the conversations around us but saying little. From time to time, her shoulders began to move again, as she suppressed a further outbreak of giggling. The first time, I placed my hand over hers, in order to help her contain the laughter, and she squeezed it in both of hers. From then on I continued joyously holding hands with her all through the evening. The turmoil around us was unimportant to me.
However, I did notice that neither Protheroe nor the Americans were anywhere to be seen, and I mentioned this to Doris.
“Perhaps they feel he's stolen their thunder. Put their gas at a peep. Pulled the rug from under their feet.” She was close to giggling again.
“Surely not,” I said. “Surely his approach to the handbag simply confirms and validates their methods. In fact it's quite odd that he should have been so grumpy during their initial presentation. Perhaps they stole his thunder. After all, he's missing too.”
“I'm sure you're right, love,” she said, and gave me a wonderful smile which drove all thoughts of Protheroe, Americans and handbags completely out of my mind.
• • •
Next morning at breakfast, we were joined by Mr Protheroe. He was in high spirits, and keen to talk.
“I thought the presentation went down very well yesterday,” he said, lifting the bacon from his breakfast plate in order to construct a sandwich. “One in the eye for the Yanks, what?”
“Yes, we were wondering about that,” I said. “We couldn't make out whether or not you shared their new approach to research methodology.”
“Neither could they,” he chuckled. “I had all three of them at my door yesterday evening, asking questions, humming and hawing, beating all around the bush until they finally came out with it. Made me an offer for Virginia's handbag.”
“Seriously?” said Doris. “They wanted to buy it?” And she was off, giggling again.
“Damned seriously,” said Protheroe. “Big bucks. They wanted the handbag and the notebooks, but most important for them was the handbag.”
“But didn't they know it was all a practical joke?” said Doris.
“Wasn't just them. It was most of the delegates at the conference. I've had an endless stream of people coming to see me, asking for access to my ‘amazing discoveries.’ Sometimes the gullibility of supposedly intelligent people is astonishing.”
“What made you do it?” I asked.
“Just wanted to see how stupid they really were,” he said. “As it turned out, pretty stupid. I could have retired on the money they offered me.”
“You didn't take the money then?” Doris said.
“No. That would have been going a bit too far. Fraud. Couldn't do that.”
“And is that what you were buying in the antique shop the other day?” I asked.
“How did you know about that?” said Protheroe. “Thought I had been sufficiently sneaky about obtaining that handbag. Absolutely the right age, could well have belonged to dear Virginia. Only cost me a fiver. Worth it just for the sight of their faces when I announced its supposed origin. Thought they were going to burst with excitement.” He turned towards Doris. “Didn't fool you for a moment, my dear, did it?”
“Let's say I was rather suspicious,” she said.
“And what about you, my boy?”
“Well I knew something strange was going on when I saw you in the town with your parcel. However, your talk did take me by surprise.”
He munched happily on his bacon sandwich, and slurped his coffee with a look of complete contentment on his face.
“So, was there any truth in your talk at all?” Doris asked.
“Not a word,” Protheroe said. “I thought I would try a little experiment about the gullibility of academics, and write it up for a journal, with a warning that this is where the pressure to be always publishing leads us. Now, I'm sure not everyone was taken in by my ridiculous suggestions – you weren't, were you, my dear – but no one has approached me and exposed me as an old fraud. Everyone has either swallowed the nonsense, hook, line and handbag, or been too afraid to stick their heads above the parapet.”
He piled empty plates on his tray and stood up. “It's been nice meeting you young folk. I shan't be staying for the final dregs of this wonderful week. I can't wait to get back to my office and compose my account of how an old handbag and a bundle of tatty notebooks could send an expeditionary force of hotshot American professors into such a frenzy.” And with a final grin, he ambled off.
• • •
It must have been about six o'clock on the final morning. The sun had already risen, warming the air, and I was making my way back from the residential block where Doris had her room, to shower and change in my own room before breakfast. The campus grounds were deserted. The only sounds came from the kitchens, at the rear of the dining area. I paused outside my block to breathe in the soft scents of summer, and to turn over in my mind the momentous happenings of the previous twelve hours when three taxis entered the driveway and halted at the next accommodation block. The entrance doors flew open and the three Americans, loaded down with luggage, rushed out and climbed into separate vehicles. The taxis then sped off down the driveway and out of the University grounds.
I thought no more about this until, after the final plenary session of the conference, Doris was able to tell me of a rumour circulating among the delegates. She had learned that Protheroe had been taken to the campus medical centre to be treated for injuries sustained, apparently as a result of a fall on a staircase outside his room. The widely held opinion, she said, was that his injuries resulted from drinking too much, but since he had not been in the bar since the day before, she reckoned that there was more to his injury than a drunken mishap.
Together we made our way to the Medical Centre and, presenting ourselves as close friends, were permitted to visit him in his room. He was a sorry sight. His right eye was almost closed. It was already a livid purple colour, and one side of his nose had almost disappeared behind the swelling. On top of his bald head were lacerations, as if he had been beaten with a blunt object. His left wrist was encased in a plaster cast, and supported by a sling. When we entered, he looked in our direction and groaned.
“Good heavens,” I said. “What happened to you? Did you fall all the way down the stairs?”
“Nowhere near the stairs,” he growled. “They left me in my room. Unconscious. If the cleaner hadn't come in, I'd be there still.”
“Who left you?” I asked. “Were you burgled? What on earth happened?”
“More like daylight robbery,” he said. “They just burst into my room and took it.”
“Who did? What did they take? What are you saying?”
Doris interrupted. “The Americans?” she said. “The handbag?”
Protheroe nodded. “Burst in, demanded that I accept their offer for the handbag and the notebooks. I made the mistake of laughing at them. They attacked me. Two of them. The other one ransacked my room and stole what they wanted. Then I blacked out. When I came to, I was tied up.”
“Have you told the police?” I asked.
“I don't want this story to get out,” he said. “It would ruin my reputation. Assaulted by a trio of mad feminists. Hoist by my own petard, wouldn't you say?”
He turned his head away from us, and signalled with his uninjured hand that we should leave.
• • •
I could do nothing to help Protheroe. I felt a strange connection with the man, but when I tried to think it through logically, there was no reason for me to treat him as anything other than a fleeting acquaintance. His immediate physical needs were being met by the University, and I was sure that the organisers of the conference would see that he got home as soon as he was able to travel. In fact, it was the conference organisers who had brought in the Americans, and in my view they should bear the responsibility for what had happened. They were fortunate that Protheroe hadn't turned the whole matter over to the police. On the other hand, I suppose, he had to some extent brought it on himself.
I tried to discuss this with Doris, but she said she had to go and pack. I arranged to meet her for a final coffee before we departed, when I hoped to exchange addresses and phone numbers and make plans for us to meet again soon. However, after waiting in the refectory for an hour, I realised that she wasn't coming. Later, I couldn't pluck up the courage to contact her at her institution, and so it ended.
About a year later I came across a copy of an obscure literary journal, The Feminist Fanfare, and was amazed to see in the table of contents, an article entitled “Affect and Accessories: The Strange Case of Virginia Woolf’s Handbag.” Its authors were Professor Doris Fletcher and Dr. Quentin Protheroe.
After that, I opted out of attending conferences whenever I could, although sometimes my Head of Department insisted I go, and I thought it best to do as she asked. •
About the author
Gordon Gibson: I live in Troon, on the south-west coast of Scotland. After 20 years as a lecturer in higher education, I now write full-time. My work – prose fiction and poetry – has appeared in a number of print and online publications.