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Virginia Woolf and Heritage$
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Jane deGay, Tom Breckin, and Anne Reus

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781942954422

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781942954422.001.0001

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Kenya Colony and the Kenya Novel: The East African Heritage of “A Very Fine Negress” in A Room of One’s Own

Kenya Colony and the Kenya Novel: The East African Heritage of “A Very Fine Negress” in A Room of One’s Own

(p.162) Kenya Colony and the Kenya Novel: The East African Heritage of “A Very Fine Negress” in A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf and Heritage

Jeanne Dubino

Liverpool University Press

‘It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.’ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own At the time Virginia Woolf’s narrator made this observation in the late 1920s, a number of her British and other European contemporary women writers were in fact passing by and indeed living among black women in one of Great Britain’s colonies, Kenya. Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) was among the most famous, and her memoir Out of Africa (1937), commemorates her years on a Kenyan plantation (1914-1931). Along with the canonical Danish Dinesen were British women whose work has been long forgotten, including Nora K. Strange (1884-1974) and Florence Riddell (1885-1960), both of whom wrote what is called the “Kenya Novel.” The Kenya Novel is a subgenre of romantic fiction set in the white highlands of Britain’s Crown Colony Kenya. The titles alone—e.g., Kenya Calling (1928) and Courtship in Kenya (1932) by Strange, and Kismet in Kenya (1927) and Castles in Kenya (1929) by Riddell—give a flavor of their content. Because these novels were popular in Britain, it is very likely that Woolf knew about them, but she does not refer to them in her diaries, letters, or published writing. Even so, it would be worth testing this famous comment by a Room’s narrator about (white) women’s lack of propensity to recreate others in her own image, or more specifically, to dominate the colonial other. How do Woolf’s white contemporaries, living in Kenya, represent black women? Given that Strange and Riddell were part of the settler class, we can expect that their views reflect dominant colonial ideology. The formulaic nature of the Kenya Novel, and its focus on the lives of white settlers, also mean that the portrayal of the lives of the people whose lands were brutally expropriated would hardly be treated with respect or as little more than backdrops. Yet it is important to understand these other global contexts in which Woolf is working and the role that some of her contemporary women writers played in the shaping of them. This paper concludes with an overview of the separate legacies of Woolf and her fellow Anglo-African women writers up to the present day.

Keywords:   Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, race, globalization, Kenya novel, settler fiction, Florence Riddell, Nora K. Strange

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