Scope and Content
Title: Virna Woods Collection,
Date (inclusive): 1870-1956
Collection number: Mss3
J. William Harris
Extent: 6 linear ft.
University of the Pacific. Library. Holt-Atherton Department of Special Collections
Shelf location: For current information on the location of these
materials, please consult the library's online catalog.
Collection is open for research.
[Identification of item], Virna Woods Collection, Mss3, Holt-Atherton Department of
Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library
Virna Woods (1864-1903) was an American poet, playwright and novelist. Born to machinist,
John B. Woods (1832-1905) and Virginia Pidgeon Woods (1837-1914), she grew up in
Zanesville, Ohio, where she attended public high school and normal school. At age
eighteen she came with her family to Sacramento, California (1883), where her father
worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and her older sister, Anna, became a city
librarian. Virna taught in various Sacramento and El Dorado County schools (1884-1889),
while at the same time writing poetry and submitting her work for publication. Woods'
mother was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Movement and the family apparently
spent some time each year enjoying the liquor-free Chautauquas at Pacific Grove. There
Virna Woods gave public readings of some of her earlier poems. By 1887 she had published
poetry in The Overland Monthly, The Chautauquan and other periodicals of the day. Her
work won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Magazine of Poetry (1890) and the
following year she published a first volume, The Amazons, a verse play set in ancient
Greece. The young author had a flair for languages and is said to have been fluent in
French, Italian, Latin and Greek. She had a particular affinity for French, initiating
correspondence with several French men of letters as early as 1889 and ultimately
composing at least one play, Un chevalier errant, in French.
Woods seems to have given up school teaching for freelance writing at the time of her
success in the Magazine of Poetry competition. From spring 1891 she devoted much energy
to fiction, publishing several short stories, including "Two loves in a life" (1891), and
three novels, "A modern Magdalene" (1894), "Jason Hildreth's identity" (1897) and "An
elusive lover" (1898). Not much is known of her whereabouts during the 1890s, although
she seems to have lived briefly in Pennsylvania (1893) and evidence in her writing
suggests that she spent much time sightseeing in Arizona and along the Pacific Coast as
far north as British Columbia and as far south as San Diego (1895). It is also possible
that she spent some time in France, although this has not been established with any
certainty. There is little question, however, that she continued to think of Sacramento
as her home.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Virna Woods' redirected her energies during the
late 1890s from fiction to drama. While Woods' short stories and novels had all been set
in California and Ohio and had been realistic and contemporary both in subject and in
language, the greater number of her plays---a notable exception being "Lord
Strathmore"---were historical in setting and written in a style more closely related to
that of her poetry than of her prose. She nevertheless interested New York producer/actor
Frederick Warde in "Horatius," a play set in ancient Rome (1900), and, when Warde took
"Horatius" on a national tour (1901) Woods traveled with his company for the better part
of a year, dispatching numerous letters to her sister that describe in detail what she
saw of the country and its theatres. Early in 1903, while working in San Francisco with
the cast of
"Lord Strathmore," Virna Woods became ill, developed pneumonia and suddenly died at the
age of 38.
Although her sister, Anna, made some effort to see that Virna Woods' plays continued to
be performed, by 1910, they had disappeared from sight. Evidence in Woods' correspondence
suggests that these works had never been box office successes, and, in any case, the
advent of moving pictures soon diverted public attention from all live theatrical epics.
That Woods' fiction likewise drifted into obscurity is less easy to explain. There is
much for a present-day Californian to appreciate in her loving, but not over-romantic,
prose evocations of that long-lost, semi-rural coastal landscape of ruined missions and
pepper trees that likewise inspired our California Arts and Crafts movement.
Scope and Content
BOX 1: Biographical Materials; Correspondence; Business Papers
BOX 2: Poetry
BOX 3: Prose: Manuscripts
BOX 4: Prose: Published Works
BOX 5: Drama: Early Plays (through 1899)
BOX 6: Drama: Griselda & Lalla Rookh (1900)
BOX 7: Drama: A Knight Errant (1901)
BOX 8: Drama: Miscellaneous Plays
BOX 9: Literary Fragments & Notes
BOX 10: Memorabilia
BOX 11: Photographs: Individual Prints
BOX 12: Photographs: Albums