I’m very glad to be taking part in the 1938 Club, curated by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. 1938 was a fascinating year for literature and also for the world in general. I’m a bit of an amateur historian, and I know that it’s the year before the Second World War started, so there’s that.
By 1938 war was very much on both the cards and the mind of Virginia Woolf, whose Three Guineas was published that year. In it she responds to three letters she has received: the first from a barrister who asks for her opinion on the best means to prevent war and for a donation to support his society; the second from the treasurer of a women’s college, asking for a donation towards its rebuilding fund; the third soliciting money for a society promoting the entry of women into the professions. These matters, superficially disparate, are in fact bound up together, and Woolf explores the common ground they share.
Three Guineas is now thought of as a companion piece to Woolf’s brilliant extended essay A Room of One’s Own, which I read a couple of years ago. I was sitting engrossed in the book while waiting for a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts to begin, and feeling more self-consciously studenty than ever before (though I hadn’t been a student for some years), when the respectable middle-aged lady beside me asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and I must have looked terribly earnest because she offered an encouraging ‘Nearly there.’ For a moment I was an honorary woman.
And yet Three Guineas feels like a poor relation, not nearly as widely read as its predecessor. Why? Morag Shiach, in her introduction to the Oxford edition I read, suggests it has something to do with the ‘radicalism’ of Woolf’s conclusion, which equates the oppression of women in Britain with the fascism she is being invited to combat in the first letter. She gives her correspondent the donation he asks for, but declines to join his society.
[Since] we are different, our help must be different … [The] answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.
From the very moment of its publication readers responded to the text as an aberration, and expressed disappointment that Woolf had apparently moved away from the ambiguity and fluidity which they so valued in her prose. Woolf was impatient of such criticisms, writing to Vita Sackville-West, ‘how sick I get of all this talk about “lovely prose” and charm when all I wanted was to state a very intricate case as plainly … as I could.’
It’s hard, though, to write about Woolf without observing the elegance of her writing and her thought, which seems as much in evidence here as in her other works. I don’t like to cherry-pick sentences here and there because shorn of context they don’t have the same effect, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Take her opening gambit:
But one does not like to leave so remarkable a letter as yours – a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented? – unanswered.
A thing I really admire about Woolf’s tone, here and throughout, is its calmness, its detachment – its ‘disinterest’, to use a word that recurs in the book. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to see how passionately Woolf feels about the cause of equality, but she invariably refers to women in the third person, remaining above the fray, gently anticipating and preempting the objections of her correspondents. If I were a polemicist, this is the approach I would adopt. Other books I have read recently – Julia Serano’s Excluded, for instance, and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw – advise that the best way to effect change is to shun anger. Bornstein:
I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When I’m angry, I don’t have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others’ anger toward correct targets.
Anger alienates your allies and gives your opponents ammunition to discredit you, and so nothing changes. Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim also comes to mind:
Speak softly, and carry a big stick.
Well, I don’t really approve of the stick, and in any case Woolf doesn’t have one, only a pen, but she understands the virtue of quietness, and treats her subject with a sort of moderate amusement, though she has a lot to get angry about. Cambridge, for example, supposedly a place of enlightened thought, where in 1921 undergraduates bashed down the gates of Newnham College following a vote about allowing female students to receive degrees (bringing back memories for me of this brilliant book). Or the shutting out of women from certain professions, notably the forces and the clergy.
They’ve caught up now, of course. A short fifty-six years after the publication of this book, the Church of England began ordaining women, one of whom was one of my childhood priests. I don’t recall what I felt at the time, aged ten or eleven. I suspect a certain bewilderment that her gender should be such a big deal, though clearly it was. The current vicar’s a Forward in Faith wingnut. It’s a good thing I moved.
Last month I rewatched a favourite film of mine, Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It came out in 1938, a few months after Three Guineas. Here’s Liza Doolittle:
You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.
Books of the Men-are-from-Mars type are so keen to fit people into boxes (I imagine; I’ve not read it) that they fail to notice that our similarities to people unlike ourselves are as striking as our differences from them. What Liza says applies to gender as well: the great difference between different genders may be not innate, but to do with social attitudes. This feels germane to Woolf’s arguments.
If this post has been rather sprawling, it’s probably the result of my not feeling I have anything of value to say about the book itself. What I’ve written above represents the meanderings of my mind after having read it. Apologies for the preponderance of quotations. Montaigne:
I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
At base, I suspect Three Guineas represents a meditation on how to live, something none of us has figured out. I recognised my own concerns in this paragraph, where Woolf addresses her first correspondent:
Let us concentrate upon the practical suggestions which you bring forward for our consideration. There are three of them. The first is to sign a letter to the newspapers; the second is to join a certain society; the third is to subscribe to its funds. Nothing on the face of it could sound simpler. To scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy; to attend a meeting where pacific opinions are more or less rhetorically reiterated to people who already believe in them is also easy; and to write a cheque in support of those vaguely acceptable opinions, though not so easy, is a cheap way of quieting what may conveniently be called one’s conscience.
Not enough, though, is it? I want to change the world, I want to do something, I just don’t know what or how. Perhaps if I keep thinking about it, perhaps if I keep reading Virginia Woolf, something will occur to me.