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Modernist Narrative Democracy

Telling ‘Brutal Truths’ or the Art of Narrating Democracy in Leonard Woolf’s The Wise Virgins (1914)

Dire la vérité ou l’art de raconter la démocratie dans The Wise Virgins (1914) de Leonard Woolf
Leila Haghshenas


Cet article se propose d’examiner l’influence des pensées démocratiques dans le second roman de Leonard Woolf The Wise Virgins (1914). S’appuyant sur le travail de Nelly Wolf sur la démocratie narrative, nous étudierons la relation entre, d’une part, le roman comme un genre démocratique et, d’autre part, les aspirations démocratiques des personnages tels que Harry Davis et Camilla Lawrence. Comme nous le démontrerons, l’approche narrative de Woolf s’inspire des idées fausses et des jugements populaires. Sera également traitée la question de la démocratie narrative dans le roman à travers la notion du « partage du sensible » élaborée par Jacques Rancière.

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1Leonard Woolf was an English political theorist, author, publisher and civil servant. He was born into a well-off, middle-class, Jewish family with high standards and values. He published novels, short stories, a play and a five-volume autobiography. His second novel, on which this paper focuses, is entitled The Wise Virgins and was published in 1914. It relates the difficulties of a young Jewish man in London. The arrival of the Jewish Davis family in the suburban area of Richstead brings them into contact with the Garland family which is composed of a widowed mother, Mrs. Garland, and four single daughters, Ethel, Jane, May and Gwen. The Davis family includes Mr. and Mrs. Davis as well as Harry and Hetty Davis. As the two families get to know each other, a strong bond of friendship develops between them and adventures follow one another. At the end of the novel, Harry Davis who is hopelessly in love with Camilla Lawrence is forced into marrying Gwen Garland.

2The Wise Virgins looks back to the Woolfs’ period of courtship that followed Leonard’s return from Ceylon in June 1911. Woolf wrote this autobiographical novel during his honeymoon in September 1911 and sent the unfinished draft to his family. His mother was the first member of his family to read it. She was shocked. In the novel she was described, as Mrs. Davis whose ‘semitic features’ would have seemed very fine ‘if she had been squatting under a palm tree with a white linen cloth thrown over her head’ rather than sitting in an English suburban drawing room (Woolf 1914, 22). The reaction of his sister Bella was no better. She sent her brother a nine-page critique explaining that the book ‘will give extraordinary pain to a few people whom I cannot imagine you have a particular desire to hurt’ (Bella Woolf quoted in Glendinnging 159). Victoria Glendinning described the novel as a book written by ‘a gifted adolescent in revolt who lashed out his family’s common place values and attitudes’ (159). The novel got no warm reception from the public either. It was a commercial disaster and soon fell into oblivion. Woolf believed that the failure of the novel was due to the outbreak of the First World War.

  • 1 See Philippe Roussin, ‘Tout dire ou le gouvernement de la langue’, Communications, 99, Démocratie e (...)

3I, however, believe that the unpopularity of the novel is in part due to its extreme honesty which in turn reflects the author’s willingness to voice his discontent. As I argue, Woolf’s vehement expression of his thoughts and feelings is due to a strong desire for democratic and free expression. As Elizabeth Heine notices, it is remarkable ‘that Woolf says this much’ (451) about himself and his family in The Wise Virgins. Indeed, Leonard Woolf was a very taciturn person who would prefer to keep silent about matters that he judged private. Woolf’s desire to reveal his private thoughts aligns with his passion for freedom of speech. Woolf’s characters, especially Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence, are outspoken critics of Victorian traditions that still lingered in the society of his time. Indeed, the right to say everything,1 hardly imaginable in the real world, is rendered possible by the characters’ breaking of social rules and their quest for the equality of democratic shares. In the novel, Harry is portrayed as somebody who says ‘queer’, ‘strange’ things, things that surprise anybody who is accustomed to the moral codes observed by upstanding citizens. I believe that Harry’s unscrupulous manner of saying ‘queer’, ‘strange’ things ‘dictatorially’ goes hand in hand with his quest for liberty of expression and democracy best exemplified by his support for universal suffrage.

4My purpose here will be to investigate the influence of democratic thoughts on Woolf’s novel. I believe that The Wise Virgins functions as a mirror for the workings of democracy. Building upon Nelly Wolf’s seminal work on narrative democracy, I will see how Woolf’s novel explores the relationship between the novel as a democratic genre and the egalitarian aspirations of Woolf’s characters. As I will demonstrate, Woolf’s characters are themselves inspired by fictional characters whose liberty and courage they envy and imitate. Furthermore, Woolf’s narrative approach in The Wise Virgins is informed by popular misconceptions and judgments. Indeed, Leonard Woolf puts into writing the preconceived ideas of his time. Based on the words and thoughts of the characters, the narrator manages to draw up a catalogue of popular clichés concerning underprivileged people such as spinsters, women, and servants. I will also analyse what Jacques Rancière calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’ through a study of the share of different characters in what is common to the community.

Leonard Woolf and Democracy

  • 2 In his satirical pamphlet Fear and Politics, Woolf broaches such issues as war, democracy, civilisa (...)

5It comes as no surprise that a novel written by Leonard Woolf, a man who dedicated his life to the promotion and discussion of democratic values,2 would bring up and develop such important cultural issues as the equality of individuals and their right to education and happiness. Indeed, as Raymond Williams claims, since its introduction in the English language in the sixteenth century, ‘democracy’ has been a keyword of British culture. It is interesting to note that the word had a somewhat negative connotation up to the late eighteenth century for it implied the tyranny of the commoners. From the nineteenth and twentieth century onwards, the word ‘democracy’ gradually took on a more favourable meaning and shifted towards its modern connotations (Williams 55–59).

6For Leonard Woolf, democracy means ‘rule by all people’. He defines democracy in terms of ‘politically equal rights and socially equal opportunities’ involving ‘equal rights to happiness’ and the political treatment of everyone as an individual rather than as a member of a particular social class or group (Woolf quoted in Wilson 160). Woolf’s conception of democracy implies the removal of any kind of privilege. As he asserts, three great ideas underlie democracy: equality, liberty, and the everyday happiness of ordinary people. In an article published in The Listener (1931), Woolf maintains that democracy ‘must treat everyone politically merely as an individual and as an equal political unit’ without regards to their social class, birth, status, national boundaries and political affiliations (Woolf 1931, 571). According to Woolf, the first thing to notice about democracy is that ‘it rests on a new idea about happiness and particularly the happiness of ordinary persons’ (Woolf 1931, 572). It is worth noting that Woolf backed firmly the striking miners, railwaymen, and transport workers. Woolf’s taking a strong stance in favour of the working class during the General Strike of 1926 indicates his support of democracy. As he states in his autobiography, he was ‘entirely on the side of the workers’ (1967, 217). Furthermore, Woolf took an active part in popularising the debate around democracy and modern state.

7During the 1930s and 1940s, Woolf appeared regularly on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio. His lectures addressed such diverse issues as the British Empire, democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and pedagogy. Indeed, from October to November 1931, Leonard Woolf delivered a series of six talks entitled ‘Modern State’ that broached the subject of democracy. In his ‘Modern State’ broadcasts—‘Is Democracy Failing?’, ‘Have We the Right to Be Happy?’, ‘Democracy and Equality’, ‘Should We do What We Want?’, ‘Gods or Bees’, and ‘Citizens of the World’—Woolf exposes and criticises the failure of the British government to achieve democracy for both its citizens at home and for its subjects in the colonies. In ‘Listening-In, Tuning Out: Leonard Woolf’s Criticism of the BBC During the 1930s’, Luke Reader shows how Woolf’s broadcasts and journalistic expositions on BBC policy allowed him to create an intellectual environment for public education that would encourage ‘the development of an improved civic space’ (228). Todd Avery believes that ‘Woolf’s resourcefulness was equalled by that of E. M. Forster’, who took advantage of every opportunity to voice his convictions about freedom for readers and writers (Avery 61). Drawing on the articles published in The Listener (1932), Cuddy-Keane underlines the role of broadcasting in democratic education (Cuddy-Keane 39–40). Woolf therefore played a key role in educating the public of his time. Woolf’s critique of English democracy and the necessity of an educated public ties in with the fictional treatment of Edwardian democracy in The Wise Virgins. In the novel, Harry undertakes the education of Gwen Garland, whom he considers as ‘uneducated’. In fact, the novel broaches some of the main issues addressed in his BBC talks including ‘standardisation’, the happiness of ordinary people, and equal right to education.

Words and Opinions in The Wise Virgins

8Opinions and public judgements occupy an important place in The Wise Virgins. The Garlands are disappointed when they learn that their newly arrived neighbours are Jews and start judging them on the basis of their own historical misconceptions. Mrs. Davis is convinced that servants should be grateful for the comfortable lodgings they are provided with and judges them because they decide to leave her to get married. Likewise, Mr. Macausland holds opinions about women and society and judges people who do not conform to his views. While Camilla considers spinsters to be ‘noble’ beings, Harry thinks that they miss ‘the romance of life’. Indeed, the whole novel is structured and organised around ‘words’ and ‘opinions’. The first chapter is entitled ‘Begins with Words in a Garden’ and is followed by other chapters focusing, amongst others, on ‘The Words of Mrs. Garland and Mrs. Davis’, ‘The Words of Art and Intellect’, ‘Katharine’s Opinion of her Sister’ and ‘Harry’s Opinion Upon Life’.

9As Nelly Wolf notes in ‘Le roman comme la démocratie’, since its inception, the modern novel has contributed to shaping and developing a narrative identity of democracy. Hosting a plethora of stories, the novel helps explore the limits of democracy and its operating mode. As such, it guarantees the establishment of what Nelly Wolf calls an internal democracy: ‘une démocratie interne au roman’ (Wolf 2003, 6). The Wise Virgins plays with the democratic ideas of equal rights and equal possibilities promoted by the fictional genre of the novel. As the story unfolds the reader realises that the characters’ life and actions are strongly influenced by the fictional characters and their values. Furthermore, the importance of democratic debate stressed in the title of the chapters ties in with the novel’s polyphonic narrative structure that favours dialogues and debates conducted by independent voices. This in turn leads to the creation of a polyphonic narrative where different views are voiced and debated. As Nelly Wolf maintains, the novel has the capacity to generate an infinite space for debate wherein free and unlimited circulation of opinions is guaranteed (2003, 74).

10The Wise Virgins starts with the gathering of the Garland girls in their family garden. The sisters read novels and discuss different characters. As Gwen, the youngest member of the family, remarks, the Garland sisters are not at all like the people in books. According to her, fictional characters are ‘superior’ to Richstead girls (Woolf 1914, 8). Referring to one of the female characters of the novel Youth and the Prow, she noted that she lived in Richstead too. As Gwen notes, nobody in their circle of friends would be able to act as the heroine Clare did in the story:

‘Well, look at what she did and what happened to her. You can’t imagine anything like that happening to Hilda Lynton, can you? Imagine Hilda going off with an artist for a week to Cornwall! Or speaking to him as Clare does to Stephen all about the sea and rocks and earth? Can you imagine even anyone telling Hilda she’d like the sea, her “cool purity touches into luminous warmth by the moon.’”
‘I don’t see quite what you mean.’
‘I expect Hilda would think she was rather like Clare, if she read this. And it’s just as absurd for me. I don’t believe things ever happen like that in Richstead—not to people like us. It’s absurd’.
‘But, Gwen, dear, it’s a book. I don’t think I want things to happen to me like that.’
. . . ‘But, Ethel, don’t you ever wish that something had—would happen, I mean?
‘Well,’ said Ethel brightly, ‘it does. No. 21 is taken, and mother’s calling there.’ (Woolf 1914, 8)

11Ironically, Ethel is right. The arrival of the Davises and especially Harry to Richstead is a life changing experience for Gwen. The conversation between Ethel and Gwen reveals a lot about the role of the novel not only as a promotional tool for democracy but also as a privileged space for democratic debate and free expression. Gwen’s desire to resemble her novel’s heroine and her constant interrogations about the absurdity of the situations depicted in novels mark the beginning of a profound transformation in her perception of society and her own power as an individual. At the end of the novel, Gwen proposes to go off with the young artist Harry Davis before joining him secretly in his room. Indeed, the novel acts as a promotional tool for the democratic values and aspirations of the young Gwen Garland whose only wish is to live the life of her fictional heroines.

12Woolf’s choice of beginning his story with the Garlands’ words and opinions is also significant. This way Woolf manages to bring the girls and their mother to the centre of attention, to make their voices heard and to involve them in the process of storytelling. Throughout The Wise Virgins, the novel stands as an ever-present and transformative force:

It was the case of novels over again—people in books, life in books were so different. Only with books one could always say, as Ethel had said: ‘Ah, they’re only books.’ But this young man seemed to say that life, in Richstead even, could be so different, that there were great things to be done and felt outside St Catherine’s Avenue. She believed it; but what were they, these real things? It was all so vague, so difficult. (Woolf 1914, 82)

13The novel, by promoting alternative ways of living, encourages the revolt of ordinary people. The opinion of Mr. Macausland, the vicar of Richstead, about novels is telling. Considering some matters ‘too serious and too deep’ (Woolf 1914, 69) for ladies, the vicar of Richstead compares reading unsuitable books to measles. According to him, such a disease is not serious ‘but one shouldn’t encourage it’ (Woolf 1914, 221). The rejection of the novel, this popular and democratic literary genre, points to the rejection of democracy.

14Harry’s democratic values and his belief in equal rights to education play an important part in Gwen’s emancipation. Comparing her life with those of her heroes, she comes to believe in the possibility of a better world where she would be able to choose her way of life. In ‘Gods or Bees?’, Leonard Woolf asserts that in a really democratic society, the individual would have to be like god, ‘free, independent, thinking and acting for himself’ (1931, 766). Woolf calls such an ideal society, ‘a society of individuals’ (1931, 766). According to Woolf, the opposite of a truly democratic society is a beehive society wherein the place and function of each individual is predetermined: ‘Every bee had his place and work in that society allotted and defined for him. . . . No bee has any freedom of choice, no initiative; he exists simply as a member of the hive; he lives and works solely for the community of the hive’ (1931, 766). In The Wise Virgins, educated characters such as Harry and Camilla aspire to the democratic ideal described by Woolf. What they desire is a society of ‘free, equal, active, and intelligent citizens, each man choosing his own way of life for himself and willing that others should choose theirs’ (Woolf 1931, 766).

15Camilla’s intellectual circle exemplifies the ideal of democratic debates. Having emancipated themselves from ‘the convention that there are some things that men and women cannot talk about’, the group has managed to establish an internal democratic order that guarantees free expression for both men and women (Woolf 1914, 91). What characterises the group is their belief that every subject can be discussed by both men and women. Harry’s first impression is that of ‘interminable talk and silences’ (Woolf 1914, 91). His fascination with the circle is therefore related to their free intellectual discussions and their emancipation from the social conventions of their time.

16Indeed, The Wise Virgins is full of societal debates. For instance, Harry and Camilla discuss the social situation of Laura Stening, an art student who happens to be a spinster. While Harry finds spinsters appalling, Camilla thinks them noble. Her considering spinsters as ‘noble’ beings goes hand in hand with her refusal of patriarchal rules. According to Camilla, spinsters ‘are so much more alive than those cow-like married women’ (Woolf 1914, 46). It’s worth noting that the novel was written at the height of the women’s suffrage movement just before the First World War. Camilla’s refusal to get married along with her admiration of spinsters reflect the decline of middle-class marriage and the rise of the ‘new woman’ at the end of the Victorian period. Indeed, after 1870, single women in England and America began to consider spinsterhood as a rational choice as it allowed women to earn financial and intellectual independence (Freeman and Klaus 394). As Camilla remarks, Laura’s art ‘is her one revolt’ (Woolf 1914, 43).

17Woolf’s insistence on the democratic idea of happiness is also reflected in The Wise Virgins. In the novel, Harry is described as being constantly uncomfortable. If this curious sensation of discomfort is related, to a large extent, to his alienation from society, it also mirrors the democratic crisis that shakes the society. Indeed, Harry’s permanent feeling of discontent and discomfort encapsulates the imperfection of England’s democratic system and its failure to render each and every individual happy.

Fictional Crisis: A Mirror for Democratic Crisis

18The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were marked by great democratic changes. In Le Roman de la démocratie, Nelly Wolf demonstrates how the entrenchment of democracy in Europe and the United States and the emergence of imperialism during this period influenced the narrative identity of democracy. She asserts that some issues brought up during this period indicate the crisis of democracy. She mentions in particular the incapacity to integrate minorities such as Jews and women within the democratic system. As she argues these untreated issues gave rise to important social questions (2003, 163–164). Furthermore, Wolf reads the crisis of the novel as a crisis of the contractual narrative (2003, 137). As she maintains, the novels of apprenticeship or Bildungsromane, in this case The Wise Virgins, are contractual works. As such, each and every individual young hero who seeks a place within the contractual system should be endowed with social and political determination. As Wolf notes, the repeated failures of the contractual hero draw attention to the flaws and shortcomings of the democratic system and reveal the contradictions of democracy.

19The Wise Virgins exposes the failure of Harry, the contractual anti-hero, and addresses some controversial topics such as the Jewish question and the women’s question. Harry, as a democratic individual, asks for the equal treatment of people but his quest for equality of shares is hindered by the moral and class-conscious considerations of his society. Indeed, he encounters a host of unsurmountable obstacles. From his first entering the society, his Jewish origins thwart his social ascension, hence his rejection of his mother as the source of his Jewishness.

20As a matter of fact, the defeat of Harry points to the contradictions of democracy: the inconsistency between real democracy and formal democracy is made evident through numerous obstacles encountered by Harry such as his difficulty to integrate into the intellectual circle of Camilla Lawrence as well as his final condemnation to a loveless life. This high-minded company is quite eager to accept Harry Davis on their own terms without making room for his differences. Indeed, despite the group’s ideals of democracy and its acceptance of membership on the basis of merit, Harry’s integration is delayed because of his Jewishness and his social status. Camilla’s attitude towards Richstead is telling. She visits Richstead once in the course of the novel and rejects it. It is Harry who must adapt himself to the group’s requirements. If Harry’s mother is out of place not squatting under a palm tree, Camilla Lawrence belongs to a world whose citizens never squat but lounge in ‘very comfortable chairs’ (Woolf 1914, 91). The social gap between the Davis and the Lawrence families highlights the distinctions and privileges based upon class. Here the narrative reflects the flaws of English democracy since characters are treated according to their social background.

21As the narrator of The Wise Virgins remarks, the class divide is a palpable reality in the suburbs of Richstead: ‘Only a person who has lived among the four great casts of India can fully appreciate how much stronger the caste system is in Richstead; and the cast system alone explains the experience of The Poor Dear Thigs’ (Woolf 1914, 134). The inequality in wealth and income exemplified by the reference to ‘The Poor Dear Things’ underlines once again the imperfection of the English democracy. As Woolf asserts in ‘Democracy and Equality’ (1931), ‘whenever government or society treats every one as an individual and not as the member of some class, you get democracy and equality’ and ‘whenever government or society treats people not as individuals, but as members of some class, you get inequality and a system which is hostile to democracy’ (1931, 666).

22The crisis of democracy thus exposed in the novel extends to the realm of freedom of expression and disturbs the free flow of information. In The Wise Virgins, the free circulation of thoughts and ideas encouraged by Camilla’s group stands in sharp contrast with the narrator’s act of self-censorship:

(To understand Harry Davis and his place in the universe and what he made of it—and this applies to nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand noble and inarticulate human beings for whom bed and night so often bring the horrors of self-revelation—it would be necessary to have some account of the thoughts which now came to him. Convention and the keepers of the public conscience make this account impossible in the English language. The reader must fill up according to his or her ability eight to ten minutes introspection.) (Woolf 33–34)

23The warning message is inserted between parentheses and points to the impossibility of narrating the hero’s thoughts. In other words, Harry’s social contract, supposed to guarantee his freedom of thought and expression, fails to do so. In this sense, the crisis of democracy is inseparable from democracy itself (Wolf 2005, 345). Indeed, the explicit reference to the pressure exercised on the writer by the guardians of convention highlights the interrelationship between the narrative crisis of the novel and that of democracy. It is worth noting that Woolf had to convince his publisher Edward Arnold to keep the word ‘virgin’ in the final print. Arnold insisted that the word should be replaced with ‘unmarried woman’ because it conveyed the same meaning. Woolf’s refusal to replace the word ‘virgin’ points to his efforts to bypass the censorship imposed by the restraining laws of decency and thus pave the way for a more open discussion about the issues surrounding the condition of women in society. Woolf’s determination to use the word ‘virgin’ in his novel is also telling of his intention to rebel against the conformist tendencies of Edwardian society.

24In The Wise Virgins, Woolf’s pro-suffrage position is reflected through Harry’s support for equal rights and democracy. As he claims, he is ‘for giving everybody everything’ (1914, 78). Harry’s support of suffragists ties in with his quest of equal education and rights for everyone. His conception of modern art as being accessible to everyone also aligns with his position on the necessity of providing equal access to education for all members of the community. According to Harry, one of the discoveries of modern times is that ‘anyone can paint’ (31–32). In ‘Have We the Right to be Happy?’, Woolf puts emphasis on the fact that ‘the happiness of a person depends enormously upon the kind of education which he received when a child or young person’ (1931, 615). Harry’s insistence on providing Gwen with an appropriate education echoes his belief in democratic values.

25Furthermore, Woolf’s characters such as Gwen and Camilla should face the double constraint of equal rights and exclusion. In the background of The Wise Virgins, one can clearly see the turbulent atmosphere of the suffrage movement and the increasing demands of women for equal rights. On the one hand, the contract stipulates that individuals should vote to determine their own destiny and, on the other, half of the population is deprived of the right to vote. Camilla is associated with the image of the new woman. Her coldness and indifference towards men is symbolic and renders her all the more invincible and independent. Camilla’s coldness, apart from being a natural coldness towards the other sex is in part the result of discrepancies between her perception of femininity and that of Edwardian society. In the novel, she is described as hills with virgin snows on them, a description that points both to her virginity and to her coldness. However, what Camilla unconsciously desires is the autonomy and security enjoyed by men. As one of her suitors remarks, what Camilla really desires ‘is to be a man’ (Woolf 1914, 111). Camilla’s situation as an asexual female is menaced by the highly sexualised perceptions of femininity. Her response to Harry’s marriage proposal is indicative of her lack of sexual desire as well as her frustration with the social and religious norms of her society: ‘I want love, too, and I want freedom. But I can’t give myself; passion leaves me cold. . . . And then there’s so much in marriage from which I recoil. It seems to shut women up and out. I won’t be tied by the pettiness and the conventionalities of life. There must be some way out (Woolf 1914, 266). Camilla Lawrence’s wish to live an independent and free life cannot come true because of the dominance of patriarchal values. Likewise, Gwen’s desire to act as her fictitious hero ends in catastrophe as she breaks the laws of decency. Indeed, what these characters have in common is their courage to question and break the rules of propriety in order to establish a new democratic order.

26Harry too is fascinated by questioning the established order. While rules of class stipulate that servants are inferior, Harry believes that ‘no one ought to be allowed to be a servant’ (Woolf 1914, 21). The description given by Mrs. Davis of one of her servants makes clear the divide that separates the mother and the son:

I had a housemaid fifteen years. I’ve never known a moment’s peace since she—she left to be married two years ago. They don’t know when they are well off; she’s got twins now, and a husband who probably drinks—at least he looks as if he does. They live in two miserable rooms—yes, they find out the difference when it’s too late. And the ingratitude! Fifteen years that girl was with me, in as comfortable a home as you could find, and she left me at a month’s notice!
‘And she was a good servant, mind you,’ went on Mrs. Davis. ‘You don’t get them like that nowadays. Clean and respectful, never had to tell her a thing twice. Now, what with their education, useless education I call it, and piano-playing and pretensions . . . they have their day out, they see whom they like, and then they won’t stay because you ring the bell for them while they’re at dinner!’ (Woolf 1914, 20)

27Despite her dependence on her servants, Mrs. Davis looks down on them and thinks them unworthy of education and an independent life. While Mrs. Davis clearly considers servants as her inferiors and takes them for granted, Harry considers them as his equals and treats them with respect and humanity. His response is revealing of the growing discontent between servants and their wish to lead a more autonomous life. According to Harry, servants prefer to work in factories rather than in Mrs. Davis’s house ‘because they’re not treated like human beings’ (Woolf 1914, 20). As Harry argues they ‘prefer working nine hours a day in a factory all the week, like free people, and having Sundays to themselves, to being chained to your roast beef on Sundays, as well as to your muttons on week-days’ (Woolf 1914, 20). Here Harry underlines the working class’s desire for more independence and freedom. Their wish to have leisure time goes hand in hand with their quest for happiness as it helps them to be happier individuals. In ‘Have We the Right to be Happy?’, Woolf clearly underscores the link between happiness and leisure. According to him, ‘leisure is a very important thing, particularly in relation to happiness’ (1931, 616).

28Harry’s vehement reaction to his mother’s statement brings to light the widening breaches that have been created between on the one hand those who consider social and cultural values as means of social cohesion and those who denounce them as obstacles to equal rights and equal opportunities. The Wise Virgins also addresses the democratic disease of ‘standardization’. Leonard Woolf’s novel starts with a critique of ‘standardization’ that characterises modern democracy: ‘They wear the same straw hats and muslin dresses in summer, and in winter bowlers and dark dresses; they think the same things and in the same way, because the way of this strange world in which they find themselves wandering are difficult to understand, and they humbly and gratefully take what is given to them.’ (Woolf 1914, 3–4). Woolf identified ‘Standardization’ as ‘a kind of disease of democracy, for it destroys individuality and teaches people to follow one another like sheep instead of choosing for themselves’ (1931, 745). As Woolf maintains, despite this appearance of impeccable uniformity, individuals manage to affirm their individuality: ‘But in themselves, in the feelings that no one has taught them, under the painted plaster crust of straw hats and opinions, they burn each of them with a fiery individuality’ (1914, 3). Throughout the novel, Woolf manages to show the capacity of individuals to surmount the democratic disease of ‘standardization’ by revealing their courage to claim their due shares in what is common to the community.

Sharing Democracy or ‘Distributing the Sensible’

29Besides providing an ideal space for promoting and acting out democratic ideas, Woolf’s novel also demonstrates the process of distribution of roles and shares that Jacques Rancière calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière 12). I believe that in The Wise Virgins, Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence challenge the established manner of distributing shares and social parts by refusing to observe the social and moral norms imposed by the community. Drawing on Aristotle’s definition of the citizen as ‘someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed’, Jacques Rancière develops his theory of the distribution of the sensible. For the French philosopher, the distribution of the sensible is ‘the system of self-evident facts, of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it’ (12). As Jacques Rancière further explains, the distribution of the sensible defines the share of each and every individual based on their functions in the society and the time and space in which their activity is performed. As a result, the sharing of the sensible determines the degree of visibility and invisibility of individuals.

30In The Wise Virgins, Camilla’s visibility stands in sharp contrast with Gwen’s invisibility. As a girl and a virgin, Camilla is expected to respect certain cultural conventions. Rather than conforming to the moral rules imposed by society, Camilla completely ignores them. Thanks to her independence, she is able to express her opinions and be part of an intellectual circle. Gwen’s description of Camilla reveals her unique qualities that elevate her above the Garland sisters: ‘It was Camilla she hated, and she envied her for all the graces, beauty, cleverness, and culture with which she endowed her. Here was a living Laetitia or Clara Middleton . . . . Miss Lawrence could talk as an equal to Mr Whitford or Sir Willoughby’ (Woolf 1914, 154). As Gwen notices, Camilla’s intellectual capacity, along with her stunning beauty, makes her unique and powerful and entitles her to privileges from which other girls of her age are deprived. She therefore manages to take charge of what is common to the community.

31Harry too wants to assume a more important role in the community. As the story unfolds, we learn that Harry offers to provide Gwen with some reading materials in order to get her out of her cocoon. Harry thinks that he will be ‘a very good father confessor, philosopher, instructor and guide’ to Gwen (Woolf 1914, 84). The first book Harry hands her is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot which he hopes will make her a bit uncomfortable: ‘Something to show them that life was not all Richstead, virginity and vicars, needlework and teas’ (90). Indeed, Gwen’s interest in Harry combined with her curiosity to discover what lies beyond Richstead, works as an initiatory act towards more liberty or at least more freedom of thought: ‘Gwen’s interest increased with her excitement. He seemed to be opening a new world to her’ (83). Here, Woolf highlights the emancipatory capacity and the potential of each individual to redistribute knowledge and to assume a ‘community of equals’. As Harry remarks, even the sisters have undergone slight but significant changes. Efforts made by Gwen to dissociate herself from the world of foolish virgins, reveal her desire to leave her role as a stupid maid and to join the community of intelligent and cultivated people. In other words, she too claims a more important share in what is common to the community, a share that is denied her by the highly moral and class-conscious Edwardian society. It is important to note that, in the eyes of the older members of society, Harry is in no position to participate in Gwen’s education. He adopts a position which, apart from being a digression from the patriarchal values, is a ‘disposition’, as defined by Georges Didi-Huberman in Quand les images prennent position, L’œil de l’histoire, since he displaces and dismantles the Edwardian conventions. Analysing the disposition of war images in Brecht’s diary, Didi-Hubermann shows that by reversing the order of the photos, Brecht manages to displace their meaning and to establish a new reading order. In this sense, ‘disposition’ can be understood as the act of voluntarily disrupting the usual order with the aim of establishing a new one. Harry’s attempt to educate Gwen and Gwen’s insistence to leave behind her old life and to open up to new possibilities are to be read as revolutionary acts of resistance against the tyranny of public opinion. At the end of the novel, Harry has to face the consequences of his emancipatory act. Indeed, Harry’s transgression brings about his downfall. Reading Ibsen’s Master Builder, Gwen begins to think of herself as Hilda, the wild bird, of Richstead as a cage, and of Harry as her Master Builder:

‘It’s you, Harry,’ she half turned to him impulsively, laying her hand on his arm for a moment. It’s you—you’ve done so much for me, Harry; you’ve made me so happy. I feel you’ve turned me into a—a—Hilda’
Harry laughed. ‘By Jove, you look like it too. Youth knocking at the door. I’ll call you Hilda after this, I think.’
Gwen blushed with pleasure. ‘And you—you’re the master builder.’
‘No, no. I’m not that. I’m the wandering Jew, the ever-lasting Jew. Only I don’t wander—I wish I could. I wander why the devil one doesn’t. Wouldn’t it be jolly just to go on day after day like this and never have to come back for lunch? (Woolf 1914, 223)

32Having revolted from her old life in Richstead, Gwen feels very happy. The feeling of extreme happiness generated by her aspiration to ideals of equality and liberty mirrors Woolf’s conception of democracy as linked with the happiness of ordinary people. Gwen longs to prove herself by means of a heroic action or noble passion. Overcome by her passion for Harry, Gwen proposes to run off with him before sneaking secretly into his room that very night. In the morning, Harry should face the harsh reality of his acts and propose to Gwen. Like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Leonard Woolf’s The Wise Virgins ends with Harry’s note of incredulity:

Harry covered his face with his hands; everything seemed to be whirling round him. He could think of nothing to say. One sentence only kept on absurdly coming again and again into his head: ‘people don’t do those sort of things.’ Ibsen, of course—Hedda Gabler. People don’t do those sort of things. Could he say that to Gwen—now? Wouldn’t it, after the last week, sound too contemptible, too mean?—people don’t do those sort of things?
(Woolf 1914, 240)

33The reference to Ibsen is evident. At the end of Hedda Gabler, Judge Brack says: ‘But people don’t do such things!’ Like Hilda, Gwen causes Harry’s fall by taking his words literally and by believing in his doctrine of free love and independence.

34As I attempted to demonstrate, Leonard Woolf grants the novel a special status. For Woolf, the novel is not only a promotional tool for democracy but also a privileged space for democratic debate and free expression. Indeed, The Wise Virgins, far from being an ordinary confessional autobiographical novel, as claimed by such critics as Natania Rosenfeld, is a cry for democracy and freedom of expression. Woolf’s choice of an anti-hero is also part of a democratic narrative process that invites the reader to choose between the opinions of different characters. Harry’s impulsive and at times aggressive behaviour allows for a certain narrative neutrality and distance since the main character fails to draw the reader’s sympathy. Indeed, Woolf’s choice of autobiographical novel allows him to both focus on Harry, his alter ego who suffers from social alienation and on other ignored and underprivileged characters such as the Mrs. Davis’s servant and Laura Stening (an ordinary spinster). As Nelly Wolf notes, the novel by bringing together different literary genres, contributes to the equal treatment of all subjects (2003, 49). Through Harry Davis’ symbolic transgression of Edwardian morality and propriety and his efforts to integrate different social circles, Woolf manages to expose the highly fragmented and class-conscious society of his time and to lay bare the flaws of England’s democratic system.

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1 See Philippe Roussin, ‘Tout dire ou le gouvernement de la langue’, Communications, 99, Démocratie et littérature : Expériences quotidiennes, espaces publics, régimes politiques’ (Paris: Seuil, 2016, 69–94).

2 In his satirical pamphlet Fear and Politics, Woolf broaches such issues as war, democracy, civilisation and savagery from the point of view of animals. See Vara Neverow’s article entitled ‘Leonard Woolf’s Fear and Politics: A Debate at the Zoo: Satirical Heritage as Apocalyptic Prophecy’ (2017).

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Leila Haghshenas, « Telling ‘Brutal Truths’ or the Art of Narrating Democracy in Leonard Woolf’s The Wise Virgins (1914) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 57 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 25 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Leila Haghshenas

Leila Haghshenas is a doctoral student in English Literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3. She is a member of EMMA (Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone, EA 741) and her research work explores the ethics of alterity in Leonard Woolf’s literary work. She currently works as a lecturer (ATER) in English at the University of Lorraine.

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