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Feminist Woolf: New Perspectives on Woolf’s Resistance to Feminism

Non-census feminism?—Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf and the ‘Burning of Votes Boats, etc.’

Féminisme contre recensement ? Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf et la pyromanie citoyenne
Claire Davison


C’est par le biais de l’amitié complexe et collaborative entre Virginia Woolf et la compositrice Ethel Smyth que ce chapitre revisite une charnière essentielle dans l’histoire du féminisme britannique—la période entre les guerres, après l’obtention du droit de vote pour les femmes (1918/1928), mais avant la supposée ‘deuxième vague féministe’ des années 1960. C’est dans cet interstice que l’on écoute les nouvelles inflexions féministes et militantes dans l’œuvre de Smyth, et leurs résonances profondes dans l’œuvre woolfienne (lettres, essais, et entretiens radiophoniques). Sont ainsi mises à jour à la fois la richesse politique et poétique de la postérité féministe, et une manière précise dont les méthodes iconoclastes et incendiaires des suffragettes ont été reprises pour dénoncer le nouvel arsenal du patriarcat aux années 1930, notamment quand leur mode de combat a été repris et retouchées par Woolf dans Three Guineas pour dénoncer publiquement le pacte insidieux entre fascisme, domesticité et instinct guerrier.

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  • 1 See Woolf’s letter to Smyth, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 140, henceforth indicated in (...)
  • 2 Composed in 1910, Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’ has been heard repeatedly in recent years at confere (...)

1On Thursday 20 February 1930, ‘the most brilliant pamphleteer in England’ (Williams 379) had her first meeting with ‘one of the best controversialists of our day’ (St John 147); the former wore (or at least planned to wear) an old dressing gown for the occasion; the latter sported a three-cornered hat and tailor-made suit.1 Their encounter deserves recognition as both a radically unsettling factor and a landmark at the intersection of intergenerational feminism, post-suffrage activism and radical intermodernism. Too often, unfortunately, irrespective of the intellectual respect that the two protagonists clearly inspired in their day (as the opening quotes indicate), it serves merely to introduce a buoyantly rendered excerpt from ‘March of the Women’, an anecdote about a batty suffragette’s toothbrush, or a wickedly quotable quip about a dowdy old Sapphist’s fires.2 Victorian battle-axe and derivatively Germanic composer Ethel Smyth meets highbrow Bloomsbury intellectual Virginia Woolf: what contrast could be simpler? Simple, perhaps, but it is also perplexingly wrong: Smyth was then one of Britain’s most-respected composers, plus a best-selling author with a ‘Holloway degree’ earned by suffragette radicalism (St John 60–72); Woolf excelled as an irreverent, iconoclastic, scholar-hounding highbrow. Smyth threw stones at Prime Ministers’ windows; Woolf threw inkpots at angels’ heads. The clichés have nevertheless proved hard to dismiss. Some of their own contemporaries disparaged the women’s close conspiracy, just as others deprecated or deplored the women’s individual espousal of militant feminism. Even feminist historiography itself proved just as reluctant to acknowledge the cultural and creative impact of a decade-long intergenerational friendship between two ageing women as it did to recognise their pioneering feminism individually.

2This is not to say that there was never any dissensus among critics; Jane Marcus first foregrounded the creative and political interest of the Woolf—Smyth friendship back in the 1980s, notably claiming that ‘Woolf learned to let her anger loose from an expert feminist fighter’ (Marcus 1987: 112); in the same era Elizabeth Wood was valuably conceptualising Smyth’s cryptic musical ‘sapphonics’ (Wood 609–16; Wiley 410–14). Woolf has long since been at the forefront of any history of British modernism, and occupied an iconic place in the feminist Pantheon; Smyth’s place in the history of women composers and in the evolution of the British musical renaissance is less broadly acknowledged, but nevertheless conceded; her suffrage campaigning alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, meanwhile, reawakened interest in her life story when the centenary of high profile Suffragette activism was celebrated. Woolf and Smyth’s decade-long association, however, has been more unevenly revisited. Other than attesting Smyth’s illustrious social networks, it has proved of little interest to musicologists since it marks the years when the composer’s musical activities had been all but curtailed by deafness; writing had henceforth become her mode of expression and her source of income, and she wrote little about music per se. Their richly productive friendship has attracted critics and biographers far less than Woolf’s relationship with the more glamorous, aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, which arguably had less impact, in creative and political terms. Ethel Smyth’s place alongside Virginia Woolf in their speeches addressed to the Women’s Social and Political Union is largely cited in Woolf scholarship as one of the primal scenes of Three Guineas; the extraordinary richness of their correspondence, meanwhile, has been hailed as a marker of their productive intimacy. Suzanne Raitt for example underlined how ‘Ethel [elicited] conversational and epistolary autobiographies from Virginia, in a way few others could’ (Raitt 3). Elicia Clements brought attention to the interchange of letters as a productive mode of ‘apperceptive listening’ whereby Woolf honed her perception and understanding of musical performativity as a shared, communal event (Clements 52–56). Patricia Moran and Christopher Wiley have pointed to the coded languages and poetics of queer desire in their intimate writings. In the wake of these pioneering studies and key biographical portraits of Woolf, numerous critics have traced the intricate mesh of sexual, provocative, playful, farcical and shrill overtones that weave in and out of the immensely copious, decade-long exchange of letters. But what about their association in terms of feminist history and collaborative feminist praxis?

3As informative and essential as these scholarly contributions have been, the feminist scholar who stops to take stock of the Woolf-Smyth friendship cannot but be bewildered by the staggering imbalance in terms of focus and target. In Woolf scholarship, the friendship is revisited so as better to understand Woolf, the by now middle-aged writer embarking on what proved to be not only the last decade of her life, but also the most disarming in terms of literary form and documentary poetics. Smyth thus serves as one potential lead to the sequence of switches in terms of genre and theme, or as the confidante to whom Woolf wrote arguably her most moving letters. In Smyth scholarship, meanwhile, their intimacy serves above all as a conveniently placed last chapter in her biography—thereby counterbalancing or contesting an undeserved and demeaning label as an eccentric, Victorian, and derivative composer. In other words, interest in their friendship serves above all to reveal more about Woolf, or musical ekphrasis in Woolf’s later works, or to highlight political credentials—such as proof of commitment to the worthy cause of suffragette militancy. In other words, we have gained valuable insights into each woman’s individual biography, or highly operative conceptual insights into one writer’s literary evolution. The glaringly missing link at the very intersection of these various paths is their mode of mutually beneficial, creatively invigorating influence and exchange as the decade advanced. ‘Influence’, in fact, is perhaps misleading; the mode of interface is perhaps more operatively understood as a meeting of minds, inspirited by what Woolf calls ‘less visible connections’ (Essays 6, 594)—the almost instantaneous sense of deep understanding, of being on the same wave-length, irrespective of the squabbles, irritation and misunderstandings that cropped up along the way. We need only to read their exchange of letters over the first months of their friendship to perceive this deeply anchored sense of being ‘in tune’, of instant, deep-felt consensus in terms of what really mattered.

  • 3 For the radiophonic resonances in their friendship, and more broadly in Woolf’s later years, see my (...)

4It is this ‘shared wave-length’3 that I explore here, to pinpoint the method, mode and manner of what I shall call their ‘non-censual’ feminist militancy. It involves returning to Smyth’s feminist voice and the means by which she modulated it anew in the post-suffrage years; it requires us to listen again to Smyth’s musicianship and the means by which she drew mischievously explicit, boundary-crossing militancy into the most unlikely of musical and discursive discourses; and it then requires us to trace how Smyth’s own radically discomfiting aesthetics, firing disruption into the very heart of consensual modes of production, is likewise taken up by Woolf. This is not merely to reverse the tendency to hierarchize the Woolf-Smyth exchange: my aim is not to use their friendship to hear Smyth where previous critics took Smyth as a key to better illuminate Woolf. What I wish to suggest is a different mode of disruptive, dissonant interchange resonating between them, one which illustrates an alternative current of feminist historiography and artistic intersectionality, that also points (tentatively, given the limited scope of a single paper) to how modes and models of feminist activism reverberated to and fro across generations and modes of expression in the post-suffrage era, before new voices re-emerged in the powerful post-war second-generation feminist revival, at which point the often dazzlingly dispersive, centrifugal forces of the previous transitional decades were assigned their place in the metanarrative of feminism. I shall start by going back to the stages of the women’s encounter immediately before and after the first encounter. We shall thus consider the meeting of minds that was always already ‘vibrational’ (Diary 4, 39) before Smyth first descended on the Woolfs in February 1930, and see how it first set the tone of the intense exchanges to come. I shall then move ahead to the role played by Smyth’s writings in the 30s, and their place in the gradual forging of Woolf’s disruptive poetics in Three Guineas, before listening in more closely to the musical modes and schemes of Woolf’s late writing, and to highlight the characteristically Smyth-inflected musical idioms resonating in the margins.

Feminist Wave-lengths and Interconnecting Circles

5So what did bring ‘the most brilliant pamphleteer’ and ‘one of the best controversialists’ into direct contact for the first time? Long before they met, their social spheres were of course interlinked—which in itself says much about the evolution of various strands of feminist activism, and the dissemination of their methods. As Woolf had written 3 days before their meeting, Smyth was ‘a highly interesting portent to us old hacks’ (Letters 3, 140). She had already attended performances of two of Smyth’s operas, and glimpsed the composer in the stalls; she knew her by reputation as a defiantly militant suffragette in the early 1910s; she was fascinated by tales of her influential Anglo-French patronesses and blue-stocking salons (who included Anna de Noailles, Winifred de Polignac Singer, Germaine Tailleferre, Vernon Lee and Nadia Boulanger) recounted by Vita, who knew her well, and she had read, admired, and reviewed her wide-ranging outspoken volumes of autobiography with almost gushing excitement. One passage in particular needs to be reread at length to perceive the extent the meeting of minds was already in place:

The orthodox way to review Miss Smith would be to cut out a sufficient number of good stories about the Kaiser, Queen Victoria, and the Empress Eugénie, and to stitch them together with a thread of admiring comment. But this would give the reader very little idea of the true interest of Miss Smyth’s book, which consists not in isolated anecdotes but in the current of the narrative [which . . .] brings us into touch with the living man or woman . . .not in what the Kaiser said to Miss Smyth at Count Bulow’s dinner party, but in the fact that Miss Smyth had been playing golf till 7-15 that evening, had taken the precaution to have her hair done by an expert hairdresser before setting out, had been struggling with obstinate opera singers for hours in the morning: was, in short, Ethel Smyth, . . . the militant, working, professional woman who had shocked the county by jumping fences both of the field and the drawing room, had written operas, was commonly called ‘quite mad’ and had friends among the Empresses and charwomen . . . Wherever Miss Smyth stood, there a circle formed, and the circle took its colour and its speed from her. (Essays 3, 297–98; emphasis added)

6Here, in other words, was a radically new way of both practising life-writing, and re-engendering, re-appropriating the concept of being an ‘Eminent Victorian’. As the reviewer’s tone makes clear, Woolf was already intuitively tuned into Smyth’s rhetorical idiom, in linguistic and musical terms): one that used colour, speed, raciness and buoyancy as vital political weapons, with which one could venture ‘into intimacies of extreme intensity and interest’ (Essays 3, 299)—which included speaking out loud and clear during the course of her autobiographical bildungsroman about her passionate love for one man and many women.

7Mutual admiration and shared connections were one thing; it was broadcasting that brought the two women together. By 1930, Smyth—as outspoken and respected public speaker—had found her latest soapbox on BBC radio. She had made a discreet radio début in 1928, during a ten-part series ‘Questions for Women Voters’, one of many new Talks programmes backed by Sackville-West’s ‘other’ flame of the moment, Hilda Matheson, then director of Talks (see Avery 159–80). Dame Ethel seized the occasion not just to celebrate the tenth anniversary of women’s suffrage and the latest, belated victory—full voting rights on the same terms as men—but to revive interest in earlier suffragette militancy, to champion (in almost chivalric terms) the supposed excesses of their campaigns, and to insist on the enduring topicality of ‘the anti-woman thing’ (Smyth 1936, 231). It was perhaps this sprightly, successful first contribution that paved the way to the more prestigious invitation in 1930—to take to the air for a full twenty minutes, on any topical subject of her choosing. Her talk was the eighth in a twelve-part ‘Broadcasting Symposium’: ‘Points of View’ (also initiated by Hilda Matheson), designed to ‘present to listeners the varied points of view of well-known men’.4 Other guest speakers included H. G. Wells, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop of Canterbury; Smyth was the only woman contributor.

8The talk, broadcast on 3 March 1930, was not recorded, but the draft script (now in the BBC Written Archive Centre) and a post-broadcast, revised version in the Listener at least enable us to see what her ‘Point of View’ consisted in, and the role it might play setting the tone of Smyth and Woolf’s collaborative exchanges to come. As befits a passionate reader of A Room of One’s Own (whose praises she later sings), Smyth’s opening gambits pay lip-service to the deferent, hedging mechanisms of ‘the tea-table manner’ (Woolf 1976, 150):

If you will promise not to think . . . .
But to-day, when the B.B.C., without irony and in all seriousness, puts much the same question to me . . .
I must prepare you for the fact that to hold forth on any definite question, such as politics, religion, or the relation of the sexes, is a thing I cannot persuade myself to do. To my mind these are the subjects for experts . . . (Smyth 1930, 451)

9With such niceties expedited, she sets to, declaring firmly what she believes. Her opening point is: how to remain a ‘disruptive element’ resisting the sway of the Doxa, in a number of domains. She then turns to her ‘personal speciality . . . —this woman-business’. This enables her to tackle ‘inward emancipation’ in the post-suffrage era when the doors to the professions have been opened. Citing A Room as the ‘exquisite’ nutshell ‘filled to the brim with so much fun and beauty’, she incites her reader/listener to tackle the inner demon—the slave habits of flattery, treachery to other women, servile uses of empowerment, wage-earning and vanity, deference to the establishment (452). And after evoking means to campaign for one’s sex, she tackles ‘the most important part’: ‘How can women help to prevent war?’ At which point, rather than hold forth, she cites 2 letters from friends to know what they urge. The answers are absolute educational reform, from the nursery onwards, and a spirited revamping of peace-making to ‘put an end to the spirit out of which war comes’ (478).

10In other words, her radio-talk alone, which was still being drafted when Smyth first descended on the Woolfs in Sussex, reads as a blueprint in method and mode for a feminist praxis of 1930s broadcasting, and for Woolf’s own pamphleteering in Three Guineas. It lights up just one of the many ways in which, in Smyth’s wake, ‘the Dreadnought Hoaxer’ learned to hone her weapons, think back through her mothers and elder sisters, and tackle patriarchy head on (Marcus 1987, 18–27). Or to take another metaphor, it shows the ripples of impact, leading from Woolf’s previous focus on the single mind, space and consciousness via the tentative part-fictional masks of A Room to her 1930s ‘externality’ (Diary 4, 133)—facts, micro and macro history, radical cultural critique, the dialogic poetics of epistolarity, and the multiple layering of viewpoints and voices in montage. Not to mention tackling the thorny issue of how suffragette militancy had been so deftly harnessed—and thus tamed—to serve the arch-patriarchal causes of imperialism and nationalism.

Wrecking and Wilding—A Feminist Symposium

11Radically different in character and style, Woolf and Smyth ‘on the question of women and art . . . were a united feminist front’ (Marcus 1981, 27). A dialogic, intersectional reading of their friendship, moreover, conjures up a very different sort of feminist genealogy that disrupts the conventional historiography which disconnected suffragette militancy from the attendant campaigns for social justice that had galvanized it from the outset. This had the effect of packaging the suffragette militancy as an eruption of Edwardian middle-class unruliness that ended in 1914 when women sensibly shelved their grievances to help their fathers and brothers win the war, and were duly rewarded for that good behaviour. The resulting self-contained chapter of suffragette militancy then lies undisturbed until the ‘Second Sex’ launched their ‘Second Stage’ of feminist activism in the 1960s. Furthermore, radically revisited, their friendship troubles the classic ‘Fathers and Sons’ mode of activism, in which the liberal-minded reforming fathers get ousted by their revolutionary minded sons. The Woolf-Smyth dialogue shows sparks of influence, exchange and intersubjective, intermedial dialogue ricocheting back and forth from the (metaphorical) bomb-laying, (literal) stone-throwing disruptive mother to her adoptive, misbehaving, mischief-minded daughter who would then garner ‘enough powder to blow up St. Pauls’ (Diary 4, 77).

12Woolf herself implies no less when the two women took to the stage for their joint public performance in January 1931:

She is of the race of pioneers, of pathmakers. She has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for those who come after her . . . . It seems sometimes a pity that a woman who only wished to write music should have been forced also to make bridges, but that was part of her job, and she did it. (Woolf 1978, xxvii–iii)

13A 1937 letter shows that, while the more dynamically charged metaphors might have softened over the course of the decade, Smyth’s steadfastly inspirational image had changed little:

What I would like to say, is how brave I think you. Why do I think so? When? At the dead of last night being sleepless I thought of you . . . as a little tossing tug boat might think of a majestic sea going white-spread, fountain-attended dolphin-encircled ship—forging on and on. And I whip and tumble in your foam. (Letters 6, 111)

14The pioneering impetus of bridge-building, path-blasting and sea-faring proves one of the more operative modes by which to chart the Woolf-Smyth meeting of minds, their collaborative interplay, and the feminist nexus which grounded it throughout the 1930s. We need to return to the years prior to their first encounter to assess how in tune they already were before the decade began. Before she first caught sight of Smyth ‘at a concert two days ago—striding up the gangway in coat and skirt and spats’ (Letters 2, 402), Woolf had heard her music. Although their suffrage circles overlapped, she would not appear to have attended Smyth’s huge fund-raising concert on 1 April 1911, an event The Times disparagingly labelled ‘Non-census Night’ on account of its indiscriminate medley of artistically accomplished compositions and second-rate suffrage pieces of ‘small interest’ (Unsigned 10). She had, however, attended other landmark concerts—such as the British premiere of The Wreckers in 1909 (German premiere 1906). Revisited today, the opera may sound musically mainstream, compared for instance to Debussy’s sea-inspired suite La Mer (1905), but this is perhaps to muddle media, intention and ideal addressee. Debussy was evoking an idealised, impressionistic seascape played by a reduced orchestral ensemble or piano duet for a small-scale audience; Smyth was telling vibrant tales of smuggling and treachery on the stormy Cornish coast—which had of course shaped Woolf’s own formative mindscape. The overture alone illustrates Smyth’s tremendous aptitude as a composer of programme music, who—as comparisons with Britten’s Peter Grimes or Walton’s Shakespeare film scores attest—could arguably have been a pioneering cinematographic composer had she belonged to that later generation of intermedial, experimental musicians (Pendle 190). Unnoted meanwhile until the late twentieth-century revival of her works, however, is The Wreckers’ place in Smyth’s feminist modulation of operatic conventions—shaping her ‘parodic, mocking, sometimes violently rule-breaking style [in] a repertory that not only travesties traditional tunes and substitutes for their words subversive feminist texts but creates new, original music over a range of traditional formal structures and genres’ which is the ‘end of the suffrage musical spectrum’ where Wood firmly situates Smyth (Wood 1995, 614–16; see also Robinson 149–52).

15The opera premiered in Britain one year before Smyth’s official, temporary withdrawal from the musical scene to devote herself entirely for two years to wrecking as a militant mode of suffrage-campaigning; after this she resumed the subversive ‘Dreadnought Hoaxing’ mode with The Boatswain’s Mate. ‘Wrecking’ in other words, gave way to what Vera Brittain termed ‘wilding’—performing women’s rights to civil disobedience and violent rebellion in more or less covert terms (Brittain 303). In Smyth’s case, it implied transposing feminist activism into her characteristically ‘sapphonic’ aesthetic—‘queering the pitch’ as she puts it (Smyth 1936, 36) by weaving tantalizingly sapphic currents of play, flirtation and social irreverence into storylines, and subverting the musical, structural, acoustic and instrumental codes of operatic respectability. Little wonder, in other words, that the author of Orlando (1928) should have found herself inexplicably drawn to these undercurrents of politico-poetic misbehaviour and gender trouble. And indeed, while Woolf was coding unspeakable desires into a pageantesque, novelistic romp through the centuries, Smyth was yet again transposing her idiom to cope with the devastating diagnosis of incurable deafness: if she could not tackle the patriarchal ‘Groove’ head on by composing and lobbying for her works to be performed, she would cultivate a musico-literary cultural critique of her own to rock the boat differently. And thus A Final Burning of Boats Etc. was published in 1928—a hybrid collection of essays, biography, manifesto and documentary, that begins with an overture and ends with the libretti of two of her operas. As deftly, wittily and corrosively as Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it pulls apart—from the dog-and-composer photographs of the frontispiece onwards—the fatuous, insidious violence of patriarchy’s henchmen, best summed up in Gray’s Survey of Contemporary Music:

one can only repeat Dr. Johnson’s dictum concerning a women preacher, transposed into music: ‘Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ (Grey 245–46).

16Woolf of course pulls apart the offensive quip in A Room of One’s Own. More broadly, a closer look at Woolf’s two explicitly feminist manifestos and credos, published one decade apart, and at Smyth’s hybrid essay-studies published in-between, points not to occasional intertextual parallels but to an intense on-going feminist exchange. An indication of their dialogues in situ can then be gauged in the methods they adopted in writing.

17Take Smyth’s Female Pipings in Eden (1933) and As Time Went On (1936) for instance (the latter dedicated to Woolf). Pursuing the methods first adopted in A Final Burning of Boats, Etc. and the Points of View broadcast, she wrests musical criticism and historiography from the Academy. With astounding modernity for a Victorian gentlewoman born in 1858, she dissects the entire patriarchal logic of education, employment and endowment which ensures that shipwreck is the inevitable ‘fate of such foolish women as dare set sail on [music’s] troubled waters and high seas’ when their only ‘sea-faring’ experience is holiday canoeing and punting on the Thames (Smyth 1928, 4–7). To Smyth’s mind, the only tenable music criticism is feminist cultural critique. She correlates the production and reception of music with class, gender, and economic power; she then deconstructs these with her customary verve, and provides the conceptual tools to tackle musical criticism differently: which orchestras employ women? Which choirs and orchestras employ women soloists or conductors? What repertoire do they play—what coverage do they give of women composers? How is music taught? Who provides patronage? Who were the women musicians whose lives and works have been hidden from history? And what are composers and musical institutions—including the BBC whom she lobbied mercilessly—doing to change things? These were no rhetorical questions; as her letters and writings attest, she had the answers.

First Wave Feminism’s Second Wave

18Reading Smyth’s works alongside with Three Guineas, it suddenly becomes all too obvious why Woolf hardly included questions of music, musicians and composers in her own cultural critique of the patriarchal institutions that pave the way to dictators and war despite sounding Smyth out on certain musical matters (Letters 6, 132–33; 217). Smyth had been tackling that domain herself.

19The resonances between their works can but be evoked in passing here, but from archive sources cited via factographic montage to idiom, metaphor and tone, the reverberations are as powerful as they are unexpected. Both unfold letters received and letters hypothesized to deflect from the authority of monologic narration, soliloquizing and interpellation—such as Smyth’s narrative persona tip-toeing up behind a dozing BBC clerk to read a letter over his shoulder which incites its reader not to encourage anymore Smyth jamborees on the radio (Smyth 1936, 301; see also Smyth 1928, 41–52). Likewise, both set out the rules for rigorous educational reform that would change not just the demesne of knowledge but frames of mind—and thus the whole patriarchal scheme that produces dictators and slaves, and deferential, meek slaves at that who, when empowered individually, rally to the cause of their fathers and brothers, rather than using their fortune to liberate and educate their sisters.

20Perhaps the most resonant, and certainly intriguing case of their meeting of minds is the theme of Antigone’s civil disobedience, singing out to denounce her uncle’s tyranny. In Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth takes up ‘the black and white proof’ of a precious bundle of letters to recall an epistolary exchange with Einstein whom she had taken to task for an alleged disparaging comment about women’s minds. Her motivation was double: she could not believe that, as a music lover and thereby being endowed with ‘a supple, contrapuntal view of life’, Einstein could hold such retrograde opinions; nor did she feel they were compatible with someone ‘whose favourite motto is said to be “My object is not to hate with you but to love with you”’ (Smyth 1934, 22–3). And these words, she underlines, are taken from the Antigone. They are also, of course the words that recur like a leitmotif in The Years and Three Guineas, in Greek and translation. More revealing still is Einstein’s hasty answer, refuting the alleged calumny. Smyth quotes the reply in Female Pipings; Woolf notes the exact contents of the letter down on a page of her first scrapbook (MH B16f, 1–10). In other words a letter Smyth receives in response to her tireless campaigning for women’s rights becomes the documentary archive and indirect source of one of the many voices of Three Guineas, the founding structural poetics of which is the exchange of letters.

21Other resonances, in material and motivic terms, recur throughout any contrapuntal hearing of Woolf and Smyth’s texts. In As Time Went on, for instance, Smyth deconstructs and demystifies ‘that lucrative, reputation-making mulberry-bush dance’ of music colleges, leading publishers, music committees and record companies who decide how ‘reputations are built up and royalties raked in (Smyth 1936, 291–96). As if singing the second voice in a musical canon, Woolf then takes up the ‘old tune’ in Three Guineas to ‘break the vicious circle, the dance round and round the mulberry tree, the poison tree of intellectual harlotry’ (Woolf 2006, 117), a theme that ‘like a gramophone whose needle has stuck’, [keeps] grinding out with such disastrous unanimity? Here we go round the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree. Give it all to me, give it all to me, all to me. Three hundred millions spent upon war’ (125).

  • 5 Fete Galante is Smyth’s explicitly musical masquerade on the theme of Pierrot and Columbine at the (...)

22She and Smyth likewise prescribe the same solution: ‘But directly the mulberry tree begins to make you circle, break off. Pelt the tree with laughter’ (97). And this is perhaps where the meeting of minds is most operative, most incisively political, and paradoxically, most overlooked in Smyth–Woolf research: the turbulently comic spirit, even when (or should we say precisely because) faced with the most devastating consequences of patriarchy, tyranny, and war. With characteristically frank clairvoyance, Smyth had, since the immediate aftermath of the war, been yoking tragic opera, bloodlust and imperialism and the ‘hypnotic trance’ they induce. In 1922, she predicted that ‘in a few years’ time . . . Wagner will be found, as regards his scheme of music-drama, to be a product of that casting overboard of discretion and self-restraint, that ruthless systematic ignoring of the limits of the achievable, that self-assertion of megalomania, in short, which led through Pan-Germanism to the temporary ruin of Europe’ (Smyth [1922] 1928, 118). A footnote added in 1928, tempering her shrillness, and admitting ‘a dim feeling . . . that there is a certain kinship between Wagner’s Art and the ultimate projects of Napoleon’. The ominous note, however, is given short shrift a few pages later: ‘but let us not forget that the first orchestra that ran through the Prelude to ‘Tristan and Isolde’ put down their instruments and dissolved in laughter (140). Recommending ‘laughter as an antidote to dominance’ (Woolf 2006, 215) is thus how the two ‘eminent’ figures, pamphleteer and controversialist, respond not only to the patriarchs who take themselves too seriously but surely to the critics who came after and either hoisted the female icons onto pedestals, or dismissed their artistry as minor. Smyth’s educational programme as laid out in Female Pipings starts from the endowment of a Students’ Opera House for ‘non-grand opera’ and ‘a new departure in comic opera’. The Boatswain’s Mate, Fête Galante, Entente Cordiale all sound these notes—their plots can be gossamer-light, their tunes eminently singable, but their politics, even in masquerade, are hard-hitting.5 In the same vein, having drawn subtly on comic-opera dynamics from her earliest fiction-writing onwards (Marcus 1981, 22), Woolf foregrounded choric and comic aesthetics in Orlando and then throughout the 30s, even when most unexpected—such as the devastatingly serious Three Guineas. As a manuscript draft of the work now in the Sussex archives attests, Woolf toyed for a while with a comedy of manners—or comic opera libretto—of her own drawing on the documentary materials of the Scrapbooks, to be titled, in true Smythian mode, ‘The Burning of the Vote’ (MHP B16b, 23). And throughout Three Guineas, her metaphorical weapons are those of the militant suffragettes—‘rags, petrol, matches’—making bonfires to ‘scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows’ (Woolf 2006,45), burning down the colleges that exclude them, and of course setting fire to the very watchword of their cause which, if reified, would imprison them anew:

What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist is the word indicated . . . . Look, how it burns! What a light dances over the world! Now let us bray the ashes in a mortar with a goose-feather pen, and declare in unison singing together that anyone who uses that word in future is a ring-the-bell-and-run-away-man. (Woolf 2006, 120–21)

  • 6 As the biographical study of Pankhurst in Female Pipings makes clear, Smyth herself became more dis (...)
  • 7 See Germaine Greer’s 1986 essay collection, The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writ (...)

23Their methods were not always the same of course, but nothing—by their book—is sacred—not even Smyth’s one-time muse, Mrs Pankhurst.6 Woolf urged women to turn down medals, decorations and ceremonies in the name of a women’s credo of poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties. Conversely Smyth felt flattered and honoured when Durham University made her an honorary Doctor of Music. She did know however how to turn even this accolade into a provocative Suffragette’s trophy. Her hard labour Holloway sentence for window-breaking included sewing clothes for convicts. The result was a pair of prisoner’s knickers, which ‘I sewed together all round, on the apple-pie-bed principle’, and embroidered with the legend: ‘A Mus. Doc’s notion of small clothes’ (Smyth 1934, 210–11). This was pushing non-census militancy just one step too far. Mrs Pankhurst did not approve, and what Germaine Greer might later have applauded as ‘a mad woman’s underclothes’ had to be destroyed.7

  • 8 See Smyth’s moving diary record (1933) analysing her friendship with Woolf reproduced in St John 22 (...)

24It would be misleading, if not unduly naïve, to conclude from the mesh of intricate, conspiratorial exchanges that made their meeting of minds possible that Smyth and Woolf never violently disagreed. Their collaboration was anything but an Entente cordiale. But the dominant note throughout the decade is one of powerful mutual admiration and an intimate sense of understanding—beyond words, beyond mere consensus, and well beyond first-wave feminism.8 On this point, it is fitting that Woolf should have the final word:

I don’t think I’ve ever taken more time than it takes to form a word in writing to you. A proof of our inter-communicativeness. Hasn’t it been a queer collocation, the two people who having nothing alike, except, well—I can’t go into that. (Letters 5, 116)
‘What a pity there’s no wave language—for then you would have gone home with the sound of song in your ears’ (Letters 6, 458)

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Avery, Todd, ‘The Trumpets of Autocracies and the Still, Small Voices of Civilisation—Levinas and Radio in a Time of Crisis,’ Levinas and Twentieth-Century Literature. Ethics and the Reconstitution of Subjectivity, ed. Donald R. Wehrs, Maryland: U of Delaware P, 2013, 159–180.

Beecham, Thomas, ‘Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944)’, Musical Times 33.1385 (1958): 363–65.

Brittain, Vera, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II, London: Andrew Dakers, 1958.

Clements, Elicia, ‘Virginia Woolf, Ethel Smyth, and Music: Listening as a Productive Mode of Social Interaction’, College Literature 32.3 (2005): 51–71.

Davison, Claire, ‘Peace in Pieces? Virginia Woolf, Music and the Radiophonic Imagination’, Virginia Woolf, Europe and Peace: Transnational Circulations, eds. Ariane Mildenberg and Patricia Novillo-Corvalan, Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2020, (forthcoming).

Greer, Germaine, The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings, London : Picador, 1986.

Gray, Cecil, Survey of Contemporary Music, London: Books for Libraries, 1924.

Marcus, Jane, ‘Thinking Back through our Mothers’, New Feminist Essays, ed. Jane Marcus, London: Macmillan, 1981

Marcus, Jane, Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy, Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987.

Moran, Patricia, ‘“The Flaw in the Centre”: Writing as Hymenal Ruture in Virginia Woolf’s Work’, in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 17.1 (1998): 101–21.

Pendle, Karin, Women and Music—A History, Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2001.

Raitt, Suzanne, ‘“The tide of Ethel”: femininity as narrative in the friendship of Ethel Smyth and Virginia Woolf,’ Critical Quarterly 30.4 (1988): 3–21.

Robinson, Suzanne, ‘Smyth the Anarchist: Fin-de-siècle Radicalism in The Wreckers,’ Cambridge Opera Journal 20.2 (2008): 149–79.

Smyth, Ethel, ‘Points of View IV—Ethel Smyth’, The Listener 61 (1930): 451–3, 478.

Smyth, Ethel, A Final Burning of Boats Etc., London: Longmans, 1928.

Smyth, Ethel, Female Pipings in Eden, London: Peter Davies, 1934.

Smyth, Ethel, As Time Went On, London: Longmans, 1936.

St John, Christopher, Ethel Smyth—A Biography, London: Longmans, 1959.

Unsigned, ‘Dr Ethel Smyth’s Concert’, The Times 3 April 1911: 10.

Wiley, Christopher, ‘“When a Woman Speaks the Truth about her Body”—The Challenges of Lesbian Auto/Biography’, Music & Letters 85.3 (2004): 388–414

Williams, Orlo, ‘Women in a World of War: Mrs Virginia Woolf’s Searching Pamphlet’, Times Literary Supplement 4 June 1938: 379.

Wood, Elizabeth, ‘Performing Rights: A Sonography of Women’s Suffrage’, Musical Quarterly 79.4 (1995): 606–43.

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Monks House Papers B16f, 1-10, and B16b, 23, The Keep, University of Sussex.

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1 See Woolf’s letter to Smyth, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 140, henceforth indicated in the text by Letters, plus volume and page number; and her diary entry the next day in vol. 3, 390, henceforth referenced Diary, plus volume and page number. The Essays of Virginia Woolf will likewise be referenced Essays plus volume and page number.

2 Composed in 1910, Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’ has been heard repeatedly in recent years at conferences and on all radio broadcasts—in Britain and France—dedicated to the composer. She herself underlines the ‘toothbrush’ anecdote as a hamper to true recognition in Smyth 1936, 288. See also Beecham 364. Woolf herself quipped on Smyth’s ‘sapphic fires’—and indeed contributed generously to the less flattering clichés, notably in her letters to her nephews, which were clearly intended to titillate and entertain. See Diary 3, 306.

3 For the radiophonic resonances in their friendship, and more broadly in Woolf’s later years, see my ‘Peace in Peaces, Virginia Woolf, Music and the Radiophonic Imagination’, in Mildenberg and Novillo-Corvalan 20.

4 See, last consulted on 4 December 2019.

5 Fete Galante is Smyth’s explicitly musical masquerade on the theme of Pierrot and Columbine at the King’s masked ball. Although airy and dreamlike on the surface, it is a deft political parable ending with a devastating enactment of scape-goating and a monarch’s ruthlessness. It was also the work Woolf engaged with most. See Letters 4, 107.

6 As the biographical study of Pankhurst in Female Pipings makes clear, Smyth herself became more disenchanted by Pankhurst and her wartime/postwar patriotism. In Three guineas Woolf makes the link between the latter-day suffrage-campaigning Antigone and the patriot enthusiastically handing out white feathers to pacifists in the war.

7 See Germaine Greer’s 1986 essay collection, The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings.

8 See Smyth’s moving diary record (1933) analysing her friendship with Woolf reproduced in St John 222–25.

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Claire Davison, « Non-census feminism?—Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf and the ‘Burning of Votes Boats, etc.’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 27 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Davison

Claire Davison is Professor of Modernist Studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, where her teaching and research focus on intermedial borders and the boundaries of modernism; this includes the translation and reception of Russian literature in the 1910s-20s; literary and musical modernism; modernist soundscapes and broadcasting. Currently engaged on archival research at the BBC in preparation for a monograph on cultural diplomacy on air in the 1930s, she is also working on a new critical edition of the complete correspondence of Katherine Mansfield for Edinburgh University Press. She is the author of Translation as Collaboration – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky (2014) published by Edinburgh University Press, and the co-editor of the fourth volume of The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, in Four Volumes (Edinburgh 2012–6) and The Collected Poetry of Katherine Mansfield (Edinburgh, 2016).

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