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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)
II/ Non-fiction Ethics and Aesthetics

“God Damn This War”: Virginia Woolf's Struggle for Peace between the Wars



Cet article analyse la non-fiction et la fiction de Virginia Woolf dans l’entre-deux guerres. Ces années-là virent en fait se dérouler trois guerres qui eurent un impact direct sur la vie de l’auteur: la Première guerre mondiale qui façonna sa génération et la fit s’interroger sur la santé mentale d’une société qui continuait à vivre comme si des millions d’hommes n’avaient pas péri en vain; la guerre civile espagnole durant laquelle elle perdit son neveu Julian Bell et qui allait devenir une des forces motrices de son essai en forme de livre contre la guerre, Three Guineas, et enfin, la seconde guerre mondiale qui allait jouer un rôle significatif dans sa décision de mettre fin à ses jours. Comment communiquer aux autres par écrit une expérience telle que la guerre est ce qui préoccupe Virginia Woolf durant toutes ces années. Cet article retrace l’évolution de la vision privée et publique de l’auteur au fil des ans, la compare à celle de ses contemporains – son mari, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield et Stephen Spender – et la met en parallèle avec les propositions de Ludwig Wittgenstein dans son Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus qui parvient à des conclusions similaires.

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  • 1 Indeed, reporting in her diary on the League of Nations’ attempts to gather popular support in favo (...)

1In the years surrounding the three major wars which had a direct impact on her life, Virginia Woolf’s perception of war seems to have undergone mostly a vertical development, by which I mean that her responses to war, both conscious and unconscious, deepened rather than widened in their nature. She did not dramatically change her political and social views of war, which were largely leftist and pacifist throughout her life.1 What did undergo a visible change was Woolf’s stance on whether or not war should feature in fiction and non-fiction writings, and if yes – to what extent, and under what terms. This paper is general in scope, for which reason it makes several substantial leaps to cover some of the instances when war as a social phenomenon left a significant mark on Woolf’s personal writerly life and thus her literary output. It analyses her responses to war as the times and situations drive them out. Woolf’s diary and letters, as well as the substantial editorial notes and introductions that accompany them will be used throughout to complement her essays, novels and stories, in an attempt to extract her general views of war in relation to literature over the years, and show how and why they evolved.

2The First World War broke out at the time of some of Woolf’s greatest private troubles. Her first novel, which took years to write was finished in 1913 and published in 1915, with the war already raging on the Continent. Both upon its completion and its publication she suffered prolonged periods of mental illness, including an attempt on her own life (McNeillie ix). It is for this reason that this period of her life is rather mute concerning the War. In fact, her own and the life of her closest friends does not drastically change until January 1916, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom, having exhausted its run of professional soldiers turns to a general conscription with the Military Service Act 1916 (Royde-Smith, Graham and Showalter) and Woolf’s husband and friends become threatened with being used as future cannon fodder.

3Quentin Bell, Woolf’s biographer and nephew, notes that “during the years 1915 and 1916, Virginia was very much isolated from London – one cannot say from Bloomsbury for Bloomsbury hardly existed” (Bell 30-32), and goes on to explain what kind of a role the Great War and especially the Bill itself played in bringing the old friends back together. Every man between the ages of 18 and 41 was suddenly liable to end up on the battle ground, with a few exceptions such as if he was married and had family members depending on him, or if he was a member of the Church, or already wounded and discharged, among other reasons (Bell 30; “Military Service Act, 1916” 3, 8). This meant that Leonard Woolf, her husband, was not exactly exempt as they had no children and Virginia did not depend on him financially, though she did due to her mental condition at that time. But as Leonard had suffered from hand tremor from early youth, his remaining in England was soon secured with a certificate from a doctor proving him unfit for service (Bell 30). The rest of their friends did not get the exemption as easily. Given that apart from Leonard Woolf and John Maynard Keynes (who was working for the Treasury at that time) all of them became Conscientious Objectors, those who were not exempted had to settle for work on farms in the country or face imprisonment (Bell 30-32; Lee 346-347). One such farm, surrounding the Garsington Manor, served as a refuge for a part of that loosely knit group of friends we would in time come to call the Bloomsbury Group. Owned at that time by MP Philip Morrell and his aristocratic wife and social hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, Garsington became a focal point of the British cultural and artistic scene of the last few years of the decade, opening its doors not only to Woolf’s friends who needed proof of work at a farm (and got it there), but also to other contemporary writers and visitors, such as D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot or the war poet Siegfried Sassoon (Lee 349-350; “Garsington Manor”).

4After a long break, Virginia Woolf would resume her writing in 1916, publishing (usually) unsigned reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, and it is from these we can extract her first public descriptions of her experiences and opinions about the Great War and its relation to literature. In April 1917 the Woolfs, then living in the Hogarth House in Richmond, a London suburb, finally received the small printing press they purchased the previous month, and by July they had hand printed their first publication, Two Stories, containing “The Mark on the Wall” and “Three Jews”, respectively by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, illustrated with woodcuts by their new friend, Dora Carrington (Lee 362-364).

1. “The Mark on the Wall” and War as Unutterable Subtext

  • 2 Though I had arrived at this conclusion on my own, I have subsequently discovered that Leonard Wool (...)

5While it is often said that Virginia Woolf developed her stream of consciousness technique or more correctly the technique of interior monologue after Dorothy Richardson or Gertrude Stein, or even having read the early chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses, her early story “The Mark on the Wall” is proof enough that this style of writing was already part of her toolkit as early as 1917.2 The conventional plot is abandoned, barely anything happens on the surface: a woman is sitting in a room and thinking; she is interrupted at the end by somebody standing behind her, probably her husband as the setting seems domestic. Yet everything happens. Actually, a good slice of the life of the mind is given in a few pages. What might be called “tunnelling down” is employed to show the curiosity of the mind set off by a simple black mark on the wall, spurred on first into a trot, then into a gallop and finally speeding up like an underground train:

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! [...] With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a racehorse. (“The Mark on the Wall” 78)

6The story then slows down, and the process is repeated again only this time fuelled by the curiosity turning into frustration of what the mark on the wall actually is (not bothering to stand up and examine it, we note), until the narrator’s train of thought is interrupted by the other person barging in, saying:

‘I’m going out to buy a newspaper.’
‘Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!’ (83)

7Having until this point floated behind the narrator wherever her mind eddied, we are suddenly thrown into the world (to borrow from Heidegger), thrown back into the public time and into the Great War, by which is meant – thrown into a standstill, where nothing worthwhile happens. And the point of curiosity, the mark on the wall, is nothing but a little snail, rudely revealed not by the narrator, whose imagination was much better than reality, but by the other person who vocalises that which she perhaps has been trying to ignore the whole time with this little history, in its original sense of “inquiry” – the war itself. It is particularly significant that the first and only mention of the war comes as an interruption, and from a seemingly male mouth at that.

8Before writing this story, Woolf had mentioned the war sparingly, but did so in her non-fiction writings. In a 1916 piece entitled “Heard on the Downs: The Genesis of Myth”, she describes how contemporary things become myth on the example of the sounds of gunfire in Flanders heard all the way on the English Downs. Here she quotes some “well-known writers describing the sound of the guns in France” as “the hammer stroke of Fate” or “the pulse of Destiny”, while her own description of what she heard, following theirs, is much more emotionally charged, yet level-headed, and more human than their aggrandising phrases. She writes:

More prosaically, it sounds like the beating of gigantic carpets by gigantic women, at a distance. You may almost see them holding the carpets in their strong arms by the four corners, tossing them into the air, and bringing them down with a thud while the dust rises in a cloud about their heads. All walks on the Downs this summer are accompanied by this sinister sound of far-off beating, which is sometimes as faint as the ghost of an echo, and sometimes rises almost from the next fold of grey land. (“Heard on the Downs: The Genesis of Myth” 40)

9In fiction, however, at this time she refrains from including the events of the war. The reason for it might have been best expressed in her review of Elinor Mordaunt’s book of supernatural and war stories Before Midnight from March 1917. Woolf writes (in the journal’s impersonal we) confessing that:

We do not like the war in fiction, and we do not like the supernatural. We can only account for the first of these prejudices by the feeling that vast events now shaping across the Channel are towering over us too closely and too tremendously to be worked into fiction without a painful jolt in perspective. (“’Before Midnight’” 87)

10Perhaps this, better than anything else, explains why her second novel, Night and Day, though published in 1919, is set before the events of the Great War. Indeed, it gets attacked for this very reason. Katherine Mansfield, a friend and fellow writer whose long story Prelude Woolf set by hand and published in the Hogarth Press only the previous year, wrote a biting review in the Athenaeum attacking the novel for being outdated and ignoring the war which no new novel should allow itself to do (Lee 386). Mansfield wrote of the fate and the possible impending death of the novel as her contemporaries had known it and, comparing the novels to ships being observed as they are built, as they come into the harbour, or leave it, she presented the sight of Night and Day as a somewhat odd ship with an “air of quiet perfection, her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage - the absence of any scars” a “tribute to civilisation” (Mansfield 79-80). “Civilisation” had, of course, collapsed all around them and though Mansfield admired the intelligence of the book and likened it to an updated Jane Austen novel, she could not get past this obvious shortcoming:

We had thought that this world was vanished for ever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what has been happening. Yet here is Night and Day, fresh, new and exquisite, a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill: we had never thought to look upon its like again! (Mansfield 82)

11But, set against the above quotation from Woolf’s unsigned review, Mansfield’s attack missed the point, even though it hit the target, painfully so. Nevertheless, it was in part thanks to that scathing review of Night and Day that Woolf embraced that jolt in perspective she previously thought too risky, and indeed talked about the Great War in most of her subsequent fiction, but under her own terms.

12Indeed, we could say that before this great change of attitude towards representation of war in fiction took root, Woolf’s initial views were quite aligned with those of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was her contemporary and a friend of her friends, including Bertrand (“Bertie”) Russell, Wittgenstein’s teacher and supervisor. His influential 1921 work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, completed after his active and honoured participation in WWI (an English translation followed in 1922), ends with one of the most influential propositions in twentieth-century philosophy: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein 89). Having experienced the war first-hand on the Russian front, serving on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Army, the end of the conflict found Wittgenstein in an Italian POW Camp. On his return from it, he would pitch the book to a publisher who did not specialise in philosophy. According to a Wittgenstein scholar and biographer Ray Monk, in this pitch he revealed more about the nature of his intention than anywhere else, explaining that the very essence of the book was not logic, but ethics (Monk pghs. 6-8). Given that Tractatus was composed in its entirety during Wittgenstein’s active service, and that ethics sits at its very core (though not by presence, but by absence), it is possible that its last proposition refers also to the impossibility of really speaking about the war experiences. At roughly the same time, Woolf makes a similar observation in her review mentioned above and avoids any substantial mention of the war in her works.

13When it does begin to appear in her writings, when the “jolt in perspective” is finally braved, war seems to appear rather as subtext, as that which looms in the shadows and manifests itself the way ethics manifests itself in the Tractatus. It is not the direct combat, the pillaging or the bombings that are centre stage in her subsequent novels, but the aftermath and the consequences, the shattered lives of the living and the painful absence of the dead.

2. The Jolts in Perspective and the Nature of Questions

14Hermione Lee, in her 1996 biographical masterpiece Virginia Woolf, is not alone in pointing out that Woolf experiences the First World War as a great break, something that cuts through the middle of life, and many of her books from the 1920s onwards will structurally be cleft into two by this catastrophe (Lee 341-343), though not in the way one would typically expect from someone who witnessed the great events taking shape and chronicled many of them in her private writings. Leonard Woolf’s autobiography amplifies this view:

The theme of politics and public events must therefore become more important and more persistent in this autobiography from 1919 onwards. It was not merely that I became more and more actively immersed in them. We lived our daily life and ate our daily bread in the shadow of recurring crises and catastrophes. When peace at last came in 1918, it was, of course, like the break in the appalling sky which must have covered poor Noah’s ark [...]. Of course we welcomed the dove with the olive leaf in her beak. We put out a few flags and a few hopes hesitantly, apprehensively. Almost immediately the flags dropped, the olive leaf withered, the hopes faded. In the years 1918 to 1939 one impotently watched a series of events leading step by step to barbarism and war. (L. Woolf 28, emphasis my own)

  • 3 See, for instance, Dorinda Guest’s “Introduction” to Jacob’s Room, where she argues: “Presented in (...)

15The departure in outspokenness commences for Virginia Woolf with Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, where the war is shown primarily through absence. In the last part of the book its titular character has perished, and all that remains after him are his things: his room, and a pair of empty old shoes that his mother holds out in her hands for the inspection of Bonamy, a friend who was in love with Jacob, asking: “What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?” (Jacob’s Room 548). As has been said before, the whole novel resembles a postimpressionist or, more specifically, a cubist painting; the narrative gives way to experimentation with the perspective; one person’s life is presented and observed through the eyes of others and through the things they possess and places they visit3 Jacob is there but speaks the least of all the characters. If we could hang this book on a wall and take a step back like we do with paintings, the fragments would coalesce into a whole. Indeed, that is the cumulative effect of the novel as one finishes the last page. It is possible, then, to write even about the experiences of war; here was one way.

16In her 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway the war is shown through its consequences, rather than the action itself. The shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith embodies its great tragedy in a clean suit, being dragged around London, visiting psychiatrists who keep on telling him to move on and live his life, to leave the past behind. But there is no abandoning the past. It moves like hot lava underneath, and erupts dramatically, first with Septimus’ suicide, then again when the news of his death reaches Clarissa Dalloway and her guests during her long-expected party. It erupts, too, in many flashes throughout the day, showing that no one is immune from its presence and that the whole society is still affected. Septimus suffers from shell-shock in its extreme form:

The last shell missed him. He watched them explode with indifference. When peace came he was in Milan [...]. For now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening, these sudden thunderclaps of fear. He could not feel. (Mrs Dalloway 85-86)

17But the whole society suffers to one degree or another. Consider the scene when a motor car backfires in the street: Clarissa is talking to a florist and both women are startled by what is assumed to be a pistol shot (13-14). The memory of war explosions is so fresh even five years after it ended, even for the two women who have never been to the battleground. They and everyone else outside the shop freeze with discomfort which only after the car is spotted by their eyes turns into curiosity. A similar thing happens during the scene with the aeroplane, when the characters all suddenly become on alert and look up (20), in momentary stupor, before they realise the aeroplane is spelling out an advertisement for sweets.

18The war, however, did bring some positive changes, too. Peter Walsh, one of the major characters in the novel (just back after many years of service in India), reflects on how before the war it was unimaginable to see an article about toilets in a serious weekly, which now one can see, or girls putting on lipstick in public, or young women and men conversing openly in front of the women’s mothers (as if they were not there at all), and that women were now more likely to marry later and according to their own desires (Mrs Dalloway 71).

19A similar dichotomy is presented in Woolf’s next novel as well, To the Lighthouse, composed of three parts, the shortest of which, ‘Time Passes’ is some of her strongest writing in general. Condensed in its twenty or so pages is a whole decade, including all the years of the War, while the greatest personal events in the lives of the characters, such as marriages, deaths and despairs are given as strings of merely few words in square parentheses. The War itself is shown through a detailed description of the decaying house, abandoned for years because of this disaster. Two parenthetical insertions in the middle of this part offer us instances of direct impact of war: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” This clashes violently and suddenly with the calm description of the inside of the house and the silence of familiar objects. This is followed by “[Mr Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]” (To the Lighthouse 150, 151). Here a positive consequence of war is glimpsed, in that books of poetry become even more valuable in times of war. In her recent Reith Lectures, at the BBC after presenting many negative aspects of war, the renowned historian Margaret MacMillan also considers our contradictory relation to it:

Why we admire war, why we fear it is of course a very difficult question, but I think on the admiration side is the fact that we find in war qualities which we don’t always find in civilian life. We find people prepared to sacrifice themselves, prepared to die for ideals or prepared to die for others; and although we may disapprove of the goals of war and the objects of war, we do find sometimes the qualities that war brings out admirable. (Macmillan 3-4)

  • 4 The recent example of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s is a case in point: during the (...)

20For most people, in times of war culture and arts become way to get distracted from the ugliness around them, as well as something worth fighting for, something that needs to be protected by all means.4

21To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room are seen by Tammy Clewell as particularly good examples of a refusal to mourn the dead in the expected way and to give the reader that cathartic consolation traditionally got from a work of art. The gaping war wounds are exposed, but there is no friendly tap on the shoulder from Woolf that tells the reader that it will all be all right:

Woolf’s reinvention of mourning was stimulated by the cataclysmic traumas of the First World War. In her sustained effort to confront the legacy of the war, Woolf repeatedly sought not to heal wartime wounds, but to keep them open. Some of the most disconsolate images in her fiction [...] testify to Woolf’s refusal to engage a process aimed at “working through” despair and grief. (Clewell 198-99)

22Indeed, Clewell goes on to show how Woolf’s radical break would influence later artists who in creating memorials, from those for the victims of the Vietnam War to those of AIDS, searched for “commemorative forms intended to provoke and hurt, rather than console and heal” (199). If a ceremony is there in Woolf’s novels, it is shown rather as a constriction, something that stifles and that is, in many ways, pathetic. There is no buffer zone between the intensity of life and the shocks of death. Mr Ramsay, the man completely dependent on women as metaphorical emotional crutches, is left empty-handed, unsupported and unconsoled, with his arms outstretched as the most powerful image of Mrs Ramsay’s sudden passing (To the Lighthouse 149).

23In Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, Lyndall Gordon suggests Woolf’s life was marked by her taking on various roles as the decades ground on, the last of which was marked by her role as a public intellectual. In the 1930s Woolf’s new friendship and her correspondence with Dame Ethel Smyth, a famous English composer, suffragette and memoirist, by then in her seventies, would prove instrumental. It was Smyth who “called out the fighter, the reformer in Virginia” (Gordon 249, 255), so that “after nearly a lifetime of personal, elegiac works, written for a small circle, she was seeking a public voice to address the national audience” (252). This is not entirely correct, considering the success of Woolf’s “journalism” and particularly her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), for which Leonard Woolf reports that “in the first six months [...] [it] sold 12443 copies in England, and 10926 in America” (L. Woolf 144). This hardly qualifies as “written for a small circle”, even by today’s standards. Nevertheless, Gordon’s view rings true in the sense that Woolf does become more vocal and openly political in her late works. Indeed, her penultimate novel, The Years, concerned as it is with time and the years themselves, finally offers her readers immediate experiences of the war: not in memories (as with Septimus Smith), not through absence (as with Jacob), not with a sudden standstill (as with the narrator of “The Mark on the Wall”), nor with the decay of abandoned objects and short parenthetical bursts (as in To the Lighthouse), but in “real time”.

24The chapters of The Years being specific years in the lives and times of a large family, each opening with a kind of bird-eye-view of London, the war is represented by an air raid scene in 1917, with the Londoners running for shelter and spending time in the cellars and the Underground, and with another from 1918, where a former domestic servant, now aged and preoccupied with personal injustices stemming from her social standing and type of employment, overhears that the war has ended while waiting in a queue. In April of 1937, answering the praise and the critique from her friend Stephen Spender, a writer of a younger generation, about this novel not containing direct passages of combat in WWI, she explains why she did not include them:

I couldnt bring in the Front as you say partly because fighting isnt within my experience, as a woman; partly because I think action generally unreal. Its the thing we do in the dark that is more real: the thing we do because peoples eyes are on us seems to me histrionic, small boyish; However I havent got this expressed, and I daresay difference of sex makes a different view. Which is right? God knows. (Letters VI 122, spelling as in the original)

25The public display of emotions is for Woolf always hindered by what people know others expect from them; it is thus theatrical, unrealistic. And the public being most often ceremonious, ritualised and masculine, she refuses to commemorate the war in such a way. She wants to show the effects of war, but on her own terms, not by subscribing to the male expectation. Indeed, she will state these effects openly in her book-length essay Three Guineas, some of which at first formed the essayistic sections between the prose chapters of the work in progress that would be called The Years, but which she would eventually decide to leave out.

26Before we turn to Three Guineas, I would like to revisit Gordon’s suggestion about Woolf’s greater interest in becoming a public voice in the 1930s for it sheds light on the distinction between Woolf’s treatment of her fiction and non-fiction. Fiction, as I have shown above, allowed Woolf to express her strong political views imaginatively, in a subdued way, often entangled with her characters’ complex inner realities. Certainly, to express an unpopular opinion in fiction is safer, but it is also more complicated, as there is always a danger of trivialising the matter and therefore ruining the fiction. This queer position resulted, for instance, in The Years being celebrated as a success for the wrong reason by some of the critics. Woolf’s reaction to the favourable Times Literary Supplement (TLS) review confirms this: “The TLS spoke as if it were merely the death song of the middle classes: a series of exquisite impressions” (Diary V 69). Indeed, she begins the same diary entry elated that the Observer has come out with a most satisfactory reading of the book and contrasts it with the failure of the review by the TLS. The vision that the TLS had failed to grasp was clearly her strong emphasis on the present difficulties of women’s professional, sexual and private lives which were the direct consequence of centuries of raising women differently and not allowing them the full participation in the public sphere. One of the reasons for this must have been the fact that The Years, once stripped of its more overtly political essayistic parts seemed rather tamer than it actually was. It was, in the end, her only best-seller during her lifetime. However, the daring that it would take to communicate those difficulties in a sincere manner in non-fiction can best be grasped by looking at the moment of that daring’s inception. Both Gordon and later Hermione Lee stress the importance of a talk Woolf gave together with Ethel Smyth in January 1931 to the London and National Society for Women’s Service, and both of them quote a cancelled passage to illustrate it. This talk first sparked the idea of that essay-novel The Pargiters which would eventually become The Years and Three Guineas. In her notes for the talk Woolf writes, very frankly:

Now, I believe that you won’t find it difficult to make money by journalism. But I think you will find it extremely difficult to say what you think – and make money. For instance, about the war. If I were reviewing books now, I would say this was a stupid and violent and hateful and idiotic and trifling and ignoble and mean display. I would say I am bored to death by war books. I detest the masculine point of view. I am bored by his heroisms, virtue and honour. I think the best these men can do is not to talk about themselves anymore.

Of course, none of this would be printed. (The Pargiters 164)

27Indeed, not only did none of that get printed, none of it got said either. The whole passage was left out and the talk which was eventually delivered, though relatively inflammatory, was milder, while the version printed as the essay “Professions for Women” was even more so. Woolf needed yet another few years of wrestling with the issues before she would dare to use her non-fiction as a vehicle for her growing frustration with the society as it was. For the next six years she would be collecting clippings from the papers which would eventually become part of the argumentation in Three Guineas published in 1938, though as she herself said as early as February 1932 she had “enough powder to blow up St Paul’s” (Lee 641).

28Three Guineas begins with a question which the narrator receives in a letter from a male friend, who asks: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” (Three Guineas 7) It resonates strongly with the narrator and spurs her on a quest to answer it. At least, that is how Woolf sets the stage in this literary essay concerned primarily with war and its (in)evitability. This essay is therefore different from anything else in Woolf’s oeuvre so far, and marks a significant departure from her previous attitudes to war by treating it as a central subject of direct investigation. The significance of a question being the spark cannot be overstated. A little before his final statement in Tractatus, Wittgenstein makes another important proposition worth examining in relation to Woolf’s literary project at hand: “When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it” (Wittgenstein 88, emphasis in the original). Grasping this almost by instinct, Woolf goes on to give her own answer to the question directed at her by her male friend, and she does so by asking perhaps an even more important question, “Why fight?”. The war’s central presence (a discussion on the emotionally charged photographs sent from the Spanish Civil War) thus soon gives way to an investigation of the roots of war which lie in the everyday aggressiveness, seemingly harmless competitiveness and the (male) general public’s excessive focus on material gain, as well as the biting resentment on both extremes of the gender spectrum due to the differences in education, work opportunities, economic dependence and participation in public life. Giving a simple example of the disparity between the investments for peace and investments for war, by analysing the yearly budget of the biggest women’s pre-war organisation Women’s Social and Political Union – the WSPU (£42,000), concerned, among other things, with peace, Woolf asks: “How much peace will £42,000 a year buy at the present moment when we are spending £300,000,000 annually upon arms?” (Three Guineas, 82). Indeed, where most of her other works are subtle and indirect, Three Guineas unapologetically hits the nail on the head, arguing the case from the roots of the phenomenon, dismantling the social structures that give rise to the strong emotions which push people, particularly men, to fight. Woolf discusses everything from the universities and their generous funds being available exclusively to men (even at the time when Woolf was writing the book), the discrepancy between the unpaid housework and paid church work, or the crippling weight of the demands for emotional support placed on daughters’ shoulders by their own fathers. This is a point that perhaps only in our own time can be appreciated seriously enough and given the right attention, thanks largely to the gains of the second-wave feminists’ headlong attack on various aspects of emotional labour. Every explosive conclusion is supported here with factual proofs from the sources available to a woman intellectual of her time and social standing (“a daughter of an educated man” as she calls the addressed class throughout), that is biographical and autobiographical works from the public libraries and her private collection, as well as the clippings from the recent daily press – in itself a point that emphasises the exhausting scarcity of resources for female intellectuals around the year 1937.

29This change from being reluctant to take on the immediacy of war, i.e. from war as the unutterable subtext from the beginnings of her career as a novelist, to making war the central question of a very long essay towards that career’s end, is a significant one. It shows, too, the importance of questions for intellectual inquiry, for a question, once framed, is possible to answer. The core of Woolf’s answer however, after all the arguments have been presented is oddly contrary to any expectation. The years leading up to 1938, the year Three Guineas was published, saw a second European arms race on the one hand and countless talks, meetings, petitions and publications about whether the new militarisation of the society was really inevitable and necessary on the other. Her diary entries and letters are full of references to such public gatherings, both in her own home (Leonard Woolf was politically active throughout their married life) and at large. Against these Woolf presents a visionary solution of her “Society of Outsiders”, where the point is not for women to imitate men so that the war can be avoided, but that from their own position at that moment they can do other things that could have the same cumulative effect as that of men who sign petitions and attend meetings and discussions against it:

Different we are, as facts have proved, both in sex and in education. And it is from that difference, as we have already said, that our help can come, if help we can, to protect liberty, to prevent war. (Three Guineas 188)

30This she exemplifies with current practices, though it is doubtful how realistic these would be given that societies change very slowly. Referring to three examples from the recent newspaper articles – a town mayoress who said she would not as much as darn a sock for the war effort, a member of the Board of Education who refused to have her school girls play sports for the sake of competition and awards and insisted on their playing it for the fun and love of it, and finally the news that fewer and fewer young women have been attending church services – Woolf argues that the Society of Outsiders already exists, and that these three cases show only the most publicly visible part of that presence, while in private all sorts of experiments must be taking place (210-217). Angry as this book may sound, Woolf’s unyielding pacifism is at its core. Dissecting the consequences of men’s emotional insecurities and women’s resentment for the unequal and unjust treatment, Woolf offers an alternative, but the one hard to swallow, for while its solutions sound light enough, the centuries-long injustices and the jab at the way the society is organised at that moment, which are implied, are not. Hermione Lee brings us a caricature, published on 25 June 1938 in Time and Tide, which shows the reviewer’s reactions to the book. Woolf’s body and disproportionately large head loom above the figures of four male critics, all half her size, raising their hats to her in praise of her ‘position in literature’ and gesticulating with their arms so as to indicate that they take the task of reviewing her very seriously, while simultaneously stepping on her book eager to destroy it because they find it “revolting” (Lee 710).


31The idea of the Society of Outsiders was in many ways the limit of Woolf’s vision of preventing war and achieving peace at that time, insisting as it does on the characteristic separateness of the sexes. But while it may sound essentialist, one should not forget that Woolf intended Three Guineas as a sequel to her other, much praised book-length essay A Room of One’s Own. While the earlier essay champions the androgyny of mind, the sequel insists on sexual differences. We know from Woolf’s other works like Orlando, as well as from her and her friends’ unconventional and often pioneering lives (in terms of professions, marriages, sexual freedom, friendships, etc.) that such a rigid stance on the separateness of the sexes cannot be her ultimate view. A decade before she writes, for instance:

Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. (Orlando 133)

32This conclusion which comes in the book after Orlando has woken up transformed into a woman and after having encountered several problems solely because she still behaves in the same way she always has, but is not perceived in the same way by society any more. I would therefore argue that the reason for Woolf’s insistence on the separateness of the sexes in her 1938 work was not her belief that sexes bore some irreconcilable differences from birth, but that society accentuated the few minor distinctions and invented a great deal more, in order to preserve the power structures of the status quo (particularly patriarchy and capitalism). It was precisely these power structures of the then present moment that Woolf attacked, along with the consequences of their existence. Three Guineas cannot be taken out of its context, because everything about it points to its present, including the great number of press clippings quoted in it. The immediate and urgent question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” was thus answered in an immediate and urgent way, bearing in mind that the Spanish Civil War was already raging and getting worse by day, as well as that the next big war was on the doorstep. Julian Bell, her nephew who went to drive an ambulance as part of the international war effort in Spain, having died that July, Woolf talked about him and Spain with many of his friends, colleagues and comrades, noting on 13 October 1937 that: “Things are now much more dangerous. The Ambulance is almost as dangerous as the Army [...] He said the worst fighting is yet to come” (Diary V 114). In Three Guineas, therefore, the focus was not on presenting a vision of an ideal society in which the differences would not matter at all and equity and freedom would reign supreme, but on working with what the present actually had to offer.

33The three examples Woolf gives of unusual things which some women were doing or saying, simple yet radical, serve as a possible solution for war in that moment. Considering how large-scale the involvement of women would be in the Second World War, one cannot say Woolf was wrong. The millions of women who worked the factories after the able men were sent to the fronts, who made the arms which would otherwise not be made as the men were too busy fighting, who made the food and the clothes which the armies needed, and finally, who did get a chance to fight alongside men, and not just to treat their wounds (Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, for instance, is a goldmine of life stories of many of these women), all of them would have made a significant difference had they done what Woolf was suggesting in Three Guineas. The actions suggested were simple enough: do nothing for the war effort, refuse to compete and only do the work for the pleasure of doing it, and refuse to be pontificated to by not going to religious services. Have we lost the possibility for a powerful Society of Outsiders when women were allowed to fight in the Second World War? It is an important question but attempting to answer it would require a whole other paper. The possibility of asking and answering questions would soon end for Woolf.

34Woolf ended her life in March 1941, never witnessing the enormous involvement of women in the Second World War. Unlike Wittgenstein, she did not live long enough to see herself through this war and possibly change her mind on any of the major points, or indeed to see her own views evolve from those in her final essays. History would grant Wittgenstein enough time to go back to what he wrote in the Tractatus and to refute “many of the book’s central tenets [...] working out a series of new philosophical ideas in their place” (Grayling 12). But Woolf’s death would not be the end of her vision either. In the last year of her life she published several important pieces of non-fiction which continue the daring tone of her late 1930s pieces. Among them, the essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” warrants most attention with regards to this paper, for as an open attack on “the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down [...] the desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave” (“Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” 243) it shifts slightly from her position in Three Guineas. The striking image of a pilot in a warplane ahead, imprisoned by his machine is brought into relation with the image of women standing captivated by the blazing shop window below; “dressed-up women; women with crimson lips and crimson finger-nails. They are slaves who are trying to enslave” (243). Here Woolf blames both women and men for the state of war. Against that desire that breeds slaves and masters she finds a solution in acts of kindness and “mental fight”, referencing William Blake. “Mental fight”, she writes, “means thinking against the current, not with it” (243). A few months before the essay is published, she records in her diary: “This idea struck me: the army is the body: I am the brain. Thinking is my fighting” (Diary V 285). Arguing now that the warmongering instinct in men has not to be merely criticised but understood first and foremost, she suggests that there is something women can do to help after all:

We must help the young Englishmen to root out from themselves the love of medals and decorations. We must create more honourable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun. […] We must give him access to the creative feelings. We must make happiness. We must free him from the machine. We must bring him into the open air. But what is the use of freeing the young Englishman if the young German and the young Italian remain slaves? (“Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” 244-245)

35Giving the example of a German pilot whose plane had recently been taken down and who landed in a field, Woolf shows the potential for a more general change. The man said to the English peasants who found him “‘How glad I am that the fight is over.’ Then an Englishman gave him a cigarette, and an Englishwoman made him a cup of tea” (245). These simple acts of kindness and the freedom for men to express their emotions publicly could prove fruitful, Woolf argues. “The Leaning Tower”, another important essay she published in this last year of her life is concluded by speculating defiantly about “The next generation – there will be a next generation, in spite of this war and whatever it brings” (274), asking the reader to join her in imagining the future developments in English poetry – believing, perhaps more than in anything else and despite all the odds, in the survival of culture.

36Her final novel, written on the brink of WWII and during its bitter first years, is consciously set in the summer before the war. In it, the differences once more give way to the pursuit of unity. It was a conscious turning back from the questions of war and things that divide. If Three Guineas and The Years jointly present the society scarred by the divisions between the sexes which are to blame for the persistence of war and other discontents, Between the Acts tries to show the things that unite us:

He said she meant we all act. Yes, but whose play? [...] Or was that, perhaps, what she meant? [...] that if we don’t jump to conclusions, if you think, and I think, perhaps one day, thinking differently, we shall think the same? (Between the Acts 179-180)

37True, the subject is not some universal but a small English country community (much like that of the village Rodmell in which the Woolfs lived the last two decades of their married life), but what the novel shows us is that unity rests on universally present human and cultural phenomena: music, poetry and humour; on living with others around us and mixing with all sorts of people; and on the new ways of relating the past to the present.

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1 Indeed, reporting in her diary on the League of Nations’ attempts to gather popular support in favour of introducing sanctions against Italy after it had invaded Abyssinia, Woolf wrote on 13 March 1936: “We walked round Ktn [sic] Gardens yesterday discussing politics. Aldous [Huxley] refuses to sign the latest manifesto because it approves sanctions. He’s a pacifist. So am I” (Diary V 16-17). As Hermione Lee notes, some six months earlier “At the Labour Party conference in Brighton, she watched in horror as the arguments for pacifism and non-resistance were overridden” (Lee 666).

2 Though I had arrived at this conclusion on my own, I have subsequently discovered that Leonard Woolf expressed the same opinion in volume 4 of his autobiography, Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919 to 1939, where he writes: “The idea that no one in the arts has ever invented anything or indeed has ever had an original thought […] has always seemed to me untrue – and if not untrue, unimportant. […] But it is perhaps just worthwhile to point out that The Mark on the Wall had been written at the latest in the first part of 1917, while it was not until April 1918 that Virginia read [Joyce’s] Ulysses in manuscript and January 1919 that she read [Richardson’s] The Tunnel” (59).

3 See, for instance, Dorinda Guest’s “Introduction” to Jacob’s Room, where she argues: “Presented in glimpses, and filtered through a third-person narrator, Jacob’s story is of an unknowable self. Like a cubist portrait he is a disembodied assortment of shapes suggesting a complete image, yet remaining disjointed nevertheless” (Guest 407).

4 The recent example of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s is a case in point: during the siege of Sarajevo, in a candle-lit theatre hall Susan Sontag directed a performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the local actors. At another time, as the Bosnian Serb forces were firing grenades on the Bosnian National and University Library in one of the worst cases of book-burning in modern history, in a spontaneous rescue the citizens of Sarajevo carried the few books they managed to save from the flames in empty banana cardboard boxes, and they hid them until the end of the war when they could be returned. One librarian was killed trying to save the lives of the books. (Riedlmayer 7).

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Velid BEGANOVIĆ, « “God Damn This War”: Virginia Woolf's Struggle for Peace between the Wars »e-Rea [En ligne], 17.2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 25 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Masaryk University, Brno /
Velid Beganović is a PhD candidate within the Literatures in English programme at Masaryk University in Brno. He holds an MA degree in Gender Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. His main research interests include modernist literature, autobiography and art, various communities of artists and intellectuals who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as literature of peace and exile. This paper is part of his doctoral dissertation.

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