Susan Sellers on Woolf's Essays

Virginia Woolf Talks at Lucy Cavendish College

On 26 April, Susan Sellers gave an inspiring lecture on Woolf's essays and fiction, looking at A Room of One's Own (1929), Three Guineas (1938), and many other essays.   

Her lecture concluded with these reflections upon Three Guineas (1938):

There is wry humour – in the gaping absence of women from the printed photographs of patriarchs dressed in their finery and displaying the insignia of tradition and power, for instance – but its tone, as Elena Gualtieri stresses, is bitterly sarcastic. If there is a comedic tool it is parody, exemplified in the ironic references to ‘our country’, and the long, astute explanation of how women are viewed in Whitehall. Even the forays into fiction serve a new purpose. They are there to reinforce and incite, as in the depiction of the bonfires on which the word ‘feminism’ is imagined to blaze - with its terrifying overtones of the book burning ordered by Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933. Yet the provocations of Three Guineas – persistent and deadly earnest as they are – are not intended to instill emotion. On the contrary, what Woolf seeks is the ‘indifference’ necessary to resist patriarchy’s enticements and snares. As she observed in a diary entry in 15 May 1940, the best riposte to the ‘bombast’ of war is thinking.

Though I appreciate Leila Brosnan’s claim that the strikingly different style of this essay might be attributable to Woolf’s diminishing sense of a receptive audience, this is not how I read Three Guineas. For me, the adoption of the epistolary form presupposes a reply. Indeed, it appears to invoke both recipient and respondent. My interpretation of the almost reckless energy as Woolf veers from exasperated polemic to passages of devastatingly polite, exhaustively researched disquisition, is that it makes her call to forge an alternative culture to that of the father-dictators impossible to ignore. The fact that Woolf restricts this call in Three Guineas to educated women like herself seems connected to her recognition that the imperative to form an alternative to patriarchy rests with those least caught up in its nexus of loyalties and benefits. That Woolf performs her own resistance through thinking and writing appears equally important. As she insists, picturing the young English and German pilots battling in the sky overhead in her 1940 ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’: ‘there is another way of fighting for freedom without arms; we can fight with the mind.’ For if either pilot stops to think ‘he may be killed […]. So let us think for him.’ 

Woolf’s exposure in this essay of the ‘aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave’ that impels all those fighting, and acknowledgement that even those it enslaves bear a responsibility for its continuation, is a lesson we (in what A.C. Grayling has recently termed our ‘post-truth world’) would do well to remember today.[vi] As we move into the era of a new world leader whose own father-dictatorship seems founded on manipulating and promulgating ‘truth’ via twitter, an era too where here in the UK we face our own ‘hard’ exit from one of the most peaceful supra-national alliances in history, I believe more than ever we need to heed Woolf’s words. After all, as she reminds us listening to the guns and propaganda of war: ‘Hitlers are bred by slaves’.


Susan Sellers is Professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews and one of the General Editors of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf.

Her lecture on Woolf's essays will be published as a book by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain.

Virginia Woolf Talks are presented by Literature Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College.