Review: Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture

Trudi Tate writes about Jane de Gay’s new book, Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture (2018)

Virginia Woolf is usually regarded as an agnostic, even an atheist, hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular. But Jane de Gay makes a convincing case that Woolf was in fact deeply interested in religion and was well read in religious writings, particularly the Bible.

Woolf was writing in an age when Christianity, although contested, was by no means regarded as passé. Woolf argued with it because it was both an integral part of the literary, artistic and architectural heritage of England, and a live social and political force to be reckoned with. (de Gay, 2)

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In one way, this is obvious: Woolf was a wonderful literary critic, very widely read in English literature. She could not have understood Shakespeare, Milton, Dante and many other writers as she did without considerable knowledge of the Bible and religious debates over the centuries. But like many things which now seem obvious – Woolf's engagement with politics, feminism, education, and the real world – her interest in Christian culture was for a long time neglected by critics. Jane de Gay writes as an academic expert on Woolf and as an Anglican priest, drawing upon both her vocations to trace the complex of Biblical and Christian allusions in Woolf's writing.

Woolf’s parents were agnostics, but they held on to many of the social principles of their Christian ancestors. De Gay notes that there were many committed Christians, particularly Quakers, in the wider family circles. Her aunt the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was also a devoted Christian. (3)

It is often assumed that the modernist period was a time of increasing secularism, but interest in religion actually increased in the early twentieth century, as Pericles Lewis has argued. (4) Woolf’s husband Leonard was very interested in the world’s religions and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press published a number of works on religious topics. (16)

Virginia and Leonard Woolf's library contained 17 books which were either editions of the Bible or individual books of the Bible, such as the Book of Job and Stella Benson's retelling of the Book of Tobit. (186-9) A 1683 copy of the Authorized Version of the Bible is dated with Woolf’s nineteenth birthday: 25 January 1901. Another Bible is dated with her twenty-fifth birthday and was a gift from her Quaker friend Violet Dickinson with whom Woolf often discussed religion (60, 188). Woolf's relationships with Quakers are more important than is usually recognised. In her early life, she was close to her aunt Caroline Stephen and to Violet Dickinson, both of whom helped her through some difficult times. Later, Quakers Roger and Marjory Fry were important friends. Woolf was interested in their views and de Gay is right, I think, that these are significant influences. De Gay maps these rich and varied resources in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion.

As with many other areas of knowledge, Woolf had a lively, often argumentative relationship with religion. It was not central to her thinking – far from it – but de Gay makes a convincing case that we need to be alert to the sympathies as well as the conflicts with Christian thinking in Woolf’s writing. (14-17) De Gay sees Woolf as both criticising and adapting Christian ideas from a feminist perspective. She makes use of Christianity (and perhaps other religions) in subtle, indirect ways, in her endeavour to create a ‘literature of commitment’. (17) De Gay sees Woolf’s concern with the need for a room of one’s own as having links with religious ideas of sacred spaces and spiritual freedom. (153)

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De Gay also shows us that Woolf was interested in the Virgin Mary. She was very familiar with Renaissance paintings of Mary and she wrote about a Catholic festival of Mary in Siena in 1908. (165) Julia Margaret Cameron’s early photos included a number of images of Madonna and Child. Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, sat as model for Burne-Jones’ 1879 painting of the Annunciation. (167-8) Like the Madonna, Julia Stephen was often idealised, an experience which, paradoxically, can get in the way of being an actual mother. In his Mausoleum Book, Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen recalled Julia as ‘a perfect mother, a very ideal type of mother’; his idealising of Julia is expressed, de Gay argues, in terms which perhaps owe something to religious art. Woolf re-read the Mausoleum Book when she was writing To the Lighthouse (170), and de Gay argues that this informs the Madonna images in this novel. Woolf holds on to the tradition of seeing mother and child as ‘objects of universal veneration’, even as she offers a different view through Lily’s painting.

Looking at Mrs Ramsay and James, Lily ‘strives to recover the “real Mrs Ramsay” from the traditional iconography of womanhood’, at the same time as she tries to preserve the ‘perfect shape’ of Mrs Ramsay through abstract art. Mother and child in Lily’s painting become a purple triangle. Informed by the ideas of Roger Fry, Lily’s post-impressionist method of painting ‘does not reduce Mrs Ramsay and James to abstractions, but it attempts to preserve the emotions, including the reverence they inspire in others’. (174) This is an intriguing line of argument, adding further nuance to existing scholarship on Woolf’s engagement with art in this novel.

Gillian Beer has made the case that Woolf, like many other writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was arguing with the past. Rather than simply rejecting the Victorians, Woolf learned from them, engaged with them, and argued with them. De Gay makes a similar case for Woolf and Christian culture. Woolf was very critical of aspects of Christianity and of the churches’ contribution to the oppression of women. But at the same time, she was interested in ideas of spirit and the soul. She wrote sympathetically about the figure of Jesus. Ideas, images, and stories from religion are part of the rich knowledge of history and culture which informs all of Woolf’s writings.

This interesting book is a valuable contribution to Woolf studies. It might inspire further curiosity about Woolf’s interest in other religions, and lead future scholars to explore, for example, what Woolf knew of Jewish culture, history, ethics and philosophy. These informed Leonard Woolf’s deep devotion to ethics and politics, and his lifelong work for peace and internationalism in the Labour Party, despite his stern secularism in adult life.

References and Links

Gillian Beer, ‘The Victorians in Virginia Woolf’, in Beer, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Edinburgh University Press, 1996). 

Jane de Gay, Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Podcast of Jane de Gay and Rose Hudson Wilkin on Woolf, religion, and sacred space, Leeds, October 2018.

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