Beatrice de Pauw on Woolf and Politics
About ten years ago, at Easter break, I decided to visit the Garden of England. The book I read during the trip was Virginia Woolf (Gallimard, 2005) by Alexandra Lemasson, a French journalist and comedienne. Here I learned that my favourite writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, had translated one of Woolf’s novels. And so it was Yourcenar who brought me to Woolf, for which I am very grateful. Reading Woolf, and all of her writings, is a lifetime’s occupation. One can read and re-read her novels so many times, discovering new visions, new perspectives, at every reading.
In July 2018, I attended the summer course, Virginia Woolf and Politics at Wolfson College. I enjoyed every minute of it.
I left Brussels on a bright Sunday morning with a question which might not have a simple answer. Was Virginia Woolf politically engaged? Is it right to call her a political activist? Reading Leonard Woolf’s memoir, Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919 to 1939 (Hogarth, 1967), I was a little surprised by his statement that ‘Virginia was the least political animal that has lived since Aristotle invented the definition.’ Of course in a way Leonard was one of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the idea makers who are in a position to make ideas effective.’ (1) But wasn’t Virginia, too, in a way?
I thank all the lecturers who talked about many different books by Woolf: A Room of One’s Own, Orlando, The Years, Three Guineas, Woolf’s essays, Leonard Woolf’s essays, and more. They each illuminated the fact that having or making ideas, and especially writing them down, is not in the least a vain activity. ‘Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it,’ writes Woolf. Events today show us that thinking, critical thinking, is still very important.
On the first morning of the course, after the lecture, I had my first experience of reading a book aloud with a group of people. Listening to the different voices read A Room of One’s Own, I heard the words and phrases in new ways, as if Virginia Woolf’s wit and humour were nearer than ever.
Alison Hennegan led our supervision group and I thank her for her generous, critical, and passionate way of guiding and liberating our conversations. I also thank Beth Daugherty for her fascinating commentary on the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
I have a particularly vivid memory of our visit to Newnham College, with the inspiring library, the gallery of photos of all these women dreamers, troublemakers, who walked before us in the splendid summer garden, across grass plots, without a Beadle or a Porter intercepting them.
Last but not least, I thank all my fellow students for their generous exchanges of ideas, opinions and facts about Virginia Woolf. What we all had in common was the writer of course, but also the passion of reading and thinking.
After five days, I left Cambridge very early in the morning with a temporary conclusion: both Yourcenar’s and Woolf’s social and political engagement is in their writings. As questions answered always generate other questions, I was left with the next one: can the world of literature be disentangled from politics, from public life in general … ?
Thank you Trudi (Director of Literature Cambridge) for helping to keep these memories alive.
Beatrice De Pauw, Brussels, March 2019
1. Virginia Woolf, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’.
2. Woolf, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’.