There are books I approach reviewing with some caution – or fear – and Three Guineas was one such book – the themes are so huge, the writing (naturally) so good – and the author – is Virginia Woolf. So you can expect a bit of prevaricating and waffle before I get down to it. My edition – the one pictured above, containing A Room of One’s Own – was sent to me by the lovely people at OUP when they heard about #Woolfalong. I had already read A Room of one’s Own last year – but only had it on kindle – this lovely edition with its copious notes gave me the perfect excuse to read Three Guineas for phase 5 of #Woolfalong.
Non-fiction and I don’t always get along, and September is a nightmare month for me – I’m so tired and busy – and I haven’t even got to my very very busy weekend yet – it means non-fiction wasn’t the best fit for me this month. Still I gave it a go – and I did pretty well. Despite my exhaustion and limited reading time I really engaged with this famous essay – well the first two thirds anyway – the final third did drag rather – and I struggled a little at times – due almost certainly to my own tired mind and nothing more. Still the whole is incredible, Woolf’s brilliance demonstrated here by her sharp commentary and fiercely intelligent wit. I found lots to enjoy and marvel at – Woolf’s insight into the society in which she lived with its obvious weaknesses and limitations – especially for women of her own class, is extraordinary.
“No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan: therefore the guinea should be earmarked “Rags. Petrol. Matches.” And this note should be attached to it. “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education!”
Virginia Woolf originally wrote this as a novel-essay which was to form part of her novel The Pargiters – the original idea to have alternating fiction and non-fiction chapters. Of course in the end Woolf re-thought this idea and The Pargiters became The Years, the non-fiction sections removed to become Three Guineas.
The essay is essentially a series of letters – letters which serve to answer the question of how war could be prevented. This was a subject which would have been very much in vogue I assume at this time, written in the mid to late 1930s when everyone felt the world to be on the brink of another war. In her letter – her reply to an educated gentleman – Woolf wryly wonders why she should be so approached with this difficult question, when as a woman, the daughter of an educated man – she doesn’t enjoy the same access to universities, societies and the professions as the sons of educated men.
“Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”
In her bid to answer this larger question about the prevention of war – Woolf also sets about answering the questions of why the government does not support the education of women and why women must be continually prevented from following professional careers. In asking these question Woolf is naturally considering why educated families are prepared to spend money on educating their boys but not their girls, and what it might mean for society should those girls be allowed to be so educated. Woolf imagines a new kind of women’s college, a college which would be more experimental – less concerned with shoring up the traditional male world.
“…what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”
She envisages a time when women too will be able to deliver sermons from church pulpits, sit in judgement in courts of law, teach young men at university or rise through the ranks of the civil service.
Woolf who had been so badly affected by the horrors of the First Word War, was a famously anti-war pacifist – she was also ardently feminist, and with Three Guineas she combines these two concerns. More than eighty years after it was first published Three Guineas still has lots to say to us in the twenty-first century.
I am very glad I read this for all its challenges because as always Virginia Woolf opens my eyes and gives me food for thought.