Three Guineas Journal
In this post, I offer a review of Virginia Woolf’s searing report on the devastating effects of war. It's her most articulate contribution to the history of ideas because it articulates quite well, and cogently – in the manner of classical rhetoric — ideas about pacifism, women, and war. Having lived through the First World War, Woolf dreads the possibility of another one to come . . .
Three Guineas is a bitter discourse on the prevention of war, and defense of philanthropy, and women; it is also an attack on the growing hegemonic power afloat in Europe before the Second World War; it is an older and hardened view, distinct from the more playful A Room of One’s Own she had written earlier, which is more about the sexuality of women, the spirit of women. However, it touches on some of the issues she expounds upon in Three Guineas. In a way, it is like a sequel; actually, I think this is how Woolf intended it. Three Guineas comes out of the work she did on The Years, her most famous novel, about the Pargiter family, their history from the 19th century to Woolf’s present day.
Woolf published the book Three Guineas out of her own Hogarth press. I wonder how many people actually “got it” or even took the time to read the book? I wonder how many people actually read A Room of One’s Own and “got it”? The slim volume deserves a second look. I think Woolf is important to intellectual thought. Woolf is part of what I call intellectual talk within intellectual circles and also, by her own admission, critical to the public sphere of intellectualism. Woolf attempts to speak to everyman. She is a philosopher for the people. Three Guineas is filled with harsh condemnations. She accuses society of having an infantile fixation (134-135); of the widening gap between the public and private sectors and the use of clothing to deceive young men into joining the war effort (14). I find Woolf to be candid in this book. I think she states some hard arguments. The difficulty of the book is following Woolf’s train of thought; Woolf reads like an autodidact, which she was, and her arguments sometimes feel more passionate than systematically thought out; but, I reason, she has spent so much time, energy and words on these issues; I feel ill at ease following her passion because I sense she doesn’t have to convince me; I know she must be right!
One significant contribution she gives in this work is that she nuances the stance of feminism. Feminist thought is not dead even though women can now vote and work, Woolf argues. We can’t stop now as if everything is equal and normal for women. As if women and men are the same. There will still be Creons abusing Antigones. But, Woolf is not fatalistic. She does see that something must be done. There is a web site I found about an organization founded in 1993 called the Three Guineas Organization. It helps women and girls through education, similar to the groups that were writing to Woolf asking for aid.
I say Three Guineas is a bitter discourse because it is written not as a romp through Oxford and the British Library, but an attempt to ask the hard questions and a realization of forces greater than our control. Woolf intuits the horror of the World War and the seeming repetition of war, the misuse of women throughout history; “Things repeat themselves it seems. Pictures and voices are the same today as they were 2,000 years ago” (141). I think she sees Hitler and Fascism for what it really was: not for true freedom and liberty but rather threatening to Western Civilization. Of course, war is threatening. But she asks: how does war deplete society? Why are women asking for money? How does war take away resources, thus eroding the cornerstone of liberal arts education, the workforce, and liberty in general? Why are these three different organizations, even asking for money in the first place? Will a guinea also help them? Shouldn’t society be asking why they must plead for money in the first place? Why are the administrators of a woman’s college living under deplorable conditions, begging? In a letter to Woolf, an accountant for the college asks, “Will you send a subscription to [our society] in order to help us to earn our living? Failing money … any gift will be acceptable – books, fruit, or cast-off clothing that can be sold in a bazaar (41)”.
Woolf wants to know why is this school asking for money? Haven’t women been liberated for the past twenty years? She includes a response to such a request for a subscription, asking, “How can it be, we repeat? Surely there must be some very grave defect, of common humanity, of common justice, or of common sense” (41-42).
I noticed in this book that Woolf is aware of the influence of photography (at least 11 and 142). She writes about the horrors of war recorded by the camera. This book is timely today because we can trace how the influence of the camera has made an arc to the television set, to the Internet. We are inundated with images that dictate how we are supposed to look at the world. I love how she is so contemporary with this issue.
What is the meaning of these words that we are willing to die to defend? Freedom? Liberty? Rights of Man?
She lambasts an army general’s debonair suit by pointing out that in battle, soldiers do not wear finery. Woolf concludes that the regalia of uniforms is a lure to get young men to join the military. The suit does not tell the truth; uniforms are deceptive instruments to get people in the ranks, to fight the countries wars.
Also, isn’t it interesting that Woolf questions giving the money to these different organizations? She challenges us to look at things from all the different points of view, preferably three. She has three newspapers on her desk. “Therefore if you want to know any facts about politics you must read at least three different papers, compare at least three different versions of the same fact, and come in the end to your own conclusion” (95). Woolf challenges the reader to think critically. Not to look merely at one source and form our opinion. We should have at least three sources about the same topic in front of us. Librarians probably agree; parts of this book could serve as an introduction to Library Science. How many times do I get letters in the mail asking for money? Do I ask myself the reasons behind their requests for money? Do I wonder why they really need the money in the first place? Woolf, I bet, surprises the honorary treasures by questioning their requests. Partly to get them to think about their situations and partly, for Woolf’s part, to answer the real questions.
Why does she attack H.G. Wells? I was surprised to see Wells included in this book; I didn’t think Woolf would go after a particular person in this polemic. But she does. She seems to see him as superficial. Wells obviously does not fight for the same principles as Woolf.
We are not fighting for the rights of man or for woman. We should be rallying the cause of humanity; because, isn’t it, like Georges Sands says – “all beings are interdependent of one another”? Who of us can present ourselves as insulated, cut off from one another? Because we are a man? Because we are a woman? Most of our problems stem from the insistence on creating sharp distinctions between man/woman; free/slave; public/private. Maybe Woolf is calling for, in this book, is a common interest; “it is one world; one life” (142).
source: Woolf, Virginia, Three Guineas. Harcourt Brace. 1938, 1966.