An extract from a review of “Three Guineas” by Virginia Woolf, by Alison Light




In April 1939 Woolf began drafting her memoirs and recalled how the long indistinguishable ‘cottonwool’ days of childhood would unexpectedly be broken into when ‘something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life.’ She gave an instance of one such ‘sudden violent shock’:

I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed.

Against this memory of despair, Woolf immediately set another exceptional moment, a memory of satisfaction:

I was looking at the flowerbed by the front door; ‘That is the whole,’ I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.

Woolf hazarded that in her case the ‘peculiar horror’ of passively registering those blows was always followed by the desire to explain, the delight in consciousness and reason, in putting ‘the severed parts together’ and putting the shock into words. This ‘wholeness’ removed the blow’s power to hurt: ‘I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.’ It’s as if by the time she reached her late fifties she came to believe that not defending herself had allowed her to become an artist.

For all its fighting talk, Three Guineas is not a manifesto. It pulls its punches. It does not simply unleash Virginia Woolf’s fury at the blows which the daughters of educated men felt they had suffered; such an expenditure of emotion (like the three guineas finally donated to help prevent war) would not, in the end, go very far. But neither does it censor. In a series of feints and passes, Woolf’s writing resists and deflects the aggressive reaction, defuses the volatile emotion, making something else of it. For Woolf, as for Freud, sublimation, not retaliation, is the art of civilisation. Writing, in other words, is at best a way of becoming more mindful of one’s anger.

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