Slow Reading (2.1): Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (pg. 5)

Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938) changed my life. It taught me (and continues to teach me) how to read, how to think, how to teach, how to encounter difference, and how to position myself not only in relation to institutions and traditions I want to challenge but also those in which I am all too complicit as well as those which continue to give me pleasure. It is as rich as any and all of Woolf’s fiction, and despite its political and socio-economic limitations—the invented class, “daughters of educated men,” still grates on the hyper-educated nerves of progressive academics—it is brilliantly and ruthlessly self-critical.

In truth, I have only met one human creature who feels the same way I do about this book.

Though an early critical account of TG describes its prose as “eristic,” “expository,” “clear, [and] well-documented” (Proudfit 159)—in short, as good “freshman comp” writing—recent accounts have tried to be more attuned to its stylistic, rhetorical, ironic, and evasive maneuvers. As Jane Marcus puts it in her introduction to the Harcourt Annotated Edition of TG (2006), “One of the difficulties of reading this book”—and, for me, one of the many pleasures—”is following the multiple voices of the speaker and assuming the multiple roles in which she casts us” (xlii). Despite these recent critical efforts, I often encounter flippant critiques of Woolf’s class and/or feminist politics (in person and in prose) predicated on decontextualized passages or phrases from TG that are, in their context, either ironic, self-critical, or in some other way strategic. (As a D.H. Lawrence scholar, I often encounter a similar problem when his own views are conflated with those of a literary character.)

Critics who dismiss or ignore the tone, tenor, or strategy of Woolf’s writing (e.g., Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own [1977]) befuddle me, but I find it especially frustrating when scholars of modernist literature in particular—who are otherwise so attuned to the ins and outs of textual experimentation—fail to read TG with the same care they might bring to Mrs. Dalloway (1925) or The Waves (1931). In this Slow Reading project (which I hope to continue alongside my project on Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition), I hope to become (more) sensitive and attentive to the ways in which Woolf imbricates her aesthetic and political work, as Toril Moi suggests in her defense of Woolf in Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), at the level of “textual practice” (16). Following Moi, I contend that Three Guineas refuses the binary oppositions that continue to divide her art from her politics, her style from her ethics, her fiction from her essays in contemporary modernist studies. I think it is important, if one is to honor Woolf as the critical and creative thinker she was, that one learns to read her purportedly nonliterary texts literarily.

Harcourt Annotated Edition (2006)

Woolf’s opening paragraph: “Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered, and your letter has been lying without an answer even longer than that. I had hoped that it would answer itself, or that other people would answer it for me. But there it is with its question—How in your opinion are we to prevent war?—still unanswered” (5). I want to begin this Slow Reading project with three observations.

1. Epistolary Form?

The opening of Three Guineas has always interested me. It’s interesting that we begin—as many of Woolf’s novels and essays do—in medias res, right in the middle of a state of affairs to which we have no introduction and for which we have no preparation. Check Jacob’s Room (1922): “‘So of course,’ wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeply into the sand, ‘there was nothing for it but to leave.'” And Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And To the Lighthouse (1927): “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.” Despite this formal continuity between TG and three of Woolf’s most influential works of fiction, however, the former differs from the latter in at least one important way. Unlike our experiences reading Jacob’s Room or To the Lighthouse, readers find themselves hailed into the position of addressee in TG. We readers, if we agree to don the role, are the antecedents of the pronoun “your” (the first occurrence) and “we” (within the narrator’s citation of much earlier communicative action).

Why begin a book this way?

Though critics often characterize TG as a “series of letters” (this is the description on the back cover of the Harcourt Annotated Edition), there is no greeting or salutation here. We simply and suddenly find ourselves as Woolf’s readers addressed, woven into the middle of a fictional correspondence without the usual formal features of a correspondence. In this way it does not resemble the centuries’ old tradition of the epistolary novel. Indeed, we might ask: to what extent can we read Three Guineas in relation to the codes and conventions of the epistolary formal tradition? Does it really matter, as Marcus remarks in her introduction, that Woolf is regarded now “as one of the most important letter writers of the twentieth century” (lvi)? If Woolf “spins and tortures the form of the semiprivate letter” into “a ferocious political pamphlet” (Marcus lvi-lvii), in what way is it useful to think of TG as a letter at all? Why does Woolf’s narrator think she is writing a letter when she does not seem to be writing an actual letter? Or even to really know her interlocutor?  (More about this below.) Marcus may have her own answers, but I want to work through these questions with the text itself.

Three Guineas (pg. 5)What does this faux-epistolary form do to us as readers? What does it do to me? What sort of self does it enable me to perform? To become?

2. Doubling the Reader, Queering the Frame

TG generates an odd readerly perspective, since it doubles and redoubles its reader into the roles of addressee (in faux dialogue with the narrator), detached observer (listening in on the faux dialogue between the narrator and her interlocutors), and active reader (in intimate relation with the text and its practices). From the evidence of the first paragraph alone, “I” (as addressee) must be a solicitor who has attempted to initiate a dialogue with the writer of this response—though “my” level of effort or degree of sincerity is unknown. The narrator indicates that she has ignored “me” (or “us”?) for “three years,” prompting me (as both observer and reader) to ask: why did the narrator delay her response? What was the original communicative act?

The narrator’s hope that someone else would answer “me” suggests that “I” had posed “my” question—”how in your opinion are we to prevent war?”—to several other people. In her monograph, Virginia Woolf as Feminist (2004), Naomi Black suggests that the “peace society’s letter to the author” or narrator could have been inspired by “an appeal” that “Virginia Woolf herself might have received [. . .] as part of a relatively anonymous mass mailing” (87). Though Black does not spend much time meditating on this speculation, it is clear that the very first paragraph of TG would suggest that the initial appeal that purportedly prompts our narrator to compose a response “three years” later was, indeed, nothing more than a mass mailing (whether anonymous or signed by a potential stranger). If this is the case, the role I don is not that of a true interlocutor, but that of a potentially surprised member of a peace society, finding himself the addressee of a 300-page response when he simply wanted, as any society or organization or political party wants,  “relatively anonymous” support (Black 87). As Woolf’s interactive reader, rather than her fictional correspondent, this outer frame is so odd and indicates a formal irony that usually escapes the notice of critics and scholars: that the narrator (or the author) makes an intentional mistake. Though she knows that the original mailing has probably been sent to others, whom she hoped would “would answer it for” her, the narrator responds as if it were a personal letter, a private appeal that would take her opinion seriously (though, as we will see, the original letter was probably not at all interested in her opinion). The choice to answer this non-existent letter as if it were a private appeal, and to do so in a form (as we will see) that is far from private, introduces us to one of the greatest weapons of this text: a ruthlessly funny, absurd, and scathingly critical irony.

As a doubled and redoubled reader, I—the “real” I—am at once the target of this irony (as addressee), the audience enjoying the irony (as chuckling observer), and the critical explicator of this irony (investigating how it works, what it does, and how it expresses Woolf’s answer to the problem of private and public fascisms).

3. Neither Monologic Nor Dialogic

The binary monologic/dialogic is a relatively popular one in Woolf studies. Critics deploy it in order to distinguish Woolf’s nonfiction from the (masculine or patriarchal) didacticism of her contemporary essayists and lecturers. Since, according to these critics, the form of her nonfiction is dialogic, it serves to raise questions and encourage though rather than provide answers; it aims to invite engagement where other texts tend to hail the reader into a passive position. While I agree that Woolf is not a monological writer, I have my doubts about the dialogical designation of her nonfiction.

It is true that Woolf’s text hails me into active roles, but it is clear that she occupies a powerful position here. There is a pedagogy here, and I concur with Melba Cuddy-Keane that it is a pedagogy that often aims to “cultivate active minds in opposition to the normative and regulative influence of authoritarian discourse” (Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public 121). But TG is not a text that juxtaposes “equally justifiable views” (Cuddy-Keane 135). It is not a text—as even the opening paragraph suggests!—into which I enter conversationally. If I did, that would suggest a symmetry between me and the text, between me and Woolf, between my roles and the roles that the voice of this text takes on and off. It seems to me that there is a radical asymmetry in the form of Three Guineas, and to me this asymmetry is what makes it so difficult to follow, so pleasurable to read, and so powerful to learn from. With this text, I do not sit down to the tea table; I do not enter into equal debate; I do not even know what the subject matter or lesson plan is. All I know, as a reader, is that I trust the life and work of Woolf, borrowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s words, “to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary” (Tendencies 4).

Not perfect. But still Powerful. Refractory. Exemplary. Not really dialogic. Not symmetrical to me. Not even equal to me. It is disequal (to borrow an obscure Lawrentian term). The text itself is not a fellow citizen; it is not Woolf herself. It is a distinct creature, and I have no intention of moving swiftly through it here (though I have read it with swiftness several times). As I do Difference and Repetition, I want to treasure it slowly . . .

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