Slow Reading (2.4): Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (pp. 6-8, 171-72)

It’s been six months since my last post on Three Guineas. It’s time, at long last, to return.

Where did I leave it? At the end of the suggestive sketch of her correspondent (pp. 5-6), Virginia Woolf’s persona concludes, “For the rest, you began your education at one of the great public schools and finished it at the university” (6). This initially benign comment prompts her to repeat a significant concern at the beginning of a new paragraph, “It is now that the first difficulty of communication between us appears.” Now: with this troubling matter of education. (And to whom does this “us” refer—”the first difficulty between us“? I’ll keep this question in mind as I move through the rest of the long paragraph.)

What is this “first difficulty”? Why does it appear? And what does it have to do with education? “Let us rapidly indicate the reason,” Woolf writes,

We both come of what, in this hybrid age when, though birth is mixed, classes still remain fixed, it is convenient to call the educated class. When we meet in the flesh we speak with the same accent; use knives and forks in the same way; expect maids to cook dinner and wash up after dinner; and can talk during dinner without much difficulty about politics and people; war and peace; barbarism and civilization—all the questions indeed suggested by your letter. Moreover, we both earn our livings.

What is Woolf doing here? I’ve heard many academics—from graduate students to senior scholars—use this passage as evidence of Woolf’s classism. While I’m certainly open to discussing the classist attitudes that Woolf probably harbored at times toward servants and cooks and laborers, this common critique seems misapplied in this instance, if only because it misses an obvious rhetorical move. Before accounting for difficulties in communication, Woolf’s persona is establishing the socioeconomic position of both correspondents. She is—somewhat counterintuitively—establishing a common ground. The argument to come will be launched from this self-conscious position by one who recognizes her privileged status as well as a set of learned mannerisms, ways of speaking, domestic expectations, economic virtues, and enculturated values that she shares with the man depicted in her earlier sketch. Throughout this book, moreover, the persona will admit and demonstrate the complicity of her class (and thus of her self) in the  perpetuation of the  inequalities and falsities that make fascism in particular and war in general possible.


But if this status is one that the correspondents share with one another and if we can presume that they would get along “in the flesh”—over dinner or tea—conversing on the very topics that “my” initial letter broaches, then what is the difficulty at hand? The persona continues:

Moreover, we both earn our livings. But . . . those three dots mark a precipice, a gulf so deeply cut between us that for three years or more I have been sitting on my side of it wondering whether it is any use to try to speak across it.

Whenever I reach these “three dots,” I feel the floor fall out from under me. Where did this difference come from? How had I not seen this gap between “us” before? Woolf has already anticipated this moment—there are “some difficulties,” after all, “so fundamental that it may well prove impossible for you [my correspondent] to understand [what I will write]” (5)—and has just sketched the portrait of a man who is certainly quite distinct from her. But the sentences immediately preceding these dots, which render so well the intimate ease with which persons of an “educated class” socialize, these sentences condition the suddenness of Woolf’s precipice, making it appear as “a revelation of some order” (Moments of Being 72). But what is revealed? For me, two things (neither of which are the specific communicative difficulty Woolf will explain and compound throughout this book).

First, borrowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s axiom, it reveals that “[p]eople are different from each other” (Epistemology of the Closet 22). Those who share a class, household,  major, career, sexuality, neurosis, illness, nationality, political platform, language, generation, or  social space (a museum, bus, grocery store, or city street) may be able to co-exist and communicate in comfortable ways with each other. And yet, Woolf suggests, gaps have been cut (but by whom?) through and across these very same spaces, positions, and categories. These spaces, positions, and categories, moreover, do not mean the same thing to everyone who circulates through, across, and among them. They are experienced differently and in ways that are difficult to understand from the viewpoint of others occupying the very same spaces, positions, and categories. Second, these dots pose (and this is their performative aspect) what we might call an ethical test, a test which reveals something about readers and their willingness to play the roles Three Guineas tasks them with playing. Many contemporary reviews of the book and many of Woolf’s closest friends dismissed or refused to comment on it or on her feminist politics; the roll call is familiar: E.M. Forster, Quentin Bell, Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, and so on. All of them fail the ethical test that these dots pose, unable to take seriously that differences among privileged persons of the same class could have anything to do with the question of how to prevent war. Perhaps so many readers of Three Guineas—men and women, students and scholars—dismiss it because it prompts them to consider that the world they enjoy here and now is not the only world that matters, that difference is not just something over there (tamed and tolerated) but deep, systemic, damning, and generative (in so far as it generates different worlds; more on this further on). Three Guineas asks readers learn to see and  listen across the precipices dividing each of them from those who might very well seem closest to them and to consider that a future of peace will require a program not (only) of security, protection, or maintenance (which is what the picture of the correspondent Woolf has just sketched really wants) but of radical, autocritical, and equally systemic change and experimentation.

So much depends, I think, on how “I”—playing the role of Woolf’s correspondent—react to these dots and the news of the social precipice they mark. Am I bemused, enraged, annoyed, or touched and called? Am I ready to learn from this voice/these voices, or do I feel compelled to interrupt Woolf and say, “But no, ma’am, you see, this here (my education, my experience of that education) is not the problem. Here’s the thing about war, class, and education . . .”? Will “I” agree with  Theodore Dalrymple’s violent dismissal of the book? Will I wish it were retitled, How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved? Will I think Woolf and her persona “shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-aborbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal” (qtd. in Laura Marcus’s Introduction to TG)? Or will I risk abandoning reactive judgments and trust that there are precipices I cannot see (and across which I must try to listen and learn)?

Importantly, Woolf’s persona does not try to speak across the precipice on her own. After waiting three years to answer her correspondent, she has “someone else” speak for her. Citing words from the explorer Mary Kingsley—words found in Stephen Gwynn’s biography of her—the persona draws herself away from the private “us” of two sexually different correspondents and begins writing from the position of a second collective: “Let us [who?] then ask [. . .] Mary Kingsley [. . .] to speak for us [again, who?]” (6). Here’s Kingsley:

“I don’t know if I ever revealed to you the fact that being allowed to learn German was all the paid-for education I ever had. Two thousand pounds was spent on my brother’s, I still hope not in vain.”¹

The first time I read TG, I skipped over the superscript at the end of this quotation. I presumed it was an explanatory note of the editor or editors (probably tracking down Woolf’s source, probably providing a brief biographical note on Kingsley). Still somewhat disoriented by the “three dots,” I just kept reading, and it wasn’t until the second section of the book that I noticed that Woolf had provided her own endnotes, that she is indeed the author of that superscripted numeral as well as the note to which it refers. “Did you ever get a letter with footnotes?” Laura Marcus asks in her introduction, “How would you feel if you got one?” (lvi).

Confused, one would think, even for a reader who accepts this experiment in epistolary (non)fiction. With the inclusion of the tripartite section “Notes and References,” Three Guineas becomes even more hybridized as a text, for the imagined situation of a reticent letter-writer  answering an anonymous mailing with 200-page letter becomes realized in these notes, grounded in a research agenda which the’s persona never explicitly references or explains, even though the lengthy section of notes (nearly a quarter of the text!) constitutes a crucial frame that is so much more than supplementary. Why crucial? Because it raises so many questions: Who speaks in these notes? Woolf’s persona or Woolf the arranger of Three Guineas? And to whom are these notes addressed? To “me,” the imagined correspondent, or to “me,” a reader of the book in 1938, or to “me,” the potential future reader to come? These questions are richly undecidable, I think, and their specific undecidability suggests that TG is a work branching off in multiple lateral directions, spreading out simultaneously like a weed (what Deleuze & Guattari might call a rhizome) to disrupt and crack sedimented patriarchal attitudes, reactive logics, and effects of systemic violence.

If I follow Woolf’s note—instead of finishing the paragraph—then I find that she links Kingsley’s voice to the voices of other women who remark on their education or “lack” of “paid-for education.” Despite belonging to the “educated class,” as Woolf calls it, these women feel the inequality of educational investment across the sexes deeply. The initial Kingsley passage presents the cost difference between her education and her brother’s as a surprising revelation, as something that should go unspoken (even though it is the norm). Likewise, Anne J. Clough, uncomfortable at social gatherings, feels “the defects of [her] education most painfully,” especially because (one would think) she must not speak of these defects out loud (qtd. Woolf 171). Elizabeth Haldane, like Kingsley and Clough, also comes from “a highly literate family,” and yet the issue of expense (an issue only for her brothers) and the duties of an “only daughter” to “a widowed mother” make a future in education (already nearly impossible for women) completely unthinkable for her.

The point here is not just to demonstrate unequal investment in the education of sons and daughters. This isn’t not hard to prove, even if the “exact figures of the sums spent on the education of educated men’s daughters” is difficult to track down (which is itself a problem of gendered archives and histories…). Rather, the point is that there is a kind of mad incoherence to how the educated class negotiates this inequality at the very sort of social gatherings Woolf’s persona alludes to earlier. On the one hand, the “un[der]educated women” of the educated class feel compelled “to conceal their ignorance” so that they might participate “agreeably” (as they are expected to) in talk of politics, war, art, and civilization. On the other hand, there’s evidence that “educated men enjoyed” seeing the ignorance of women, leading many women who actually could engage with men on all sorts of issues—political or otherwise—to feel that they must conceal their lack of education and thus simulate an ignorance of things they should not know about (172). What can one make of such a culture? Of a widespread cognitive dissonance that admires women for speaking “agreeably” (171) on this or that topic yet feels impressed at the same time by their “ignorance and indifference concerning anything outside their own circle” (171-72)? How could ignorance and indifference be excusable, attractive, encouraged, and systemically and culturally reinforced? Why demarcate a “narrow circle” of legitimate knowledge for women (172)?

In the second paragraph of her first endnote, Woolf speculates that this dissonance is related to a second dissonance. On the one hand, the educated class is part of a patriarchal culture in love with its own capacity to know things and to share and repeat that knowledge among its members (whether or not they already know those things too). On the other hand, it is a class riddled with an old ambivalence about its fathers and sons and brothers. Woolf quotes Mary, Countess of Lovelace: “It was supposed that most men were not ‘virtuous,’ that is, that nearly all would be capable of accosting and annoying—or worse—any unaccompanied young woman whom they met” (172). (This is scarily prescient for anyone who works on a college campus.) The Countess Mary describes here an old, old system of sexual difference that gives an alibi to forms of female confinement, whether that confinement be physical, mental, procedural, or otherwise. The culture of the educated class—like so many rape cultures before and after it—can admire a woman’s display of knowledge on certain issues and performances of ignorance and indifference simultaneously because both express a complex of values or norms with which she, the woman, must be kept in alignment: e.g., modesty, unworldliness, purity, angelic-ness, security, etc. These norms serve as the very ground, Woolf suggests, of female confinement and are the counterpoint of an equally pernicious norm or sexual type: “the nineteenth century conception of manhood—witness the Victorian hero” (172). Heroism and “virility”—as counterpoints to virginity and virtue—mark manly feats not only of strength but of science, ingenuity, artistry, discovery, expansion, imperialism, rape, torture, murder, abuse, and war. It is man’s greatest honor and ruin, that which naturalizes his role as the protector and assaulter of himself and of women (who seen, after all, as his thorn and his prize). And, indeed, the cultural need to confine women against pursuits outside their circle—including the pursuit of education—is the genealogical ground of the institutional reflex in the 21st century to promote strategies of campus safety to protect women from sexual assault and abuse (never walk by yourself after dark, always have your phone on, take self-defense classes, stay in shape so that you can outrun a potential threat, don’t wear revealing outfits, don’t party too hard, try not to have too good a time . . .) rather than promote strategies of behavioral re-education for the men who are largely the culprits of that assault and abuse.

Thus this first endnote begins by suggesting a figure for Kingsley’s German lessons—”£20 or £30″ (171)—but then moves readers through a brief analysis of an old dissonance of values, one that serves to keep women violently confined (transcoded as “protected”) not only educationally and financially but also socially, physically, sexually, and mentally. Whether or not it is Woolf or Woolf’s persona addressing the imagined correspondent or the “real” reader of Three Guineas, this note implies that the book’s answer to the question of what one must do to prevent war runs deeper than diplomacy . . . it must get at the naturalized violence—boys will be boys, after all—at the root of normalized sexual difference.

If the endnote takes the Kingsley quotation in the direction of a critique of women’s physical and mental confinement, the main text takes it in a different, though equally critical direction. Woolf’s persona continues:

Mary Kingsley is not speaking for herself alone; she is speaking, still, for many of the daughters of educated men. And she is not merely speaking for them; she is also pointing to a very important fact about them, a fact that must profoundly influence all that follows: the fact of Arthur’s Education Fund. (6-7)

Woolf will address the “clumsy term,” the daughters of educated men, in a second endnote (172), so I’ll wait just a little longer to turn to it. At the moment what stands out to me is the syntactic sliding from Kingsley “not speaking [. . .] alone” to Kingsley “speaking, still” to “not merely speaking” to, at last, “also pointing.” To speak across the gap separating Woolf’s persona and her correspondent will not be enough. She must speak with others, allow a new “us” to take shape, and to affirm the collective utterances of an “us” that does not include the imagined correspondent and does not include me. As reader, I have a difficult task: to imagine myself outside of this “us,” as an addressee who must strain and work to listen. Moreover, this speaking does not speak representatively—for all women or even all women of the educated class—but in open, unfinished solidarity. Woolf’s persona sets up Kingsley to speak for “many” of the daughters of educated men, though she does not speak only of a desire or concern. Rather, Kingsley speaks and thus acts in “pointing to” a truth (an important word for Woolf) and a fact (a slippery word in Three Guineas). Whether or not Kingsley intends to speak as an activist or in solidarity with other women of her class, Woolf’s persona positions her words so that they do an activist’s work.

5500438896_3a8555462d_zAnd what is the fact to which Kingsley points? What fact is responsible for the precipice cut between these correspondents? Arthur’s Education Fund. The persona explains: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledgers. Ever since the thirteenth century English families have been paying money into that account. From the Pastons to the Pendennises, all educated families [. . .] have paid money into that [. . .] voracious receptacle” (7). Those who have read Pendennis—and, in truth, I am not among them—will also know that the letters “A.E.F.” appear only once in this 76-chapter novel. Here is the relevant excerpt (from the 19th chapter):

Arthur’s own allowances were liberal all this time [at Oxbridge]; indeed, much more so than those of the sons of far more wealthy men. Years before, the thrifty and affectionate John Pendennis, whose darling project it had ever been to give his son a university education, and those advantages of which his own father’s extravagance had deprived him, had begun laying by a store of money which he called Arthur’s Education Fund. Year after year in his book his executors found entries of sums vested as A. E. F., and during the period subsequent to her husband’s decease, and before Pen’s entry at college, the widow had added sundry sums to this fund, so that when Arthur went up to Oxbridge it reached no inconsiderable amount. Let him be liberally allowanced, was Major Pendennis’s maxim. Let him make his first entree into the world as a gentleman, and take his place with men of good rank and station: after giving it to him, it will be his own duty to hold it. There is no such bad policy as stinting a boy—or putting him on a lower allowance than his fellows. Arthur will have to face the world and fight for himself presently. Meanwhile we shall have procured for him good friends, gentlemanly habits, and have him well backed and well trained against the time when the real struggle comes. And these liberal opinions the Major probably advanced both because they were just, and because he was not dealing with his own money. (Gutenberg HTML text, emphasis added)

What is Woolf (or her persona) up to with this Thackeray reference? The letters “A.E.F.” are, I presume, very forgettable for a reader of Pendennis. It isn’t hard to imagine even an admirer of the novel responding, “I’m sorry, could you remind me? Where do those letters appear?” The meat of the novel (again, I presume) is its characterology, its narrative complexity, and its thematic developments. Taking those letters out would not really change things, would they?

But this is largely Woolf’s point. The very fact that it is unsurprising and undramatic that John labors so long to save for Arthur’s education belies a related fact: those letters actually serve as the condition of possibility of everything that follows. Far from unimportant, they are (perhaps) the most important detail in Thackeray’s novel and the most important detail of Arthur’s life. (Woolf’s persona foreshadows here her primary concern about education: that “A.E.F.” is also the condition of possibility for the violence she and her correspondent wish to forestall, even if education seems like a strange point of departure for a conversation about war.) Three Guineas ironically extracts “A.E.F.”—a minor detail from what is now a minor novel—and blows it up into a fact that will influence the rest of the book’s criticism. Arthur’s Education Fund is transcoded, in other words, from the individual, fictional labor of an eager, hopeful father into a “voracious receptacle” that belongs neither to Arthur nor to his father but that appears to have a life of its own, affecting seven or eight centuries of English families.

It should be noted that Arthur’s “paid-for education” did not come easily. To educate sons at “Oxbridge”—the “darling project” of nearly all fathers and mothers of some means (Thackeray)—required “a great effort on the part of the family”: thrift, want, and investment in future reward and bounty (Woolf 7). And why? Not because tuition was high—as it is today (growing rapidly alongside the number of part-time college instructors)—but because the word “education” does not just refer to coursework, exams, and grades. It encompasses, as the Thackeray passage demonstrates, a whole process of masculine refinement, which includes sportive games, leisurely and long conversations among friends, the significant experience of travel (across Europe and the colonies), the cultivation of aesthetic taste for a particular aesthetic tradition, and the freedom of an allowance “upon which it was possible [. . .] to live” while learning a profession and earning a letter or two to attach after one’s name (Woolf 7). The point here is not that saving for such things was easy for families like the Pendennises but that the whole machinery of the culture is—at its core—about creating an assembly line for producing male bodies and minds from the material of its boys. Arthur’s Education Fund is not the name of a single father’s dream but the very mechanism by which a patriarchal culture produces and reproduces itself, securing its present in a future that will look identical to itself. Again, as Woolf will show, the cruel irony is that such education also fosters the celebration of war, the encouragement of violence, and the destruction of young lives.

The persona has more to say, however, before coming to that point. Here—in the closing sentences of this long paragraph—we come to the first detailed articulation of the difficulty to which she refers at the beginning of Three Guineas:

And to this [fund] your sisters, as Mary Kingsley indicates, made their contribution. Not only did their own education, save for such small sums as paid the German teacher, go into it; but many of those luxuries and trimmings which are, after all, an essential part of education—travel, society, solitude, a lodging apart from the family house—they were paid into it too. It was a voracious receptacle, a solid fact—Arthur’s Education Fund—a fact so solid indeed that it cast a shadow over the entire landscape. And the result is that though we look at the same things, we see them differently. What is that congregation of buildings there, with a semi-monastic look, with chapels and halls and green playing-fields? To you it is your old school [. . .] the source of memories and of traditions innumerable. But to us, who see it through [this] shadow of [A.E.F.], it is a schoolroom table; an omnibus going to a class; a little woman with a red nose who is not well educated herself but has an invalid mother to support; an allowance of £50 a year with which to buy clothes, give presents and take journeys on coming to maturity. Such is the effect that [A.E.F.] has had upon us. So magically does it change the landscape that the noble courts and quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge often appear to educated men’s daughters² like petticoats with holes in them, cold legs of mutton, and the boat train starting for abroad while the guard slams the door in their faces. (7-8, emphases added)

I want to make three observations about these closing sentences. First, Woolf’s persona frames Arthur’s sisters not as passive creatures cut off from any relation to his Education Fund. Rather, they are actors with a very specific relation to this fund. They, ironically, are equal contributors alongside their fathers, important actors in securing the training and professionalization of their brothers. But this contribution is a negative one, given through acquiescence, indifference, ignorance, coercion, and suppression. The rendering of women as agents of their brothers’ educations highlights not only systemic inequality but, moreover, the cruelty of cultural attitudes that put no investment in securing the futures of its sisters, that factors out nearly all of the possible variety those futures might enjoy and, in so doing, sees the opening up of women’s futures through education as a threat in need of a dutiful “guard.” While Woolf’s male correspondent might assume that the women he socializes with sympathize with all the same things with which he sympathizes, while he may presume that they admire the same things he admires, while he may think them foolish for not understanding the things he enjoys, while he may feel it only right that they would want to help secure the future of a world that has been tailored to receive him and reward his efforts (which have been admirable in earnestness and persistence), they have enjoyed none of the conditions or conditionings that have gone into training him to sympathize with, admire, enjoy, or desire to secure these things.

This leads me to my second point. This passage does not argue that Arthur’s sisters are without a world. They are not mere victims of exclusion. It is not as if they do not share a material reality of “chapels and halls and green playing-fields.” According to Three Guineas, however, this material reality is always already mediated—thought and felt according to a training and tradition that has naturalized certain ways of thinking and feeling about this reality. The sacred spaces of treasured memories, friends, knowledge, purpose, and affections are not sacred to everyone, Woolf is suggesting, for the lens through which educated brothers see the landscapes of their maturation and education has been crafted only for them. Another lens mediates these landscapes for their sisters’ sight.

And this brings me to my third observation: that Woolf is attempting to teach her readers—through this imagined correspondence between figurative or symbolic brother and sister—to see a familiar landscape differently, to unsettle their sympathies, and to challenge (even if provisionally) the sacredness of the very things they wish to protect. The “Oxbridge” that is so important to Arthur and John and the correspondent of Woolf’s persona is a space of struggle, scorn, self-cost, sickness, and a solitude that is neither enriching nor pedagogic but often lonely and depressing. It is a world that is not built to receive sisters and does not reward their considerable and courageous efforts (which are performed without the safety nets of a father’s and culture’s allowance). It does not weave them into networks of friends or encourage the mind-broadening aspect of travel. It is a world of artificial and arbitrary borders and barriers that hinder, rather than enable, travel (whether mental or physical). Is this a world worth saving as it is? Is this the world for which we must secure peace? Toward what end? Are we so sure we’re the good guys in this fight? What shadows must we learn to see? What must we change about ourselves so that the fight against others will be rendered impossible? And how are we to negotiate this difference, the solid fact of the shadow that A.E.F. casts “magically” over the landscape of the university? (I often wonder if the words of Woolf’s persona here might apply not only to the experience of the contemporary university across sexual differences of faculty members but also the difference of full vs. associate vs. assistant professors, of professors vs. part-time faculty members, of lecturers vs. PTF, of PTF vs. graduate teaching assistants, of administrators vs. educators, of students vs. . . .  You get the idea. What shadows am I complicit in casting at my university? What shadows shade my own experience of the university?)

To wrap up, it’s worth looking at Woolf’s second endnote, which reflects briefly on the controversial term, “educated men’s daughters” or “the daughters of educated men.” “Our ideology,” Woolf writes,

is still so inveterately anthropocentric that it has been necessary to coin this clumsy term [. . .] to describe the class whose fathers have been educated at public schools and universities. Obviously, if the term “bourgeois” fits her brother, it is grossly incorrect to use it of one who differs so profoundly in the two prime characteristics of the bourgeoisie—capital and environment. (172)

What does “ideology” mean for Woolf? And to whom does this “ideology” belong? Who is the “Our”? Given her understanding of education as a mental and physical training, given her understanding of the gulfs and shadows that affect and mediate experiences of material reality in different ways, Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology does not seem all that different from Woolf’s: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays 109). Englishmen educated at public universities may think the “memories and traditions” associated with “chapels and hills and green playing-fields” (7) are the essence or core of the Cambridge or Oxford experience, but these are really more akin to what Althusser calls  “a pure illusion, a pure dream” of ideology (108). While it’s tempting to read Three Guineas in this direction—as a proto-Althusserian tract on ISAs and RSAs—this sentimental and romantic and heroic sense of education is not what Woolf is referring to as ideology here in this second endnote.

Though A.E.F. may cast a shadow that affects some people but not others and though it cuts and sustains the precipice separating the brothers and sisters of educated men and though “Oxbridge” and its quadrangles appear differently to those separated by this gulf, this note begins by asserting that—as a class—these brothers and sisters are bound up together in a shared ideology. Recall that the brothers and sisters that comprise the educated class “speak with the same accent; use knives and forks in the same way; expect maids to cook dinner and wash up after dinner; and can talk during dinner without much difficulty about politics and people; war and peace; barbarism and civilization” (6). This fact—as factual as Arthur’s Education Fund—marks Three Guineas autocritical insistence on the complicity of men and women in the violence threatening them both, a theme that will recur throughout its three sections. (This is not to say that the levels or forms of complicity are identical, however.)

Woolf fashions this clumsy term, the daughters of educated men, in order to mark common ground (and complicity) as well as a radical difference that cuts through this class, a difference that hinges upon women’s relation to their fathers (who were educated) and their alienation from their father’s education (which will be enjoyed by their brothers). The educated class itself is structured such that only sons will enter into the education of their fathers; whatever learning their sisters achieve will be accomplished at the margins of this class, without the support of this class, without an allowance, against discouragements, in the teeth of public shaming, in addition to domestic duties, and without the pleasures of being among a growing network of fellow learners. Thus Woolf here provisionally divides the already provisionally-named “educated class” (6) into two subclasses: the daughters of educated men and the “bourgeoisie,” those who do not and those who do have access and recourse to “capital” and to an educative “environment” (172). Though ideology is that which daughters share with their fathers and brothers (what of their mothers?), perhaps we might say that something else—even if it resembles Althusser’s definition of ideology—characterizes the different worlds that a shared ideology produces, the different visions of the same material reality. Woolf does not so much theorize what “ideology” is or might be (her use of the term seems rather colloquial now), but she is developing a notion of not only of subjectification (moving her more in the direction of Michel Foucault) but also notions of discursive, normative, and institutional world-building. A key notion of Three Guineas: there are different worlds occupying the same world, and the consequences of this social ontology for the possibility of peace are world-breaking.

In her annotations to Three Guineas, Laura Marcus asks, “Woolf repeats the phrase [daughters of educated men / educated men’s daughter] a hundred times in the text. Can such repetition create sympathy for middle- and upper-class Englishwomen as victims in today’s readers?” (227). This has always struck me as an odd question. Marcus indicates her ambivalence about the term by leaving the question unanswered, but the oddness has much less to do with her ambivalence and more to do with the assumption she makes about what work the repetition of this term is meant to accomplish. Why assume that Woolf is attempting to stir up sympathy? By admitting that the term is “clumsy,” something her persona (as far as I remember does not admit in the body of the letter) it is clear (at least to me) that Woolf wants her reader to feel this clumsiness and bluntness and roughness so that it will never become an official, codifiable term (the way “bourgeoisie” had). It might succeed in insisting on difference if only because it recurs like a hammer blow again and again and again. Remember that we, as Woolf readers, are to play the role of an imagined correspondent listening across a precipice. The repetitions of this phrase are not intended to elicit sympathy but to insist again and again on the gulf that is all too easy for the correspondent (and his brothers and fathers) to ignore. More than this, the repetition is also effective as a means to sustain a doubly critical stance not only toward fathers who refused to pay for their daughters’ education but also a critical stance toward the larger “educated class” itself (a class the privileges of which these daughters still enjoy, even if only in part). Again, this is the position from which Woolf’s persona speaks and from which Woolf composes Three Guineas itself. Though she may use the word “victim” three times in reference to daughters of educated men in the text, the relative infrequency of this word would suggest that readers should resist applying it too swiftly as the intended connotation of the name of Woolf’s invented subclass.

Next time: Woolf begins to develop the difference that A.E.F. makes in the issue at hand (how to prevent war).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s