Sunday, November 25, 2012

Enter Stage Right: Encountering Women in Woolf Literature

Virginia Woolf’s novel, Between the Acts, printed posthumously, offers continued insights into Woolf’s ability to deftly manipulate spaces with words. She uses the movements of her characters to advance her literature and simultaneously provide a commentary on women as they negotiate through space. Author Helen Southworth addresses this phenomenon found in Woolf literature, particularly as women move from one place to another. “It entails a continual renegotiation of space. Breaking the threshold over and over again, Woolf’s woman marks the line separating inside and outside only to explode it moments later,” Southworth writes. (Ed. Snaith), p. 48. For example, Woolf carves this space for Lucy: “Lucy had just opened her lips to reply, and had laid her hand on the cross caressingly, when the gentlemen came in. She made her little chirruping sound of welcome. She shuffled her feet to clear a space. But in fact there was more space than was needed, and great hooded chairs.” (Woolf), p 215.   

To examine this further, let’s take a look at the power of the character of Lucy, who exerts her radiating presence to convince Giles to change his clothes. Later, she seems to drift ethereally from one place to another without the weight of the world on her shoulders. “He must change. And he came into the dining room looking like a cricketer, in flannel, wearing a blue coat with brass buttons, although he was enraged… Yet he changed. It was Aunt Lucy, waving her hand at him as he came in, who made him change.” (Woolf), p 46.

In another scene, she (Lucy) moves from one place to the next, while standing in the doorway threshold. “The door trembled and stood half open. That was Lucy’s way of coming in – as if she did not know what she would find. Really! It was her brother! And his dog! She seemed to see them for the first time. Was it that she had no body? Up in the clouds, like an air ball, her mind touched ground now and then with a shock of surprise. There was nothing in her to weight a man like Giles to the earth.” (Woolf), p 116.

Woolf’s strategic decision to position characters at the point of an intersection breaks open the literary opportunity for character development and plot. “Rather than positing two separate spaces, permitting distinctions such as inside/outside, yes/no to persist, Woolf focuses on intersections. These spaces are fraught with possibility,” Southworth states. (Ed. Snaith), p 49.  The author uses Lucy once again to reveal the presence “between two fluidities” that the character experienced following the play. “Lucy still gazed at the lily pond. ‘All gone,’ she murmured, ‘under the leaves.’ Scared by shadows passing, the fish had withdrawn. She gazed at the water. Perfunctorily she caressed her cross. But her eyes when water searching, looking for fish. The lilies were shutting; the red lily, the white lily, each on its plate of leaf. Above all, the air rushed; beneath was water. She stood between two fluidities, caressing her cross.” (Woolf), p 204.

Even with the eyes, Woolf personifies characters intermingling at intersections. For Isa, she witnessed the departure of individuals yet was still trapped by the conclusion “It was drifting away to join the other clouds; becoming invisible. Through the smoke Isa saw not the play, but the audience dispersing. Some drove; others cycles. A gate swung open. A car swept up the drive to the red villa in the cornfields. Low hanging boughs of acacia brushed the roof. (Woolf), p 213.

In Between the Acts, Woolf breaks the box of literary convention by interjecting a play into a novel, giving the reader a captivating experience. She further breaks the conventions of a “woman’s place” by showing the intersections of various spaces and showcasing how women navigate from various spheres and often poise themselves at an intersection.


Ed. Snaith, Anna and Michael H. Whitworth, ed. Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts . New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company , 1941.



Monday, November 12, 2012

The Subversive Act of Interjecting A Private Letter into the Public Sphere

Virginia Woolf smacks the conundrum of women confined to the private sphere in the face with the authorship of Three Guineas by unveiling the often concealed private letter and placing it into the public sphere.  Drafted in 1938, we see Woolf’s conclusions of a lifetime of social, economic and political observation come to form in this edgy format.  This work further allows us to explore the segregation between the public sphere and the private sphere.  

The  book is creatively crafted in response to a letter – the convention itself reveals the subversive nature of thrusting the private letter into the public sphere for appropriate dialogue and debate. “Now regarded as one of the most important letter writers of the twentieth century, Woolf spins and tortures the form of the semiprivate letter in Three Guineas to show how difficult it is for a woman citizen in England in 1936 and 1937 to reply to request for money for good causes. Her replies (our text) also follow the private letter into the public domain,” writes Jane Marcus in the 2005 introduction of Three Guineas. (Woolf), lvii.

Woolf points to the honorary treasurer’s letter soliciting money to rebuild her college as an opening to document Woolf’s perspectives on the role of women in professions, the power dynamics at work in society and the future for women. “She has been asking for some time; she is still asking it seems… History, biography and the daily paper between them make it difficult either to answer her letter or to dictate terms,” Woolf writes. (Woolf), p 39. Woolf indicates the incredulity of asking for money in the face of the war economy.  “Let us inform you: we are spending three hundred millions annually upon the army and navy; for, according to a letter that lies cheek by jowl and your own, there is a grave danger of way. How then can you seriously ask us to provide you with money with which to rebuild your college?” (Woolf), p 41

Woolf wrote this book in 1938 and despite the passage of 74 years of social, political and economic change, the issues remain the same. This awakening reveals a startling, and at times disheartening incidence of social misalignment, gender based power struggles and gender inequality in the workplace. Today, we still address the concepts of professions for women, the use of the word ‘feminist,’ equal pay for work, the ability of women to serve as religious leaders and other topics addressed by Woolf in Three Guineas. From first wave feminism to the third and fourth wave, society still grapples with these core struggles.

As a former journalist and communications studies instructor, I was interested in how Woolf observed the powerful role that men play in the world of publishing. She articulates their role as “gatekeepers” and simultaneously reveals how women are cast to the side, despite their views or the strength of their words.  “Then again although it is true we can write articles or send letters to the Press, the control of the Press – the decision what to print, what not to print – is entirely in the hands of your sex.” (Woolf), p 16.

Woolf tackles women’s role in exterior society head-on, with a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, irony and confrontational language. She includes photography to advance her narrative responses. “The coloured photograph that we have been looking at presents some remarkable features, it is true, but it serves to remind us that there are many inner and secret chambers that we cannot enter. What real influence can we bring to bear upon law or business, religion or politics – we to whom the doors are still locked, or at best ajar, we who have neither capital nor force behind us? It seems as if our influence must stop short at that surface,” Woolf writes in Three Guineas. (Woolf), p28

Woolf underscores the gender- segregated spheres of the public and the private. “Sir I take you to mean that the world at present is divided into two services; one the public and the other the private. In one world the sons of educated men work as civil servants, judges, soldiers and are paid for that work; in the other world, the daughters of educated men work as wives, mothers, daughters – but are they not paid for that work?” (Woolf), p 66. Cloistered inside the home, Woolf resigns the fact that women will continue to support the perpetuation of patriarchy, including the war machine.  “…if they are going to be restricted to the education of the private house they are going, once more, to exert all influence both consciously and unconsciously in favor of war.” (Woolf), p 47.

As author Linda McDowell writes, women submit to a double bind that limits their forced independence on men limits their rights to freedom. “Thus women’s construction as dependent on men, both economically and morally, or as lesser beings – as fragile or in need of protection – reduces their rights to freedom. “(McDowell), p 150.  The simplest freedoms of moving into the public sphere and commanding the integrity of her body remained elusive in Woolf’s world.  “It was with a view toward marriage that her body was educated; a maid was provided for her; that the streets were shut to her; that the fields were shut to her – all this was forced upon her in order that she might preserve her body intact for her husband.” (Woolf), p 48.

We have repeatedly seen Woolf use the device of windows for women to engage in looking. While the peer out windows onto the landscape, they only view a sliver of information. Now, in Three Guineas, she advocates women to ‘light up’ the house. “Take this guinea then and use it, not to burn the house down, but to make its windows blaze. And let the daughters of uneducated women dance around the new house, the poor house, the house that stands in a narrow street where omnibuses pass and the street hawkers cry their wares, and let them sing ‘We have done with war! We have done with tyranny!” And their mothers will laugh from their graves, ‘It was for this that we suffered obloquy and contempt! Light up the windows for the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” (Woolf), p 100.

Three Guineas offers viewers an encounter with the political mind of Virginia Woolf who tackles issues of her day head-on by taking up the female cause of women’s freedoms evidenced by access to education, access to professions, advocacy for political power and personal freedoms of movement. Despite the fact that more than 70 years have passed since this book’s appearance, women today still grapple with these issues. While women have logged advancements, including the enrollment of young women in universities, the broad issues linger, allowing us to take lessons from Woolf’s energetic advocacy.  


McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. , 2005.



Sunday, November 4, 2012

Following Fictional Females Through the Public and Private Spheres

This week, I continue a discussion of the role of women in the public and private spheres by examining Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Informed by references from spatial theorists such as Gaston Bachelard, Michel DeCerteau and feminist theoriest Linda McDowell, I connect concepts from these theorists exploring the private sphere, the public sphere and the realm of power.

Scholars of Virginia Woolf literature document the dichotomy of the public and private spheres found in her work. “Spatial separation of men and women is indicative of the separation along gender lines of opportunities for education, work and self-development. The Years charts changes in women’s sexual position and identity through their evolving relationship to the city, particularly through changes in their mobility, as confinement to and exclusion from certain places informs their knowledge about the world and their places in it,” Evans states. (Evans). P 113

To ground this discussion, I first point to Gaston Bachelard, the author of The Poetics of Space. For Bachelard, the home is a “large cradle” allowing young women to remain in the bosom of a protected cocoon to prevent them from harm. “Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.” (Bachelard). Bachelard further addresses the dialectics of outside and inside in “…from the point of view of geometrical expressions, the dialectics of outside and inside is supported by a reinforced geometrism, in which limits are barriers.” (Bachelard).

The women in the book know the barriers between the private sphere and the public sphere quite well. In an attempt to gaze into the public world, they gravitate to windows. Delia spends a lot of time looking out the window of the house, peering into the outside world, watching men navigate. “‘Don’t be caught looking,’ said Eleanor warningly. The young man ran up the steps into the house.; the door shut upon him and the cab drove away.  But for the moment the two girls stood at the window looking into the street.” (Woolf), p 18.  This quotation underscores the women simply looking at the young man, who has the freedom to navigate.    

Woolf casts a spotlight onto the dichotomy of public and private in her discussion of the Pargiter girls. While citing a draft copy of Woolf’s the Years, scholar Elizabeth Evans cites “Eleanor and Milly and Delia could not possibly go for a walk alone  …. To be seen alone in Picadilly was equivalent to walking up Abercorn Terrace in a dressing gown carrying a bath sponge.” (Evans), p 115

The demarcation between public and private has long been studies by feminist theorists and the connection to “danger” and the power balance is evidence by women “cordoned off” from social, economic and political happenings.  “Woolf’s narrator comments upon this scene, describing not only the danger to girls and women in the streets, but also the consequent need for their protection within the private sphere. The danger, outside, in other words, enables their cloistering at home,” according to Evans. (Evans), p 116

Further, through this removal and subsequent “imprisoning” in the home, a power dynamic emerges that denies the role of women in the public sphere. “Thus, women’s construction as dependent on men, both economically and morally, or as lesser beings – as fragile or in need of protection reduces their rights to freedom,” (McDowell), p 150.

Even a lightbeam had more freedom to pass between the cordoned off private world and the public realm.  “Woolf symbolically illustrates the permeability between public and private realms through the infiltration of noise and light from the outside world into the domestic space,” Evans writes, p 117.  We find this in the scene depicting the children eating dinner. “They ate in silence. The sun, judging from the changing lights on the glass of the Dutch cabinet, seemed to be going in and out. Sometimes a bowl shown deep blue; then became vivid. Lights rested furtively upon the furniture in the other room. Here was a pattern here was a bald patch. Somewhere there’s beauty, Delia thought, somewhere there’s freedom…” (Woolf), p 13.  This is reminiscent of Woolf’s description of the Ramsey house in To the Lighthouse. “Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall and for a moment darkened the pool in which the light reflected itself; or the birds, flying made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.” (Woolf, To The Lighthouse), p. 129.

For Woolf’s character Delia, the escape from the domestic realm came in the form of a trip to a funeral. “She glanced out the window again. Another man raised his hat – a tall man, a man in a frock coat, but she would not allow herself to think of Mr. Parnell until the funeral was over. At last they reached the cemetery.  As she took her place in the little group behind the coffin and walked up to the church, she was relieved to find that she was overcome by some generalized and solemn emotion ….. Delia, standing behind her father, noticed how he braced himself and squared his shoulders. ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Pent up as she had been all these days in the half-lit house which smelt of flowers, the outspoken words filled her with glory,” Woolf writes.

The second half of Woolf’s years reveals the women taking a more aggressive approach to the public sphere. For Kitty’s ride in the rail car, I am reminded of Michel DeCerteau’s view on rails. Woolf writes, “There was a perpetual faint vibration. She seemed to be passing from one world to another; this was the moment of transition. She sat still for a moment; then undressed and paused with her hand on the blind,” (Woolf), p 256. DeCerteau places this in a perspective, “The windowpane is what allows us to see, and the rail allows us to move through. These are two complementary modes of separation.” (DeCerteau)

The characters in Woolf novels, continually try to step out of the domestic sphere. For example, in The Years,  Eleanor later finds her way onto the street: “The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her. It was as if something had broken loose – in her, in the world.” (Woolf), p 105 “She walked slowly along towards Trafalgar Square, holding the paper in her hand. Suddenly the whole scene froze into immobility. A man was joined to a pillar; a lion was joined to a many; they seemed stilled, connected, as if they would never move again. ” (Woolf), p107.

This is the power of the public sphere. The ability to engage in this realm, observe happenings and participate in the social, economic and political happenings of the day. While Woolf’s readers may not have exercised this freedom, with their minds they were able to traverse London streets, voyeuristically travel on trains and experience a freedom through Woolf’s fictional characters.


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. The Orion Press, Inc. , 1964.

DeCerteau. The Practice of Everyday Life. 2011, n.d.

Evans, Elizabeth. "Woolf's Analysis of "The Outer and the Inner: A Spatial Analysis of The Years." Woolf and the Art of Exploration: Selected Papers from the Fifteenth International Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Helen Southworth and Elisa Kay Sparks. Portland, OR: Clemson University Digital Press, 2005.

McDowell. Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia. The Years. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

—. To The Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1981.