Voyaging Out: The Woolfs and Internationalism

Article excerpt

In her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), Virginia Woolf used the occasion of a "pageant" given at a country house to present, in compressed form, the long march of history. As Mr. Page, a reporter, watches the final tableau, "The Present Time," he makes notes for himself: "Miss La Trobe conveyed to the audience Civilization (the wall) in ruins; rebuilt (witness man with hod) by human effort; witness also woman handling bricks. [...] Now issued black man in fuzzy wig; coffee-coloured ditto in silver turban; they signify presumably the League of...." (1) The word that Mr. Page does not write down is--presumably--"Nations," the League of Nations being the international organization founded in 1919 after World War One, which, at the time Woolf was writing Between the Acts, was conspicuously failing to stop the war it was designed to prevent.

Woolf's connection to the League was not only as an interested observer of international politics, but also at a more personal level; her husband, Leonard, had long championed the League, and his 1916 book, International Government, was instrumental in drafting the very charter for the League. (2) The fact that Mr. Page is only able to get "League of ..." down in his notes suggests that Virginia saw the incompleteness of the international project that the League represented. When a member of the audience, Mr. Streatfield, offers his thoughts on the meaning of Miss La Trobe's historical pageant, he says, "To me at least it was indicated that we are members one of another. Each is part of the whole. [...] We act different parts; but are the same." He concludes, "Scraps, orts and fragments! Surely, we should unite?" (3) But moments later, the appearance of warplanes in the sky over Pointz Hall destroys any hope for unity. It was through this devastating and despairing juxtaposition at the end of Between the Acts that Woolf concluded a writing career that, in ways subtle and overt, fully engaged the political questions of the time. In particular, I argue that the internationalist convictions that were held by Leonard Woolf were also held and indeed shaped the modernist style of Virginia.

In the aftermath of the first World War, one of the most pressing questions was how to prevent another such conflagration from ever happening again. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, talk of extracting reparations from Germany stood in contrast to equally earnest negotiations regarding an international organization that would, in some way or another, keep the peace. Woodrow Wilson often receives the credit for the founding of the League of Nations, and no doubt it was through his advocacy that the Conference linked the question of the immediate post-war settlement to the larger, if more nebulous, question of international law. But the idea for an organization that would collectively ensure peace and facilitate political and economic relations did not originate with Wilson or any other single person. Immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914, the League of Nations Society had been founded in Britain, and, along with its American counterpart, the League to Enforce Peace, it began to argue for a more permanent form of relations between states. (4) After the war, such arguments were taken up with renewed force, but there was considerable confusion and hesitation among even the victorious powers; questions arose without definitive answers. How should the decisions of the League be enforced? Should there be an international court with binding power? When would economic sanctions be used, and when would military force be applied? Would the defeated states be allowed into the League? Would the colonies of imperial powers be given representation? Although the desire for a League was strong enough to make it a top priority at the Conference, and strong enough, indeed, to bring it into being, there were doubts at its inception as to its precise nature, and those doubts, in the nearly two-decade history of the League, were never entirely put to rest. …