Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language

Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language

Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language

Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language


"A passionate, political and provocative study"

Patricia Clements, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, and founding director of The Orlando Project

Times Higher Education Magazine

"The distillation of many years of sparklingly erudite scholarship and continuing incisive debate, Judith Allen's book is essential reading for anyone concerned by current and disturbing ramifications of the politics of language and the language of politics in the modern world. She provides a generously open guide to many of Woolf's most influential essays as well as to her major manifestos, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas "

Dr Jane Goldman, Reader in English Literature, University of Glasgow

"Guided by Montaigne's trenchant question, 'What do I know?', Judith Allen shows how the lexicon of war in the twenty-first century can be revealed in all its lamentable 'truthiness' by paying attention to what Virginia Woolf's essays have to say about the power of language to transform our world. This is a book that makes refreshingly clear Woolf's deep political engagement with the urgent issues of war and peace."

Mark Hussey, Editor, Woolf Studies Annual

Judith Allen's timely study ranges from Michel de Montaigne to Jon Stewart, from the Northcliffe Press empire of World War I to Rupert Murdoch's current media empire, and explores the increasing influence of social media. Allen approaches Woolf as a theorist of language as well as a theorist of reading, and shows how her writing strategies - sometimes single, resonant words - function to express and enact her politics. Close readings of many essays, including 'Montaigne' and 'Craftsmanship', reveal how Woolf's complex arguments serve to awaken her readers to the complexities and power of language.


Que sais-je?

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne
Virginia Woolf, ‘Montaigne’, The Common Reader

For language is by no means a perfect vehicle of meanings. Words, like cur
rency, are turned over and over again, to evoke one set of images to-day,
another tomorrow. There is no certainty whatever that the same word will
call out exactly the same idea in the reader’s mind as it did the reporter’s.

Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

My first epigraph, ‘Que sais-je?’ [‘What do I know?’] – used as Montaigne’s ‘motto’ and significantly ‘inscribed over a pair of scales’ (II:12, 393) – was appropriated by Virginia Woolf as the last line of her essay, ‘Montaigne’ (CRI 68). Reading his Essays in English, and eventually in French, she deemed him ‘the first of the moderns’ in her 1905 essay, ‘The Decay of Essay-Writing’, and gave him a prominent placement as the first single-author essay in The Common Reader in 1925. Woolf’s lifelong dialogue with Montaigne, and with the multitude of ancient voices that permeate his Essays, enabled her to infuse her own works with commentary about his writing, to compare his methods with those of other writers, and to use his ideas, and his methods, to inspire her future writings. Woolf’s veneration of Montaigne prompted her to make three visits – with Leonard – to his Tower in the Dordogne region of France, the place of his creative efforts. Her absolute joy in these visits is evident in her postcards and letters to Vita Sackville-West, Ethel Smyth and Vanessa Bell. Inside the Tower, surrounded by the fifty-seven ‘sentences’ which Montaigne had painted on the rafters of his library ceiling, Virginia Woolf spoke of ‘the very door, room, stairs, and a view precisely the same he saw’ (LIV 318). the depth of her connection to the individual who created the essay – defined by its indefiniteness, resistant to categorisation or containment, while both expressing and enacting its quest for freedom – underscores his significance in Woolf’s . . .

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