Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The "Offensiveness" of Virginia Woolf: From a Moral to a Political Reading

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The "Offensiveness" of Virginia Woolf: From a Moral to a Political Reading

Article excerpt

I Introduction

"Virginia Woolf and Offence" is the title Hermione Lee gave to an essay which asked why "Virginia Woolf's offensiveness [has] become an issue again." Citing in particular Tom Paulin's television broadcast J'accuse (1991) and John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), Lee used the "current attack on Virginia Woolf's incorrectness" both to assess contemporary feminist responses to this "incorrectness" and to suggest alternative ways in which feminist scholarship could negotiate--by moving "through, rather than round, her offence"--Woolf's seeming recourse to the discursive formations of anti-semitism, racism and elitism (Lee 131, 145).

The essay opens with a sequence of quotations drawn from texts Woolf produced between 1908 and 1935. Nine in all, the quotations include excerpts from diary entries and letters, and one extract each from Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and The Years (1937). The first quotation is from a diary entry of September 1920 and runs "[t]he fact is the lower classes are detestable." The remainder follow the first in reproducing stereotypes standard to upper-class and upper-middle class life in the early twentieth century: "imbeciles should certainly be killed"; "Jews" are greasy; a "crowd" is both an ontological "mass" and is, again, "detestable"; "Germans" are akin to vermin; some "baboon faced intellectuals" mix with "sad green dressed negroes and negresses, looking like chimpanzees" at a peace conference; Kensington High St. revolts one's stomach with its innumerable "women of incredible mediocrity, drab as dishwater" (Lee, ibid. 130).

The first page of Lee's essay is composed entirely of these quotations. It is not until the second page that Lee's own voice appears; it does so in the form of a question: "Are you offended?" Having answered her own question in the affirmative--"I am"--Lee goes on to note that the "nausea" the quotations provoke is generated more widely by "feelings and attitudes which are given free play in [Woolf's ] diaries and letters and ... less directly but discernibly in her published work." Arguing that those "feelings and attitudes" would "[t]oday certainly qualify as hate speech or 'fighting words,'" Lee goes on to ruefully note the irony "that on the same campuses where censorious codes of permissible speech" would forbid some of Woolf's expressions, "A Room of One's Own or Three Guineas are being taught as pioneering texts in Women's Studies programmes" (Lee, ibid. 130).

Lee traces an extension of this irony in the traditional polarization of critical responses to Woolf. The critiques produced by Tom Paulin and John Carey in the early 1990s were but an episode of an older "attack on Virginia Woolf for offensiveness" which began with the hostility of Wyndham Lewis and Q.D. Leavis in the 1920s and 1930s (Lee, ibid. 133). Three decades of feminist scholarship had generated a counter-attack, however, as, particularly in the United States, Woolf was "rescu[ed] from a minoritising identification with an elite group and replac[ed] as a heroine of revolutionary socialist feminism" (Lee, ibid. 133). Unhappy with the responses to "offence" which take the form of either violent attack or defence, Lee is equally dissatisfied with more recent attempts to move to a moderate position. Critiques which allow for "the occasional lapse" appear to take a damagingly opportunist approach to Woolf's work:

Perhaps there is really not much else to be done about the offence of Virginia Woolf: allow that there are "less attractive" attitudes and make the best of them. But with the quotations I began with still sticking in my throat, I feel the need to swallow her whole, not spit out the bits of her which I may find distasteful. (Lee, ibid. 134)

It is this "need to swallow [Woolf] whole" with which I wish to engage. Like Lee, I cannot dissociate the good from the bad Woolf; like Lee, I do not wish to dismiss Woolf as a Bloomsbury snob; like Lee, I cannot see Woolf as a revolutionary socialist. …

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