One Wanted Fifty Pairs of Eyes: Virginia Woolf and the Jews

By Laurence, Patricia | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

One Wanted Fifty Pairs of Eyes: Virginia Woolf and the Jews


Laurence, Patricia, Woolf Studies Annual


A knowing critic can only acknowledge that individual writers will sometimes reify, reflect upon or resist racial stereotypes--like antisemitism--that permeate the history of the West. Though Jews share the oppressed history of other peoples enslaved or subjected to colonialism, (11) it is an important moment for Woolf studies and modernist critics to reflect upon Virginia Woolf's writing and her relation to the particularity of Jewish historical experience.

What is it that readers of different identifications and nationalities "read" when Woolf writes about Jews in her diary and letters before the war? What do humanist critics read now? What do those who focus on her biting views of Leonard Woolf's family perceive? Those who focus on Woolf's treatment of Jews in her fiction? These issues have been discussed in the field, and new methodologies and approaches continue to be developed in order to answer such questions responsibly.

The most important thing to remember in any approach to Woolf and the Jews is to contextualize. One must be aware of Woolf's historically and personally specific circumstances and not just cherry pick antisemitic statements. Or as Beth Rosenberg ably argues in this volume, we must seek alternative approaches and analyze "the cultural history that contributed to her intellectual growth and development." Another approach, as Maren Linett demonstrates in this forum, is to pay close attention to Woolf's language of the body in her depictions of Jews.

But though Woolf's personal, cultural and historical circumstances might inform her views of Jews as well as of other outsiders, the transformation of these views into fiction or a sketch is another matter. For her representation of Jews must also be considered in the context of her preoccupations as a writer and a feminist. She was concerned always with women's lives and their exclusions in society as well as the customs and thinking that contributed to this. In an early piece, "Jews and Divorce," Woolf sketches an unabashedly biting representation of a Jewish woman. It was written in 1909 when she was twenty-seven, in a state of discontent with her marital situation, having just been proposed to by Lytton Strachey (who quickly realized his error and withdrew the proposal). It is not only Jews but women's roles, money, class and marriage that are on her mind. Her representation of the vulgarity of Mrs. Loeb, a modern day Jewish matchmaker, must be acknowledged, yet it cannot be ignored that it is embedded in her ideas about marriage and divorce. Mrs. Loeb, a wealthy meddling woman is seen in this sketch mainly from the outside as "fat ... coarsely skinned, with drooping eyes, and tumbled hair" (Woolf, Carlyle's House 14). She irks the reader and Woolf in that she "wheedles" her guests to "ingratiate" herself and advance her "poor relations" through marriage. Importantly, she is described as "perhaps, kind, in her vulgar way" (14). Her coarseness leads her to press a single, young woman, Miss T., based on a talented harpist--"a chocolate box young woman, a business woman, used to protecting herself (14)--upon the attentions of men in the orchestra.

David Bradshaw tells us in his notes that Mrs. Loeb is based upon a Jewess, Mrs. Annie Loeb, the wife of Mr. Sydney Loeb, a stockbroker with a passion for music. "How," the narrator in the sketch asks, did Mrs. Loeb become a rich woman? It is an accident of marriage as she belongs "behind a counter. …

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