Thinking in common?

Spring 2023 #41
written by
Grace Crabtree
illustration by
Zara Wilkins

In a journal entry of 1919, Virginia Woolf, recovering from a bed-bound fortnight of ill health and now permitted only an hour’s daily writing, begins a “partial account” of her friends. Among them she counts ‘intellectuals’ like Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell; Rupert Brooke and the Neo-Pagans; artists like Dora Carrington and writers such as Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot. Among this rollcall of names from the Bloomsbury orbit, Woolf ‘inserts’ another group, those “distinguished by their social and political character”, in which she includes the social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Margaret Llewelyn Davies, the long-time secretary of the Women's Co-operative Guild. This set, she writes, “runs parallel but does not mix” with the literary set. This exemplifies Woolf’s political engagement: never fully absorbed, instead kept at a slight distance so as to better analyse and pick apart her feelings and experiences, particularly in the pages of her diaries kept from a young age until her death in March 1941.

The power of the basket

The Women's Co-operative Guild was founded in 1883 – the year after Virginia was born – by Alice Acland and Mary Lawrenson. In a segment of The Co-operative News (today’s Co-op News) Acland edited the ‘Women’s Corner’, and there wrote about the limits imposed on women’s political potential within the movement. While men were being urged to “Come! Help! Vote! Criticise! Act!”, women were limited to “Come and Buy!” Even this participation, shopping via the Co-operative Wholesale Societies, had until lately been limited by married women not being allowed to own landed property until legal reforms passed in 1870 and 1882, giving women the right to claim the co-operative dividend – from members’ shared profits – without a husband’s consent. Acland desired more than this flawed and limited purchasing power, asking: “Why should not we have our meetings, our readings, our discussions?” A series of exchanges was published in the newspaper, with Mary Lawrenson suggesting a central board and meeting space, and thus the Guild was born – originally called the Women’s League for the Spread of Co-operation.

In 1889, the role of General Secretary was passed to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, who came from a politically and intellectually radical family which included Emily Davies, co-founder of Cambridge’s first women’s college, where Margaret herself studied, and where Woolf would later give one of the lectures that became her feminist essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. With Llewelyn Davies at the helm, the Guild expanded in its scope and vision into a more radically progressive force. In her 32 years as General Secretary, she carried the Guild over the threshold of the new century, campaigning for better education for women and children; lobbying for equal pay, economic independence, and adult suffrage; improving maternity and medical schemes for working class women. When the Guild members campaigned for divorce law reform, controversy was sparked within the wider Co-operative Union who withdrew their annual grant to the Guild from 1914-18 in retaliation.

“Pens and brushes and business and politics”

Despite Leonard Woolf’s remark that Virginia was “the least political animal that has lived since Aristotle invented the definition”, social and political questions informed much of Woolf’s life and works, including some of the most important feminist ideas of the time expressed in essays such as ‘Professions for Women’ and ‘Three Guineas’. Her earlier interest in the Guild from the 1910s may have stemmed in part from its contrast to the more passive philanthropy so prevalent among women of means in the Victorian era, such as Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen. Depictions and descriptions alike frame Julia as almost saintly, her delicate, solemn beauty captured in the pre-Raphaelite paintings she modelled for. Yet Woolf shrank from what she saw as the self-abnegation and sacrifice of women performing these acts of goodwill at the service of the masses. Her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse contains elements of autobiographical detail, with particular resonances between the characters of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and Virginia’s parents. Mr Ramsay is the stern, overbearing patriarch while Mrs Ramsay is his calm counterpoint, acting as a kind of centrifugal force in the novel, her energies endlessly spiralling outwards to soothe, assuage, comfort: she gives endlessly to her children and misfit guests; to unfortunate neighbours; and especially to her husband, who is tyrannical in his need of reassurance and love. She is the archetypal ‘Angel in the House’, the Victorian ideal of domestic femininity – who Woolf dramatically ‘kills’ in her essay ‘Professions for Women’.

Woolf shrank from what she saw as the self-abnegation and sacrifice of women performing these acts of goodwill at the service of the masses.

When Virginia was 13 years old, Julia Stephen died of rheumatic fever, leaving her husband and children bereft of the loving and directorial role she played in the large household, which also numbered many domestic servants. Her early death precipitated the first serious breakdown Virginia would experience in her lifetime.

Upon Leslie Stephen’s death nine years later, her health further deteriorated. The world of the Stephen children, now in their twenties, was thoroughly upended, yet their orphanhood also conferred certain freedoms, as Alison Light explores in Mrs Woolf and the Servants. As they moved out of their family home at Hyde Park Gate and into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, the house filled with Thoby’s bohemian university friends from Cambridge, giving Virginia and Vanessa their first taste of the intellectual and social freedom denied to them as young women. From this point, the strictures and boundaries of Victorian society began to buckle for this group striving for experimentation and autonomy in art and life – yet this ideal of independence was always tempered by the host of domestic servants that continued to make this new life possible.

“Whelmed in the Co-op revolution”

In 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, and it was through him that she became involved with the Women’s Co-operative Guild. Leonard was researching the co-operative movement and became friends with Margaret Llewelyn Davies. In 1913, Virginia joined Leonard in visits to co-operative boot factories, soap works, and flour mills and, later that year, to the Women’s Co-operative Guild Annual Congress held in Newcastle. In 1916, Woolf joined the Richmond branch of the Guild, arranging speakers and “presiding over” meetings held in the Woolfs’ home at Hogarth House.

As time elapsed, however, her earlier excitement for political change seems to have been clouded. In 1931, 10 years after stepping down from her long reign as General Secretary of the Guild, Margaret Llewelyn Davies compiled autobiographical sketches of the working lives of Guild members in Life as We Have Known It: The voices of working-class women. These collected letters were published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press, and Virginia, asked to write a preface, responded in the same epistolary format, writing an ‘Introductory Letter’ addressed to Llewelyn Davies. In it, Woolf made clear her caution about speaking on behalf of a sector of society of which she could claim no first-hand experience; nor did she wish to, barely imagining the meat for a miner's supper, the daily toil of a charwoman. Despite cautious praise of the movement, in this introduction she draws up a shield between herself and the women of the Guild. She recalls feeling a hypocrite at the Co-operative Congress in Newcastle, merely a “benevolent spectator” of the proceedings; her privileged life will remain untouched by their demands, however reasonable and admirable she feels them to be. Yet modernist scholar Alice Wood interprets Woolf’s overemphasis on this division as a performance, exaggerating her distance from the working women so as to allow their voices to shine through.

Virginia will have partly formed an understanding or image of the working classes through Victorian literature, alongside her mother’s generation of ‘do-gooders’ and ‘poor-peoplers’. In a 1910 essay about the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Woolf notes how the Victorian writer always depicts “the poor in stress of some kind”, which gives the characters their vigour yet precludes “the need of subtle understanding”. The social reformer Henrietta Barnett’s biography of Samuel ‘Canon’ Barnett caused Virginia to write of “the peculiar repulsiveness of those who dabble their fingers self-approvingly in the stuff of others’ souls”. In a letter to Janet Case – a classical scholar who had taught Virginia ancient Greek, and who played a key part in advising the Guild on divorce law reform in 1912 – Woolf aired her suspicion of the inhuman, “bloodless” side of politics. She wrote that “more and more I come to loathe any dominion of one over another; any leadership, any imposition of the will”.

The introductory letter to Life as We Have Known It reinforces this wariness of prevailing over and speaking of experiences that are not one’s own, which may seem at odds with Woolf’s role as a creator of fiction. But in her writing, she wants to delve deeper into human feeling, and make a leap into other worlds. We see this happening not only in the novels and short stories, where stream of consciousness prose slips between voices, minds, and times, but also in her essays, from the imaginary sister of Shakespeare in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, to the momentary slippings into the worlds of Londoners glimpsed in the pages of ‘Street Haunting’.

A common mind

An important aspect of Woolf’s political legacy is her sense of the 'common mind'. This comes up in different guises: in her idea that the mind must be 'androgynous' to produce great literature, not relying too heavily on the 'feminine' or 'masculine' side; and not bound by history, as in her novel Orlando, where the protagonist hurtles through gender, time, and place. This idea is also eloquently expressed in an early journal, writing: “I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together – how any live mind today is of the same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides ... it is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind”.

Something that we ought to learn from Woolf, something to cling to, in an age when even fiction cannot always be allowed to play out one of its most important functions, is that idea of traversing worlds and minds outside of the narrow consciousness of the narrator's own experience and into other genders, classes, eras, and emotional ranges. Woolf does struggle with this in portraying working class characters, as Alison Light notes: she was retrospectively ashamed to show her short story ‘Kew Gardens’ to the Guild members, in which conversations of perambulating visitors are heard from the level of a snail in a flower bed, but the conversation between two “lower middle class” women is reduced to caricatured nonsense. Woolf is constantly testing the boundaries between ventriloquising and harnessing an emotive capacity to imagine other experiences; sometimes, she falls short. Through Woolf’s journals, a complex portrait emerges of an artist always attempting to push beyond her own sphere of knowledge, while always grappling with the problems inherent in doing so. While she ultimately found more success in this project through her writing than through her work with the Women's Co-operative Guild, her engagement with this institution of reform betrays her broader social awareness, showing her to be a writer whose work does not simply run parallel to but mixes with the politics of her time.

Grace Crabtree works with Stir to Action, and is an artist, writer and filmmaker.

Spring 2023 #41

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