(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)



"Holding Her Pen Like a Broom":

Virginia Woolf’s Anxieties about Working-Class Women

 Patricia Laurence (City College of New York) 



"Everything sounds in its own way. Slllt," writes James Joyce in Ulysses. The same might be said of Virginia Woolf whose style embodies not only the sound of things—for example, a gramophone’s "un-dis," a machine’s "tick tick," a cow’s coughing, a plane’s "zoom" cutting words in two (BA) —but also the more subtle rhythms and metaphors of body, mind, nature, and, yes, even class. The sounds, rhythms and metaphors in her writing are examples of the subject’s experience of the object or what might be termed, the continuity of the subject and the object. This is a quality of style that distinguishes Woolf from other modernists. In her short story "Solid Objects," the aesthete, John who is obsessed with looking at and touching beautiful stones, notes that "looked at again and again. . . any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form" (98). Woolf’s treatment of things (objects), then, is not, as with other Modernists, just "regard for the physical object as object—not self, not-subject—fragment of Being, as solidity, as otherness" (4) as Douglas Mao asserts. Rather, objects and things in Woolf are the extension of her own subjectivity as a writer as well as the subjectivity of the characters and things that she seeks to describe. As readers of Woolf, we cannot tell the difference between the object being described and the consciousness perceiving it or the writer writing it.

We discover in the experience of reading that Woolf uses the word, it, ambiguously, to refer to certain things, as might be expected, ambiguously. It can refer either to things or objects that are solid, hard and usable—the cup, the table—silent, static things. Or it can refer, broadly, to life—"what it is," and in describing life, Woolf metaphorically sweeps along the objects of life. And if these two referents are combined, it can refer to a third thing, the work of art that she makes out of the two. Art, an object cut out of life and aesthetically framed, might be compared to James’ childhood activity in To the Lighthouse. He cuts out pictures—of a refrigerator and other objects—from a catalog of commodities that become "fringed with joy" when selected and framed anew in the presence of his




mother. So Woolf cuts out objects, things from the catalog of life and makes other things, works of art.

But what are the things that she cuts out of the catalog of life and how do they inform her metaphors and syntax which "cause words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to hold together" (Foucault xviii). I have chosen Virginia Woolf’s writings that describe working-class women’s lives and writings as the site of my exploration. This focus is productive for several reasons. Given that the working-class is traditionally defined in terms of its relation to the means and objects of production in industrymaterial thingsWoolf’s view of their labor, particularly working-class women’s labor, and the things that they produce bring several issues to the foreground.

First, we observe in her writings that the issues of gender and class cannot be separated. British industrial expansion and the rise of working-class trade unionism in the middle of the nineteenth centuryof which the Women’s Cooperative Guild, the first working-class feminist union, was a partcaused a crisis in British society. Modernist anxieties about the new industrialism, production, commodities, and the work of art became entwined with concerns about the values of the upper-class, middle-class and the emerging working-class. Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), for example, focuses upon the spirit-deadening self-satisfaction, materialism and "barbarism" of the English middle and upper classes at this time.

Working-class women were just coming into Woolf’s awareness at the turn of the century. Her habits of thought about this class can be observed in her Report of Teaching at Morley College (1905), her letters to Margaret Llewelyn Davies (1913-1940), her Diaries, her Introduction to Life as We Have Known It (1931), one of her most sustained treatments, and some of her essays, polemics and novels. In examining Woolf’s unpublished as well as published writings here, I expand the field of study and attempt to offer a more complex and nuanced view of how she relates women, politics and art. Previous Woolf critics, for example, Donna Landry and Mary Childers, have limited their study to the published introduction to Life as We Have Known It and Three Guineas to develop their views of Woolf’s "class-bound" vision.

Woolf’s Introduction to Life as We Have Known It, a collection of writings by the Women’s Cooperative Guild, is striking in its association of working women and their writing with solid objects. Woolf reminds us that their writing is "not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but. . .[is] the work of suffering human beings, and. . .[is] attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in" (44), an idea she




develops in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Margaret Llewelyn Davies adds that "The writing has been done in kitchens, at odds and ends of leisure, in the midst of distractions and obstacles" (LWI xxxix). Experiencing the shifting values of British society, Woolf presents solid objects as the vehicle of her metaphors for these women. There is a different world of objects in the working class, she seems to say in her Introduction, and these objects and these people have not traditionally been a part of or makers of literature. We do not know about the life of a felt-hat worker, her lashing of the leathers, and the machinery and trimming rooms in the hat factory in the town of Stockport, as described by Mrs. Scott, or life in a mining village by Mrs. F.H. Smith, or a plate-layer’s wife, Mrs. Wrigley. The things that are introduced into literature in these women’s descriptions of their factory and home lives are new, and these things are, at the same time, the subjective extensions of these women.

Woolf, like other privileged modernist writers that Douglas Mao discusses in his recent book, Solid Objects, is anxious about her relationship with the working class, particularly the working women whom she meets through teaching at Morley College, in the factories in the north of England through Margaret Llewelyn Davies. Her relationship and English literature’s relationship to budding women writers of this class, and the representation of working-class women in literature are issues for Woolf, someone concerned with both "the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction" (ROO 4). The issue raises passion in Woolf because both womanhood and fiction are "bred of the conditions of life," of what she terms, "the lack of civilisation" (ROO 39). And given changing values and relationships, the "difficulty rather than the obviousness for someone in Woolf’s position, of immediate identification with the causes and writing of other women is taken up" (236), as Rachel Bowlby perceptively observes.

Woolf had ample opportunity to observe class differences at Morley College, where she taught evening classes in British history, literature and composition to mostly working-class women from 1905-1907; at the Newcastle Conference where she heard the women leaders in the Women’s Cooperative Guild in 1913; in the Guild meetings organized by Leonard Woolf in their home; and in observing the female servants of her childhood and married life. Her first observations about working-class women were recorded in her 1905 Report on Teaching English History at Morley College (MHP A22). Woolf had initially resisted Mary Sheepshanks', principal of Morley College, invitation to teach preferring to "get to know. . . [the students] personally than instruct them" (Woolf/Vaughan, Jan. 1, 1905). But they were "keen" upon her, and she was engaged, and soon discovered that the students "were nice, friendly




and full of interest. . . lots of jokes is what they like and then they blossom out—and say how they have written poetry since the age of eleven" (Woolf/Violet Dickinson February, 1905). Woolf’s delight and surprise in their interest and their blossoming into poetry belie the prejudice about the working class that reoccurs in her writings. In her evening classes, her gaze rests upon a Miss Williams whom she describes as "the least interesting of the class…rather handsomewell-dressed." Her wits, she said, "were sharpened in the streets," she was "inattentive" and "critical" and yet never missed a Wednesday evening class. Woolf teaching in this college for two and a half years was intent on getting Miss Williams to reveal something about herself. Finally, she told Woolf she was a reporter on the staff of a religious paper; she reported sermons in shorthand and she typed. And she wrote reviews of books. Woolf observes,

The germ of a literary lady in short. And a curious one. Here was literature stripped of the least glamour of art; words were handled by this woman as that other one manipulated that bottle of mouthwash. (Report)

The clinical comparison suggests the utilitarian purposes of Miss Williams’ prose and Woolf’s ambivalence toward this writing. Given the large number of books that Miss Williams would have to review and turn out, literary mass production, her employer had told her that it would be impossible for her to read them. As a working-class reviewer under certain constraints, she would not have the leisure to glance out the window across the downs or to reflect on whether one should "dictate to" an author as Woolf advises in "Hours in a Library." Donna Landry’s critique of Woolf’s extended descriptions of the "joys of solitude" is suggested by her suppression of her position here. Instead, says Woolf, the editor suggests that Miss Williams, with a little practice, can find quotations by scanning the books to support a positive or negative view that he, her boss, will dictate. The woman, however, had made no pretense to Woolf that her work was of literary nature, so, says Woolf, "there was no reason to condemn it." In summary, Woolf describes her as a "writing machine" which underlines again the utilitarian aspect of writing.

Another woman in the same class, Burke, had been "writing an account of her life." It was short and "only described certain memories of childhood," but what she wrote, Woolf said, was "a curious little production, foundering among long words and involved periods, with sudden ponderous moral sentences thrown in the midst." Nevertheless, what she wrote was grammatical and logical and in Woolf’s evaluation, "she had evidently some facility of expression; in other circumstances, I suppose she would have been a writer." Woolf, twenty-three at the time, was




sympathetic to these working women who possessed more intellect and talent than she expected. She identified with their yearnings: "they have tentacles languidly stretching forth from their minds; feeling vaguely for substance and easily applied by a guiding hand to something they could grasp." She describes her students and herself with amused irony:

I gave a lecture to 4 workingmen yesterday: one stutters on his manuscript—and another is Italian and reads English as though it were medieval Latin and another is my degenerate poet, who rants & blushes, and almost seizes my hand when I happen to like the same lines. But I don’t have any notes. I can tell you the first line of my lecture, "The poet Keats died when he was 25; and he wrote all his works before that. Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Sheepshanks." (L 1.313)

Woolf published her introduction to Life as We Have Known It (1931), a collection of the writings of working-class factory women at the urging of Margaret Llewelyn Davies, secretary of the Women’s Cooperative Guild who was introduced to Leonard Woolf in 1912. This organization, which existed from 1867 to 1927, enabled married working-class women who worked in the factory towns in the north of England to establish co-ops to price things, the products that they consumed, "without profit." Eventually, this co-op organization transformed its goals enabling women to gain an economic and political voice to get higher wages, better working conditions, education, suffrage, divorce, maternity benefits, birth control: in short, it presented an evolving working class women’s feminist platform. Despite her struggles with mental illness during this period just after she and Leonard had married, Woolf traveled to the factories in the north with him in 1913 observing the working conditions in Manchester, Leicester, Leeds, and Glasgow. According to Woolf, they "saw every kind of horror and miracle" (Woolf/Dickinson, 4/11/13). She wrote to Lady Robert Cecil in March 1913:

We are going about to see factories, and as we spent eight hours walking through them today, I’m very sleepy. Why the poor don’t take knives and chase us out of our houses, I can’t think. They stand for eight hours typing up 6 gross of jampots. (Woolf/Cecil, March 11, 1913)

Her early and sympathetic interest in these working women counters charges of elitism levelled against her by Wyndham Lewis, Roger Poole, John Carey, and American feminists, Donna Landry and Mary Childers. Like Leonard Woolf who worked in the slums of the East End of London, with Margaret Llewelyn Davies of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, and with Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the Fabians, on the League of Nations, Woolf felt responsible for changing notions about "civilized"




behavior in England, much earlier than the 1930’s which most critics in Woolf studies emphasize as her "political" period. Leonard lectured about politics and economics in what Virginia termed the obscure but enlightened north of England believing that a "large number of uneducated citizens is clearly far more dangerous than any external enemies" (CFI 120). The problem, he states is "the perpetual increase of poverty and misery in a world in which there is a perpetual increase of wealth" (CFI 17). He would describe in Cooperation and the Future of Industry (1919) this "defect in the machine" of English society that inspired the coop movement. It was a consumer movement which organized 3½ million human beings of the wage-earning classes (who earned about £50 a year) in 1,400 coop societies, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. And once Virginia Woolf knew what these women’s lives were like, she was not free of the desire to change the way they lived and the way they were perceived in England. Both Leonard and Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ social thinking formed part of Woolf’s daily conversation during this period. In addition, she heard the women themselves speak at the Newcastle Conference as well as at meetings at her home, and she read their letters later published in Davies’ collections, Life as We Have Known It and The Maternity Letters. Her experiences in 1905-1907 and 1913-14, in fact, inform her polemic, A Room of One’s Own, about the material conditions necessary for women of all classes to write.

And yet Woolf is not free of anxiety about these women. Her Introduction to Life as We Have Known It, about which she had expressed many doubts in her letters to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, has a curiously schizophrenic quality, based as it is upon her experience of the Working Women’s Guild at two different time periods, 1913-14 and 1929. It conflates both her sympathetic 1913 impressions, formed in observing the women speaking from the Newcastle platform—her sensitivity to the material needs of the married working women—and her somewhat uneasy responses to the writings of the women sent to her by Margaret Llewelyn Davies in 1929. After the Introduction is completed, she writes to Davies that she agrees with her that she "made too much of the literary side of. . . [her] interest" in it. But she defends this as "partly habit through writing reviews for so many years" (VW/MLD Feb.1, 1931). Woolf notes that she did try to change the tone of some of the sentences "to suggest a more human outlook."

Her descriptions repeatedly associate these women with solid or mechanized objects, often with admiration and humor; at other times, irony, and, occasionally, condescension. The perspectives are subtle and shifting, not mired in the stasis of a class-bound position, as some Woolf




critics assert. Her vocabulary is "rooted," and these women are metaphorically bound to concrete things. She is fascinated by the hardiness and the vigor of their bodies. "They touched nothing lightly," says Woolf, rooted as they were "to one spot," and "their very names were like stones of the field" (xxii). Their talk, she says, was of "matters of fact. . . . They want baths. They want money" (xxv). She compares the material things that these women desire to the daughter of an educated man, not concerned with acquisitiveness:

To expect us, whose minds, such as they are, fly free at the end of a short length of capital to tie ourselves down again to that narrow plot of acquisitiveness and desire is impossible. (xxv)

She flies "free," supported by her capital; the working-class women is attached to the "narrow plot" of material things. If the working-class women traveled, it was "with food in string bags and babies in their arms" (xxi). Next to this description, Woolf sketches a woman of her own class who might "stroll through the house" directing a servant: "that cover must go to the wash, or those sheets need changing" (xxii). The middle-class woman doesn’t "do" things; she supervises others while "her mind flies free." Woolf is admiring and somewhat uneasy because the working-class women touch things: "They plunged their arms in hot water and scrubbed the clothes themselves. In consequence their bodies were thick-set and muscular" (xxii).

Ladies in evening dress might be "lovelier," but their bodies lacked the "sculpturesque" beauty of these women. There is an appeal for Woolf in her sometimes vulnerable states in their sturdy bodies and psyches.

These women who created the collection of memories and letters, Life as We Have Known It, were writers who "held their pens like brooms." Such images contrast with the writing women of Elvedon in The Waves who effortlessly write while men sweep. Or her image of a girl sitting with pen in hand in "Professions for Women" where she summons

the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. (Death of Moth 240)

This distinction between her use of solid objects and things to describe the emergent writing of working-class women, and the "subjective" flickering, dancing vocabulary for the middle-class woman contains both an ideology and prejudice about class. It also implies different ways of being and knowing. The things, the cultural signs,




therefore, through which she creates the subjectivity of these women are brooms, mouthwash, stones, machines. Their words, not surprisingly, are "handled" or "manipulated." They are weighed down by the "world’s grievances" or want things to "grasp": her vocabulary is metaphorically weighted as in the tradition of material production and labor.

But, importantly, at the same time that she uses historically-bound categories, Woolf is transforming them in metaphorically applying the terms to writing or potential art. She is transforming social perception. She is deconstructing the binaries of the working-class and the middle-class, lines clearly drawn in English society, by acknowledging and re-defining the work of these working class women as aesthetic and intellectual. And when she mines these sentiments in A Room of One’s Own, she observes "that genius. . . is not born today among the working classes" (Roo 50); material circumstances, she argues, have been against its development. Though this view is sometimes misinterpreted as Woolf’s prejudice against the working class, it is actually a strategy to draw attention to the material needs of the working-class writer if she is to write fiction, "a feat of prodigious difficulty" (ROO 53).

But Woolf is not confident about writing this Introductory essay. She writes to Margaret Llewelyn Davies about her fears that the working women might think that she is writing about something that is none of her business, that she is butting in. She expresses, I think, the feelings of the middle class at the time, and, to her credit, resists writing about what she does not know. She refuses to appropriate working-class women’s ideas and sentiments, a contested issue in the area of Women’s Studies scholarship today. She does not take the fatuous path to feminism or class that denies "difference." She acknowledges "the contradictory and complex feelings which beset the middle-class visitor when forced to sit out a Congress of working women in silence" (Life xxic). In acknowledging her feelings of irony about "silence"—Woolf, after all, had already written a major work about women, material life and art, A Room of One’s Own—she does not, as Landry contends, "suppress" differences of class. Woolf must listen to speakers mimicking the mincing manners of the middle-class woman, and she, naturally, has uneasy and complex feelings. She acknowledges them and attempts, nevertheless, to mediate and represent the working-class women at the conference. Davies welcomes this, and assures her in a letter that Mrs. Barton, the secretary, approves of what she has written. Woolf, after all, at this point in her career, was a respected author and drew attention to Davies’ cause and the lives and representation of women in literature.




About other things, Woolf is confident. She is amused by some of the responses of the women to her essay. She reveals to Margaret Llewelyn Davies that she is not romantic about working-class women when she criticizes contemporary cliches about them, and, she refuses to diminish the work of other women, painters and writers. In her essay she states that she does not want to slip easily into fine phrases about "contact with life," about "facing facts" and "the teaching of experience," for they invariably alienate the hearer, and moreover no working man or woman works harder or is in closer touch with reality than a painter with his brush or a writer with his pen. (xxvii)

And in her letters, she criticizes their "conservatism," indicating that she does not understand why the women attached such importance to her description of them as weighing 12 stone. It is largely because "they scrub so hard and have so many children" that they weigh this, she asserts. "Vanity. . . seems to be the same in all classes. Somewhat disingenuously, Woolf suggests that they turn the tables, and let Mrs. Barton say what she thinks of my appearance and "I won’t think her unsympathetic. Indeed I wish she wouldwhat fun to hand her a pocketful of letters and let her introduce it." Here Woolf ignores the differential issues of status, knowledge and power of which Foucault reminds us in The Order of Things. Who observes and writes about whom is a matter of power relations. But what mainly unnerves Woolf about the women is their "terrific conventionality." It is why she writes to Davies:

If you want an explanation—I don’t think they will be poets or writers for another hundred years or so. If they can’t face that Lillian smokes a pipe and reads detective novels and can’t be told that they weigh in the average 10 stone. . . and are shocked by the word, ‘impure,’ how can you say they face ‘reality.’

Similary, Mary Carmichael, "an unknown girl writing her first novel" in a bedsit without enough money, time and idleness is given a hundred years to place her book on the shelf (ROO 98).

Yet she admires the working-class women as they possess something, she asserts, that ladies lack: "desirable. . . stimulating. . . yet very difficult to define." It is a quality, she says, that Shakespeare would. . . have enjoyed, escaping, as he might, from educated salons to Mrs. Robson’s back kitchen. So, far from being downtrodden, Woolf finds these women "humorous and vigorous and thoroughly independent" (LKI xxvii). For what always catches Woolf’s interest is the writing of women. The emergence of the working-class women’s voice is what she hears at the




Newcastle Conference and then reads later in their writings, The Maternity Letters, letters collected by Davies about childbirth, and Life as We Have Known It, about the working conditions in factories. It is this literary voice that mainly interests Woolf as a writer: she wants to see the working-class women come into being in literature.

Woolf wonders "how many words must lurk in those women’s vocabularies that have faded from ours" (LWKI xxvii) because of their vital connection with things, running full tilt into life. These women who "held their pens like brooms" would bring a new kind of writing into being, says Woolf. Never resting simply with honoring art, she deals with the material conditions out of which it would come. These writings then reveal to her that something new in it is about to "break through and melt us together." Life, she says, "will be richer and more complex—when we’re dead" (LWKI xxviii). She is touched by the packet of papers, the letters, the fragments of lives recorded by the women of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, describing their lives at home, their reading, their conditions in the factories. They "have some qualities even as literature that the elite and instructed might envy" (xxxviii), says Woolf, echoing the views of contemporary theorists like Gerard Genette who have expanded our notions of text and what is literature. She would refer to this quality as "freedom" from the tea-table talk of the middle-class daughter, the freedom to tell the "truth."

She compares her body to the bodies and imaginations of these women: "the imagination is largely the child of the flesh. . . one could not be Mrs. Giles of Durham because one’s body had never stood at the washtub." Mrs. Giles does not have the body of Rhoda "who steps through white loops into emptiness alone" (TW 22), a mind-body state with which Woolf may have identified. Woolf was in a particularly fragile physical and psychological state at the time she first observed these women in 1913, but even when ill in 1914, Woolf read and critiqued Leonard’s Cooperative Manuals. In September of 1913, she attempted suicide through an overdose of veronal, during a period of anorexia and depression when she was sent away to be nursed to health (August-December 1913). These mind-body perceptions were undoubtedly incorporated into her 1913 impressions and 1930 introduction, which reflect upon the hardiness and the vigor of the bodies of these women who touched "things."

Similarly Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, in To the Lighthouse, is associated with solid objects. She is described as "tearing the veil of silence" in the Ramsay summer home, uninhabited for ten years. Using the same syntax that she used for the working women at the Newcastle conference, Woolf writes that Mrs. McNab tore the veil "with hands that




had stood in the wash-tub, grinding it with boots that had crunched the shingle, came as directed to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms" (196). McNab lurches drunkenly "for she rolled like a ship at sea" dusting, wiping. The ominous sounds in the house were like "the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, which, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl and cracked the tea cups" (200). But she is "bowed" and in her snatches of music hall song are witless, suggesting strains of a happier time of youth. Her drunken song and cleaning rhythms remind one of the battered woman in Regents Park Tube station spouting "ee um fah um so" in Mrs. Dalloway. The fictional descriptions of tipsy Mrs. McNab and the witless woman in Mrs.Dalloway are unmoored from words but present a semiotics of the body. Like the working class that was rising in England, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, her co-worker, are as yet an inarticulate "force." In contrast, Woolf uses metaphors of labor for the women of the Women’s Cooperative Guild who spoke and wrote words connected to their bodies.

 In her Letter to a Young Poet (1931), Woolf invokes the charwoman Mrs. Gape, as a working-class muse for the young poet straining to make contact with the actualities of "life" in his poetry. "The poet is trying to include Mrs. Gape" (222). Shocked by the "reality," the angularity, the sharpness of Mrs. Gape, he strains to include an emotion "that is not domesticated." Noting, like Derrida, that there can be "death by coherence," Woolf warns the young poet that "often literature had died in this country" and that its death came "gracefully, smoothly, quietly" (227). Although his new "poem is cracked in the middle" (222), though the poet feels a "jar, " a shock" as he encounters some "hard and hostile object," a cultural unfamiliarity with things associated with the working class, Woolf urges inclusion of Mrs. Gape, buses, sparrows "whatever comes along in the street" in poetry. Similarly, in a footnote to Three Guineas, Woolf would ask why there were no lives of maids in The Dictionary of National Biography. For when "human relations" change, as she illustrates in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," there is also a change in conduct, politics and literature. She expresses this change through the character of the Georgian cook who will emerge like "a leviathan" from the basement into the drawing room. There is anxiety and irony in the presentation of this new social force as primitive or barbaric—the maid’s new social position is "monstrous"—but also an acknowledgment that this force will civilize England’s conduct.

Is Woolf expressing in the representation of these emerging working-class characters, the anxiety or the "non-productivity" of the leisure class that Douglas Mao discusses? Hardly. Though Woolf had inherited money




from her Aunt Caroline, she and Leonard were not "leisured" or "non-productive." Throughout her diary entries and letters of 1914, Virginia worried about the money that she would earn from reviews; Leonard struggled to find work with various organizations, writing lectures and reports for the Women’s Cooperative Guild and the Fabians. Daily, they labored through writing and speaking to confront European society with its uncivilized behavior toward the poor, factory women, homosexuals, Jews. . . . Perhaps hers is the anxiety of a writer who sees that women of the working-class—the factory women, the housekeepers, the governesses, and the cooks—will one day have the material conditions to talk about and produce art as she projects in A Room of One’s Own. Perhaps she felt that the interests of women, middle-class and working-class, would be submerged in the growing social interest in the proletariat in England in the 1930’s. It is interesting to note the political demise of the Women’s Cooperative Guild and female leaders in the late 1920’s as the male-led Labor Party came into being and asserted the divisiveness of gendered labor issues in the rise of this new proletarian party.

What always catches Woolf’s interest, however, is the writing of women. Yet her literary and aesthetic perceptions always rest upon a material base defying the contraries of politics and art often set up in Woolf criticism. When she reads The Maternity Letters in which working-class women describe their childbirth experiences in order to support the Guild’s claims that childbirth benefits should be awarded to women and not their husbands, she is struck by the vividness of their experiences and writing. She writes to Margaret Llewelyn Davies "Do publish these letters. I wish they could all be in full" (VW/MLD Dec.9, 1914). . . . I do hope they will be printed with lots of photographs. They are so amazing" (VW/MLD Feb.22, 1915). She even asks "But my dear Margaret, what’s the use of my writing novels? You’ve got the whole thing at your finger’s ends—it will not be boredom that alienates my affections" (Aug 31, 1915). In her expression of admiration for the letters and memoirs, Woolf introduces the very contemporary question of the interest and tensions between fiction and memoir. After writing the introduction to Life as We Have Known It, an essay for which she had been paid by the Yale Review which also printed a version of it in 1930, Woolf urged Davies to use her royalties for the Guild. "I should only feel," says Woolf, "that I was paying my due for the immense interest these letters gave me" (VW/MLD Feb.1, 1931).

 In Three Guineas, Woolf would again write admiringly of working-class women. She laments in this polemic that neither the pressure of force or money of the men in her own class can stop wars. "If all the daughters of educated men were to down tools tomorrow, nothing




essential either to the life or to the war-making of the community would be embarrassed. Our class is the weakest of all the classes in the state. We have no weapon with which to enforce our will" (16). But the working-class women of the country, productive citizens, could have a direct influence on the progress of a war. Announcing the weakness of her own class in opposition to the working women of the country, she again associates the working women with concrete actions and things. "If you go to war," say the working women, "we will refuse to make munitions or to help in the production of goods, the difficulty of war-making would be seriously increased" (16). If things, munitions, were not produced, the war would end, says Woolf.

She would urge that the characters, Mrs. Gape, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, and the writings of the women of the Women’s Cooperative Guild be included in literature, yet Woolf herself would not yet know them well enough to create convincing characters. As this essay illustrates, these women were still opaque to Woolf and in English literature. Their lives, some of which she perceived as enlightened, were "still half-hidden in profound obscurity" (LWKI xxxviii), and their selves, consequently, submerged in her letters and essays and novels. Perhaps she shared Leonard’s view that "nobody has any real knowledge of life of those who do not belong to his own class" (328-329). In her writing, however, she presents things, mute objects that represent the site of working women’s subjectivities, lives and rooms. It would take another half a century for these women to speak in English and American literature.



Works Cited:


Bowlby, Rachel. Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf. Edinburgh:  Edinburgh UP, 1997.

Childers, Mary. "Virginia Woolf on the Outside Looking Down: Reflections on the Class of Women." Modern Fiction Studies 38:1 (Spring 1992) 61-80.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Landry, Donna. "Congreve Recovered: or, the Limits of Woolf’s Feminism." Michigan Academician 17 (1985) 58-69.

Mao, Douglas. Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Woolf, Leonard. Cooperation and the Future of Industry. London: Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1919.




---. New Statesman (June 21, 1913), 328-329.

Woolf, Virginia. "A Letter to a Young Poet," The Hogarth Letters. London: Chatto & Windus, 211-236.

---. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Eds. Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann. Vol.1, 1888-1912. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

---. The Letters of Virginia Woolf to Margaret Llewelyn Davies. Ms. Monk’s House Papers. Sussex University.

---. Life as We Have Known It, by Cooperative Working Women. Introduction. 1931. London & New York: Norton, 1975.

---. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1925.

---. "A Report on Teaching at Morley College," MHPA22, Monk’s House Papers, Sussex University.

---. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.

---. "Solid Objects," Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985, 96-101.

---. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938.

---. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927.


(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)