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Selected Essays  

Virginia woolf  and david bradshaw.

According to Virginia Woolf, the goal of the essay ‘is simply that it should give pleasure…It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.’ One of the best practitioners of the art she analysed so rewardingly, Woolf displayed her essay-writing skills across a wide range of subjects, with all the craftsmanship, substance, and rich allure of her novels. This selection brings together thirty of her best essays, including the famous ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, a clarion call for modern fiction. She discusses the arts of writing and of reading, and the particular role and reputation of women writers. She writes movingly about her father and the art of biography, and of the London scene in the early decades of the twentieth century. Overall, these pieces are as indispensable to an understanding of this great writer as they are enchanting in their own right.

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Virginia Woolf, author

David Bradshaw, editor

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  • Oxford World’s Classics: Selected Essays
  • Biographical Preface
  • Introduction
  • Note on the Text
  • Select Bibliography
  • A Chronology of Virginia Woolf
  • The Decay of Essay-Writing Virginia Woolf
  • Modern Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • The Modern Essay Virginia Woolf
  • How it Strikes a Contemporary Virginia Woolf
  • Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown Virginia Woolf
  • Character in Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • ‘Impassioned Prose’ Virginia Woolf
  • How Should one Read a Book? Virginia Woolf
  • Poetry, Fiction and the Future Virginia Woolf
  • Craftsmanship Virginia Woolf
  • The New Biography Virginia Woolf
  • On Being Ill Virginia Woolf
  • Leslie Stephen Virginia Woolf
  • The Art of Biography Virginia Woolf
  • The Feminine Note in Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • Women Novelists Virginia Woolf
  • Women and Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • Professions for Women Virginia Woolf
  • Memories of a Working Women’s Guild Virginia Woolf
  • Why? Virginia Woolf
  • Thunder at Wembley Virginia Woolf
  • The Cinema Virginia Woolf
  • Street Haunting: A London Adventure Virginia Woolf
  • The Sun and the Fish Virginia Woolf
  • The Docks of London Virginia Woolf
  • Oxford Street Tide Virginia Woolf
  • Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car Virginia Woolf
  • Flying Over London Virginia Woolf
  • Why Art Today Follows Politics Virginia Woolf
  • Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid Virginia Woolf
  • Explanatory Notes
  • Oxford University Press

date: 23 May 2024

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The Oxford Handbook of Virginia Woolf

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18 The Essays

Beth C. Rosenberg is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers (1995) and co-editor of Virginia Woolf and the Essay (1997). She is currently working on a comparative study of Virginia Woolf and Elena Ferrante.

  • Published: 11 August 2021
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Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. As a student of the essay and its history, she studied the form from Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm and through their work she learned to make the essay her own, reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.

Virginia Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. Her topics range from the home of Thomas Carlyle in ‘Great Men’s Houses’ (1932) to aerial battles in ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’ (1940) to the nature of sickness in ‘On Being Ill’ (1926). She documents seemingly trivial events, like a moth’s struggle to escape a window frame in ‘The Death of the Moth’ (1942) or a walk to a stationer’s store in ‘Street Haunting’ (1927). Her memoirs ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939) and ‘Am I a Snob?’ (1936) are highly personal narrative essays. She theorizes the nature of fiction in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923) and ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925). She writes the biographical essays in ‘Lives of the Obscure’ and essays on women writers who were unstudied in Woolf’s time, such as ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ and ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’, as well as women writers she revered like ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘George Eliot’. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form and history, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice that is created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.

As a student of the essay and its history, Woolf studied the form from the only models available to her, and these were almost exclusively male. Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm are among her greatest models—and through their work she learns to make the essay her own, turning from the masculine tradition that she was trained in and reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s theory of the essay, what it should say and do, includes an emphasis on voice and personality, a conversational tone, and a style that is clear yet visual and aesthetic. Ultimately, she breaks from her predecessors by expanding nineteenth-century aestheticism to include tropes of emotion—anger, love, and enthusiasm, among others—that are commonly associated with women. Rather than weaken her rhetoric, the use of emotion empowers it, making her prose appeal to a visceral and bodily knowledge in the reader.

Woolf’s essays do not deploy the detached critical tone or a sense of absolute authority that her friend T.S. Eliot affected. Compared to her contemporaries, Woolf’s essays were considered impressionistic and antiquarian. Her casual conversational tone, where the reader is her peer, and her subjective responses to art and life were misunderstood and dismissed. She strove for a personal voice that the common reader understands. She refers to the soul, the inner self, but it is really the psychological and aesthetic self that she describes; Woolf’s inner self is defined by her gender and, through style and voice, she presents a female experience. She also uses fictional techniques, creating story out of her subject, to engage the reader and stimulate both the imagination and emotions. Her form of argumentation is based on an intuitive logic, where she emphasizes affective responses to cultural and economic conditions. This mode of writing, for Woolf, is the antidote to the masculine essay of reason, logic, and ego, flaws she found even in the male essayists she adored.

Woolf’s earliest exposure to the essay was through her father, Leslie Stephen. Stephen, an influential essayist and biographer in his own right, introduced the idea of the essay as an integral part of literary history. Not only did he write full-length biographies of figures such as Samuel Johnson and George Eliot, but he published essays on literature, history, biography, and agnosticism. Woolf was intimately familiar with his Hours in a Library (1874–1879), An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays (1893), Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902), and his contributions as editor to The Dictionary of National Biography (1882–1891). Through Stephen, Woolf was introduced to the notion of literary history, which is not only a guiding principle of many of her essays but essential to her use and critique of the essay form.

Woolf began her essay-writing career as a book reviewer. 1 While she published reviews as early as 1904, and while, from the start, she strove to do more than simply assess a book but to put it in a larger context and develop her point of view as a critic, she always had the essay and its form in mind. Some of her early works, such as ‘Haworth, November, 1904’ (1904), ‘Journeys in Spain’ (1904), and ‘A Walk by Night’ (1905), take the tone of her later more personal and occasional essays. The style of the book reviews is more conventional, limited to space, topic, and an editor’s hand. The essays, on the other hand, have a clear and definitive voice, point of view, and personality, and they engage with the reader in a more affective and sensory way. Her apprenticeship in essay writing taught Woolf to use greater aesthetic and visual language to make abstract ideas and experiences concrete; she also develops and refines the novelist’s sense of story and character in her non-fiction. It is in the essays too that she follows her attraction to nineteenth-century aestheticism, which she learns from Pater and Hazlitt, and where she vividly articulates the rhetoric of emotional response to and in non-fiction.

Woolf revised and collected some of her reviews and published them as collections of essays, The Common Readers , first series (1925) and second series (1932). Anne Fernald notes the ‘difficulty in comprehending this impressive collection as a whole’, arguing that the essays are organized according to a voice and point of view that belong to ‘a kind of every person, a blank common reader’ and yet Woolf ‘slips in’ women writers and unknown female histories. 2 Future work on Woolf’s self-edited collections will help us to understand her as an essay writer with agency and purpose, one who makes her own aesthetic and structural choices, not the passive, imitative subject of a male-dominated literary history.

Early critics such as Winifred Holtby and Ruth Gruber recognized the significance of Woolf’s essays. 3 Leonard Woolf would later collect the essays in four volumes and publish them between 1966 and 1967. 4 Leonard’s Collected Essays , as Andrew McNeillie points out, was a kind of extended Common Reader , 5 without annotations or even notes on date and place of first publication. However, in 1989 McNeillie began to edit a six-volume series of collected essays, including footnotes and appendixes. It took over twenty years for the collection to be completed, with Stuart N. Clarke editing the last two volumes. 6

The 1970s and 1980s focused more on Woolf’s feminism, politics, and novels. 7 None address Woolf’s use of the essay to create literary history, let alone a specifically female history. Woolf began to articulate her theories of the essay long before she wrote her own. Her focus, throughout her essay-writing career, was on voice and the speaking ‘I’. She rejected what she calls the ‘egotistical’ I of her contemporaries to argue for a more authentic personality that could communicate her experience to her audience, whether that experience was aesthetic, personal, or in the world. Woolf believed that essays should deal with truth, not fact, reflect the movement and change of our being, be passionate and emotional, have a ‘fierce attachment to an idea’ ( E 4 224), and, ultimately, give pleasure to their readers. In the 1920s, she not only refined her first-person voice but brought a more self-consciously gendered perspective, first by writing about women and their unknown histories, and then by finding the means to create a uniquely feminine subjective voice and rhetorical style.

The female voices and styles she creates in ‘Street Haunting’ and ‘The Death of the Moth’, for example, illustrate her innovative approach to the essay. Both essays are ostensibly about small, trivial subjects and use first person to suggest an intimacy with the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Though the underlying themes about death and the nature of the self are abstract, the language she uses in both essays is concrete and specific. The power of a moth that struggles against death is compared to the human struggle: ‘One could watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death’ ( E 6 444). Woolf is concerned with the metaphysical, and her use of first person brings a personal tone often associated with the feminine. A walk to buy a pencil can allow us to ‘leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men’ ( E 4 490–1). Here the narrator talks of empathy for ‘those wild beasts, our fellow men’, also a traditionally female emotion. Metaphor and connotation, diction, the appeal to the reader’s senses to see, hear, and feel what she is describing, allow her style to become highly aesthetic as it persuades on intuitive and emotional levels through the colour of her prose.

To write her own feminine and feminized version of the essay, Woolf culled from her male predecessors techniques that they themselves did not identify as ‘feminine’. From Pater, Beerbohm, Montaigne, and Hazlitt, she learns techniques that bring a confidential trust between the author and her reader: a voice that reflects the personality of the author, the desire to create pleasure for the reader with a conversational and accessible tone, movement of thought, artful, sensuous, and emotional language, and the use of a painter’s visual imagery. Though she gives the most detailed attention to male essayists, she is aware of her own historical position. Woolf applies the lessons she learns to many essays about individual woman writers and the obscure women who made writing possible for men, including ‘Lives of the Obscure’, ‘The Duchess of Newcastle’, and ‘Outlines’ in The Common Reader , but it is not until A Room of One’s Own that she confronts the problems of writing as a woman about women through a distinctly female rhetoric where emotion and affect become modes of persuasion.

Woolf’s more detailed thoughts on the essay’s power to move its readers are sketched out in ‘The Modern Essay’, written in 1922 for the Times Literary Supplement ( TLS ), which covers fifty years of essay writing, is historical and chronological in structure, and theoretically frames Woolf’s ideas about how ‘certain principles appear to control the chaos’ ( E 4 216) of the essay’s form. In this essay she writes of two Victorian essayists, Pater and Beerbohm, whom she greatly admires. She spends a considerable amount of space defining the history and nature of the essayist’s audience. According to Woolf, the most significant change in audience came at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Victorian reader changed to a modern one. The change ‘came from a small audience of cultivated people to a larger audience of people who were not quite so cultivated’ ( E 4 220). The modern ‘public needs essays as much as ever … The demand for the light middle not exceeding fifteen hundred words, or in special cases seventeen hundred and fifty, much exceeds the supply’ ( E 4 222). The ‘light middle’ brow reader wants to read but hasn’t the time to wade through a beautifully wrought essay of more than fifteen hundred words. Woolf states that to ‘write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad’ ( E 4 223). The challenge for the modern essayist is how to bring pleasure to a reader preoccupied by modern life while revealing the true personality of the writer.

The guiding principle of the essay is that it should ‘give pleasure’, and everything in the essay ‘must be subdued to that end’. A good essay will ‘lay us under a spell with its first word’ and in ‘the interval we may pass through the most various experiences’. It must ‘lap us about and draw its curtain across the world’. This is seldom accomplished by the essayist, Woolf claims, though the reader is partially to blame: ‘Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate’. To produce pleasure in the reader, the essayist must know ‘how to write’. This is not just a matter of reproducing knowledge on a page, but an essay ‘must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture’ ( E 4 216). Though the essay’s purpose is to reproduce knowledge, pleasure is derived from the writer’s ability to communicate knowledge while nothing blatant, explicit, or jarring appears on the writing’s surface.

The knowledge communicated is ‘some fierce attachment to an idea. It is on the back of an idea, something believed in with conviction or seen with precision and thus compelling words to shape it’. The good essay ‘must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out’ ( E 4 224). The way the essay does this is to let the personality of the writer come through and embrace the reader, an act seemingly so easy but difficult to achieve. How does an essay achieve its ‘permanent quality’? It is through concrete and visual language, according to Woolf, that the essayist can provoke an affective response from her reader. No phrase is wasted, no word is lost. Her study of the essay’s history, and her attention to her male precursors, taught her how to use language to move her reader’s emotions.

The first writer who taught Woolf how to appeal to affect is Walter Pater, and her response to him defines a style she tries to achieve in her own essays. Perry Meisel’s study on Woolf and Pater establishes Pater’s influence on Woolf by way of Pater’s aestheticism. He traces Pater’s figurative language, particularly the image of the ‘hard gemlike flame’ of aesthetic experience, in Woolf’s novels. 8 Her notion of the ‘moment’, Meisel argues, is Pater’s influence. 9 Woolf also learned from Pater the power of nineteenth-century aestheticism, its use of colourful rhetoric as well as its focus on the reader’s visceral and bodily experience of language. Woolf borrowed from Pater techniques that make her prose appeal to our senses—taste, sight, sound, touch—to give something other than a concrete fact. It is through our bodies’ senses that Woolf communicates to us. If our senses help to define our experience, then the emphasis of emotions, too, are expressions of our physical bodies and part of the vocabulary of aestheticism.

Woolf describes Pater’s aestheticism and how he uses it in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci:

[H]e has somehow contrived to get his material fused. He is a learned man, but it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision. … Only here, in the essay, where the bounds are so strict and facts have to be used in their nakedness, the true writer like Walter Pater makes the limitations yield their own quality. Truth will give it authority; from its narrow limits he will get shape and intensity. ( E 4 218)

Even within the conventions of the essay, which limits Pater to ‘facts’, he is able to give these facts their own quality that Woolf names ‘vision’ and ‘truth’. These abstract qualities—not objective facts—are what the essay writer must strive for. Even as Woolf moves through the history of the essay into the twentieth century, she demands these qualities and ultimately passes harsh judgement on the essay writer who can’t achieve them.

Woolf goes on to quote images from Pater’s work, like ‘ “the smiling women and the motion of the great waters” ’, as examples of how Pater’s concrete language appeals to our senses and emotions; his writing reminds us ‘that we have ears and we have eyes’. Pater’s style is one where ‘every atom of its surface shines’ ( E 4 218), a style Woolf finds grounded in the physical world and is also found in her own intensely visual style, her use of metaphor and connotation, and her desire to give the reader a visceral, bodily experience of language. If Pater has flaws for Woolf, it is his insistence on detachment and objectivity in his tone and his inability to write as himself, to use the human, individual voice to speak to his audience.

Unlike Pater, Woolf’s essays distinguish themselves by their constant intimate tone, loaning itself to a more feminine point of view. Her use of first person, singular and plural, is deliberate. It is a rhetoric that appeals to affect and emotion, the visceral response that moves the reader along a train of thought. She learns this from Beerbohm who, unlike Pater, is an essayist who cultivates a speaking voice in his essays. Woolf writes that in Beerbohm’s essays readers of the 1890s found themselves ‘addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves’. Beerbohm uses the ‘essayist’s most proper but most dangerous delicate tool’ by bringing ‘personality into literature’. He does so ‘consciously and purely’ ( E 4 220). We know that the ‘spirit of personality permeates every word he writes’. It is only ‘by knowing how to write that [Beerbohm] can make use in literature of [the] self; the self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous opponent’. There are many essayists who show ‘trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print’, though Beerbohm ‘possessed to perfection’ the art necessary to bring personality to the essay ( E 4 221). Although the use of first person, especially to write about experience, is typically understood as the feminine mode of writing, Woolf learns from Beerbohm how to bring personality and voice to her writing. Her use of a personal voice is most obvious, for example, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), where she speaks in first person to pull her reader into her experience of observation on the train. In this essay she also brings to our attention the imaginative impulse that goes into creating a personality, as she does with the character of Mrs Brown, whose personality is so clearly defined that it resonates in the mind long after we have finished reading.

Woolf continued to develop her narrative voice and personality studying other essayists. Two years after publishing ‘The Modern Essay’ Woolf published ‘Montaigne’, which was first a review of Essays of Montaigne for the TLS in 1924 and later published in The Common Reader . She explains the vitality of voice in Montaigne’s essays. We ‘never doubt for an instant that his book was himself’ ( E 4 72). He brings art to ‘this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfections’ ( E 4 71). The revelation of the self, to ‘tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand’ through language is ‘not easy’ ( E 4 71). Montaigne teaches Woolf that the essayist does not condescend or tell others how to live their lives, but rather traces the flexibility of identity and its ability to reflect self-consciousness in the narrative.

When Woolf writes of Montaigne’s determination to represent his ‘soul’, she is referring to his subjective self, his personality, his voice. This inner self is ‘the strangest of creatures … so complex, so indefinite’ that a man might spend his life trying to discover her ( E 4 74). Yet there is the ‘pleasure of pursuit’ of the self. Montaigne can say nothing of ‘other people’s souls’ since he can ‘say nothing … about his own’ ( E 4 74). Woolf learns from Montaigne how to focus on her personality, her own truth and perception of the world and experience; it is the art of presenting a unique self through the writer’s voice that Woolf practices throughout her essay-writing career.

Montaigne’s essays are then an ‘attempt to communicate a soul’ for ‘Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness’ ( E 4 76). A version of this assertion will reappear in Mrs Dalloway (1925), when Septimus contemplates suicide and his message for the world in Regents Park ( MD 75). The ability to communicate the self is healthy, truthful, and brings contentment. But real communication is difficult. The successful essayist can share her thoughts, ‘to go down boldly’ into the self and ‘bring to light those hidden thoughts which are most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing’, to tell her own truth and therefore connect with others ( E 4 76). The essayist’s most authentic communications reveal what is most difficult for the reader to acknowledge—dark thoughts that potentially tell us things about ourselves we don’t want to be aware of. We are all ‘ordinary men and women’ in Montaigne’s essays ( E 4 77). Montaigne shows Woolf how to look deeply into her own responses and feelings, to communicate those to her readers without demanding that they follow her.

For Woolf, William Hazlitt brings together voice and style, and he models for her how to make her language visual and engaging. His essays are written with the language of a visual artist and stylist. It is Hazlitt’s self-consciousness as he writes that Woolf feels is his greatest contribution to the essay form. In her essay ‘William Hazlitt’, a revised TLS review that was republished in The Common Reader: Second Series , she introduces Hazlitt’s essays favourably: ‘His essays are emphatically himself. He has not reticence and he has no shame. He tells us exactly what he thinks’ ( E 5 494). He also tells us ‘exactly what he feels’ ( E 5 494) and has ‘the most intense consciousness of his own experience’ ( E 5 494).

In addition to Hazlitt the thinker there is ‘Hazlitt the artist’. This man is ‘sensuous and emotional, with his feeling for colour and touch … with his sensibility to all those emotions which disturb the reason’ ( E 5 498). As she did with Pater, Woolf comments on the aesthetic qualities of Hazlitt’s essays. She calls attention to the sensuality and emotionality of his language, his ‘feeling for the colour’ of language, and how his ‘sensibility’ is open to all ‘emotions’ that overcome reason ( E 5 499). Hazlitt’s inner conflict is reflected in his style as he vacillates between thinker and artist. In his essays, we sense the movement of his thought: ‘[H]ow violently we are switched from reason to rhapsody—how embarrassingly our austere thinker falls upon our shoulders and demands our sympathy’ ( E 5 499). It is this movement of tone and mood, from logic to emotion, which Woolf admires.

It is Hazlitt’s visual language that Woolf attempts to imitate. Hazlitt has the ‘great gift of picturesque phrasing’ that allows him to “float … over a stretch of shallow thought’ ( E 5 500). He has the ‘freest use of imagery and colour’ and the ‘painter’s imagery’ that keeps his reader engaged. And though there are weaknesses in his essays—they can be ‘dry, garish … monotonous’—each essay has ‘its stress of thought, its thrust of insight, its moment of penetration’. His aim is to ‘communicate his own fervour’, and according to Woolf he succeeds ( E 5 501). Hazlitt’s ability to articulate his ideas through his visual language, to pursue his ideas in the finest detail, allow ‘the parts of his complex and tortured spirit [to] come together in a truce of amity and concord’ ( E 5 502). In the end, there ‘is then no division, no discord, no bitterness’. Hazlitt’s ‘faculties work in harmony and unity’. His sentences are constructed with determination and energy: ‘Sentence follows sentence with the healthy ring and chime of a blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil’. His ‘words glow and the sparks fly; gently they fade and the essay is over’ ( E 5 503). Hazlitt is a craftsman who cobbles his words together with such expertise that they explode with energy. He brings passion to his essays through his imagery, figurative language, and consistency of style. The tension between the thinker and artist is refined and unified with his prose. These qualities become useful for Woolf’s essays and her feminist rhetoric.

Woolf adapts the essay form to express a woman’s experience, sometimes her own, sometimes others’, in literature, education, marriage, and the domestic sphere. From her male precursors and teachers she borrows their more ‘feminine’ and unconventional techniques of style and rhetoric. The freedom to use an individual voice and personality, to show thoughts moving and changing, to communicate a truth that is not a fact, to use language visually and sensually to appeal to our visceral senses are the lessons she learned. These things are used most forcefully in A Room of One’s Own , which on the one hand is a personal essay that utilizes first person, and other hand is a treatise, a call for a collective history of women in culture, meant to appeal to a woman’s sensibility and experience. She not only lists a range of writers who might be considered part of her great tradition of women’s writing—Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, among others—but she analyses the historic and socioeconomic conditions of women in society. Woolf introduces specific themes, such as female friendship and love, women’s education, the desire to write, and the inability to do so, financial, social, and economic barriers the female artist must confront. These themes have been well discussed by feminist and modernist literary scholars from the time of its publication to the present. In addition to the critical issues that confront women writers, Woolf addresses other innovative and provocative qualities in this long and experimental essay. It is Woolf’s reinvention of the essay form that really reflects her genius and ingenuity. Unlike male essayists before her, she brings gender to her understanding of form, and she goes beyond their influences by adding to and amplifying the rhetoric of affect and emotions.

Written in 1929, A Room of One’s Own challenges our understanding of the personal essay with its mixture of non-fiction and fiction. 10 From the first paragraphs, Woolf undermines our assumptions about the narrator in her essay. Based on a series of lectures Woolf gave in 1928 at Newnham and Girton, the essay immediately calls into question the authority of the speaker: ‘ “I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has not real being’ ( ARO 4). It contains a full-voiced narrative persona whose thought represents the movement of an active and lively mind in direct conversation with her audience.

The accessibility of the speaker is found in her playful tone: ‘But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?’ ( ARO 3). The first sentence is an equivocation, an uncertainty, a small rebellion. We know from the start that Woolf does not plan to make us secure in her meaning. Her narrative wanders like the river she sits by to contemplate her subject. The narrator alludes to Montaigne’s tenet that truth and fact are not the same things. She will not be able to tell her audience the ‘truth’ about women and fiction; nor will she be able to hand them ‘after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks’ ( ARO 3). This is because ‘fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact’, and she proposes ‘making use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist’ to tell the ‘story’ of the two days that preceded her lecture ( ARO 4).

She tells us that hers is an ‘opinion upon one minor point’, an idea she is fiercely attached and loyal to throughout the essay, ‘that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ ( ARO 3). Like Hazlitt, she will develop in our presence (if we as readers should consider ourselves part of her audience) ‘as fully and freely’ as she can ‘the train of thought that led [her] to think this’ ( ARO 4). At this point she undermines any confidence the reader might have that Woolf is the narrator or that the speaking ‘I’ is identified with the author. The ‘I’ in A Room of One’s Own becomes a fictional construct, one meant to engage and entertain the reader. In fact, ‘lies will flow’ from her lips, though ‘there may be some truth mixed up with them’ ( ARO 4). It is her audience’s responsibility to ‘seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping’ ( ARO 4). Here the influence of her predecessors is clear—the essay is meant to address truth, reflect a mind in process, and contain a clear speaking voice (even if the ‘I’ of the narrative is fictional).

She begins to narrate the extended argument A Room of One’s Own will make about the importance of a female literary tradition for women writers. It is not only what she says, but the way she presents her case by appropriating the techniques of essayists like Montaigne and Hazlitt; she never dwells too long on any subject, and her thoughts move along to Oxbridge, an invented university modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. Also invented is Fernham, the women’s college she compares with Oxbridge. Her aesthetic and sensory language to make a socioeconomic argument provokes readers into a visceral and instinctual realm, the realm of connotative and fictive language, where we can see, taste, and feel the differences in social class. The narrator walks by the library at Oxbridge and admires the grand spires and buildings of this awe-inspiring institution. She contemplates how much gold and silver it has taken to build it and eventually describes the sumptuous meal she eats. These images are tangible, vivid, and appeal to a range of senses. In comparison, the language used to describe the women’s college is stark, empty, and has no aesthetic attraction. Colourful, concrete, sensory language is associated with the power and authority of one institution while the lack of aesthetic description reflects the powerlessness of the other. This is done to make an argument, using a more feminine, concrete language to point to inequities of experience.

The use of aesthetic language in her essays, encouraged by Pater and Hazlitt, resembles what we find in Woolf’s great novels from the 1920s, Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (1927), where she also tries to convey some abstract truth for her readers. What we do not find in those novels, or in many of her earlier essays, is a tone of disaffection with the status quo . What begins in A Room of One’s Own as a kind of restlessness, like the narrator who unconsciously walks off the path, quickly grows into discontent and frustration, dissension, hostility, and anger, and then back. In this essay, Woolf alludes to and describes a range of emotions and uses them as rhetorical tropes to persuade her readers of a female logic, one that is visceral, sensual, and bodily. For Woolf, emotions are the body’s response to experience, and aestheticism’s attachment to the senses is a way Woolf exploits emotions to her purpose.

A Room of One’s Own appeals to the reader’s emotions, names and discusses emotions, and employs tropes of emotion and affect to move the reader to a female and feminist point of view. There is the appeal to enthusiasm, for example, found at the end of the essay when Woolf calls on her readers to work in ‘poverty and obscurity’ ( ARO 86) to help Judith Shakespeare come into being. The most powerful and disturbing affect that Woolf invokes is anger. It is the affect of anger, an emotion that is most provocative, aggressive, inappropriate, and unreasonable that she uses most successfully. Woolf names anger, both in women and men, when she visits the British Museum to research the history of women.

Woolf’s representation of anger has been discussed by feminist critics Jane Marcus and Brenda Silver, among others, who argue that Woolf’s anger (emotion) is repressed, sublimated, or destructive. 11 These readings view anger as a psychological construct rather than a rhetorical figure. They see these passages as Woolf’s expression of her personal anger instead of a rhetorical trope functioning within the tradition of the essay. Rhetorician and feminist Barbara Tomlinson argues for a ‘socioforensic discursive analysis’. 12 Discursive analysis, by focusing on how emotions function rhetorically, allows us to reveal underlying ideologies and authority in social discourse. It demands that we analyse ‘textual emotion in the light of larger discourses about social power’. 13 Narratives move through a ‘modulation’ of emotion, some moments stronger than others, and textual markers of anger in Woolf’s essay reveal what Tomlinson calls its ‘textual vehemence’, a critique of the institutional forces that undermines traditional modes of writing and argument. 14

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotion and affect also helps us to look at what she calls the ‘emotionality of texts’. 15 Her method calls on us to investigate how ‘texts name or perform different emotions’. 16 Most important to understanding Woolf’s use of emotion is Ahmed’s ideas that emotions are ‘performative’ and that they ‘involve speech acts’. She argues that emotion is not ‘in’ texts, but rather ‘effects of the very naming of emotions’. 17 Woolf’s essay names anger, her own and others’, and by doing so reveals and exposes what is hidden under the rhetoric she critiques. In what ways does she ‘perform’ anger in her essay and how does it affect the reader?

In A Room of One’s Own , Woolf hypothesizes that emotions, while expressed through the body’s physical responses and grounded in an aesthetic ethos, are tools of persuasion. In acknowledging the rhetorical power of emotion, Woolf reverses a Victorian taboo against emotional prose, tempts her critics to dismiss her, and, at the same time, evokes an older history of the essay as a genre open to recording a range of responses. The contribution Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own makes to the history of the essay is an increased awareness that we cannot separate gender from personality, voice, and point of view, since these things are a function of the body. Building on Pater’s aestheticism and Hazlitt’s painterly language, Woolf writes a careful, sensual, sensory, detailed prose; in addition to the reader’s aesthetic response, Woolf hopes for an emotional one, where emotion resides in the interaction between the naming of emotion and emotion itself. Woolf’s representation of emotions reveals the ways she makes her own theory of personality in non-fiction; not only does her essay contain a distinct voice and strong sense of audience but she also uses affect to communicate the power of her experience.

The first time we see the representation of anger is in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own . We find the narrator at the British Museum researching her talk on women and fiction. Woolf takes us through her argument that institutions of great literature, like the British Museum, contain nothing to help the female writer develop as an artist and individual—there is no tradition for her to follow. Her frustration is revealed in her unconscious sketching of Professor X, and the sketch itself reflects her own, as yet unacknowledged, anger. She describes her sketch of the Professor: ‘His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote. … Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly’ ( ARO 24). In the physical expression of his body, we see his anger as he jabs his pen, a phallic allusion, to kill the ‘noxious insect’ he condescends to write about. Not only is he angry, but his anger makes him ‘ugly’, much in the same way women’s anger has historically been represented.

Woolf consciously uses the trope, if not of the ‘angry feminist’, then of the ‘angry woman’. She subverts this highly charged metaphor to argue against the ideological power of the male intellectual institutions by making the Professor angry too, with all the traditional associations of irrationality and inappropriateness. Not only does the narrator become aware of men’s anger toward women, but with a conscious reflection on the sketch, she becomes aware of her own. The narrator knows that what she has done is transfer her anger onto her drawing. The sketch is a manifestation of an emotion, a symptom communicated through her body with her pen to her page. When she reads about the inferiority of women the first thing she notices is her bodily response: her ‘heart leapt’, her ‘cheeks had burnt’, and she was ‘flushed’. Not only are her emotions felt through her body but she understands how it is an anger that ‘mixed itself with all kinds of emotions’ ( ARO 25). The narrator’s anger is expressed through her body and senses and is inextricably linked to the aesthetic response Woolf wants to inspire in her reader. Her sketching begins the act of naming emotion.

Where Professor X is angry at women, and the narrator becomes aware of her anger toward him, the story of Judith Shakespeare escalates anger to violence and rage. Through this visual anecdote Woolf comments on the psycho-manipulation of anger toward women by men. Judith Shakespeare endures her father’s anger through his violence: ‘She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage’ ( ARO 36). Judith’s ‘hate’ is manifested through her cries, and her body becomes the site of emotion and severe punishment. Knowing that his anger will not change Judith’s mind, her father turns her pain into his ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’, emotions he uses to persuade her. These appeals do not stir pathos in Judith, but rebellion. Judith seeks freedom, circumstances lead to suicide, and the narrator asks: ‘[W]ho shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ ( ARO 37). Anger is trapped in the body, which literally feels the sensation of ‘heat’, of passion and fury, but finds no expression. However, Woolf has expressed it for us, by naming the emotion and connecting it to female experience and allowing the reader to feel Judith’s rage through a language that is sensory, visceral, and undoubtedly female.

Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that it is ‘useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure’, just as she goes to the male essayists Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, and Hazlitt for pleasure. She too ‘may have learnt a few tricks from them and adapted them to her use’ ( ARO 57). From the history of male essayists Woolf inherited—and reinvented for her own use—the sensual, visceral, and painterly language of aestheticism. Hers is a rhetoric of affect and emotion, and she makes a literary space for herself and the women essayists who follow through a decidedly female strategy—the employment of emotions that in the past were considered weak and unconvincing. The narrator’s anger at the Professor and Judith’s anger with her father reverses conventional readings of the trope of the angry woman by showing how anger moves the subject to action. By making anger explicit, Woolf gives it new power. It is an anger of one’s own and is used both as resistance and a vehicle for change.

Not only does she use anger and rage to illustrate the socioeconomic inequities women suffer but Woolf’s notion of a female literary history also hinges on the emotion of anger. In chapter 4 of A Room of One’s Own , Woolf begins to piece together her literary history. Intense emotions, like anger and fear are flaws in the fiction of women who precede Woolf. She begins with the seventeenth-century poet Lady Winchilsea. Woolf finds her poetry ‘bursting out in indignation’ ( ARO 44). Had she ‘freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment’ ( ARO 45) her poetry would have been much better. By the nineteenth century women writers had ‘training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion’ ( ARO 51 ). She praises Jane Austen for writing ‘without hate, without bitterness, without fear’ ( ARO 71), while she finds Charlotte Brontë unable to transcend her emotions in writing. Describing Brontë’s anger, Woolf cites a long passage from Jane Eyre that explains how ‘women feel just as men feel … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer’ ( ARO 52). The entrance of Grace Poole at this point in the novel is an ‘awkward break’ that represents the ‘marks and jerks’ of the novel, and by noticing these ‘one sees that [Brontë] will never get her genius whole and entire’. Woolf finds that Brontë writes ‘in a rage where she should write calmly’ ( ARO 52). But Woolf also acknowledges that ‘she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects but upon those of her sex at that time’ ( ARO 53). For Woolf, anger is a deformity in women’s fiction—it scars and stains it.

Woolf was conflicted about the purpose and role of emotions in women’s writing, but she knew that it is through affect that the woman writer writes. Naming emotion engages the reader and influences her to see the world differently. Like the ‘dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, the contemporary woman essayist must draw ‘her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners’ ( ARO 86). Woolf sees herself as part of a cultural family, where the physical body expresses the emotions of experience. Using the techniques of clear prose, the speaking voice, the portrayal of a mind in the process of thought, and concrete and aesthetic imagery to help express the passionate intensity of her subject, she creates A Room of One’s Own , an essay that has profoundly influenced female essayists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Woolf’s late nineteenth-century education in biography, history, and literary criticism creates a foundation for her interest in genealogy, lineage, and canon formation. Her own essays helped her to understand the tradition and development of the genre. She disregarded gender in her evaluations of male essay writers because, beyond techniques and formal qualities she found helpful to her own writing, there were no allusions to gender in their work. She uses her inheritance from Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, Hazlitt, and others to create in her own essays, including A Room of One’s Own , what she herself lacked, a defined tradition of women’s essay writing that allows further possibilities in content and form.

Selected Bibliography

Brosnan, Leila , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 ).

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Dubino, Jeanne , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904–1918’, in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).

Fernald, Anne , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer 1994 ), 165–89.

Goldman, Mark , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976 ).

Gualtieri, Elena , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000 ).

McNees, Eleanor , ed., Virginia Woolf: Critical Assessments , 4 vols. (Mountfield: Helm Information, 1994 ).

Rosenberg, Beth , and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).

Saloman, Randi , Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 ).

For more on Woolf as a reviewer, see Chapter 17 ‘Woolf as Reviewer-Critic’ in this volume, where Eleanor McNees describes in detail Woolf’s history as a book reviewer. See also Jeanne Dubino , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904-1918’ in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 25–40 .

  Anne Fernald , ‘ “Writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own”: The Common Reader as Writer’s Manual’, in Eleonora Basso , Lindsey Cordery , Emilio Irigoyen , Claudia Pérez , and Matías Núñez , eds, Virginia Woolf en América Latina: Reflexiones desde Montevideo (Montevideo: Librería Linardi y Risso, 2013), 219–43 .

  Ruth Gruber , Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman (New York: Avalon Publishers, 1935) ; Winifred Holtby , Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) .

  Virginia Woolf , Collected Essays , ed. Leonard Woolf , 4 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1967) .

  Andrew McNeillie , Introduction to The Essays of Virginia Woolf 1904-1912 , vol. 1 (New York: Harcourt, 1989) explains the need for republishing Woolf’s essays. Since the publication of Leonard’s 1967 collection, Woolf’s journals, diaries, and shorter fiction, as well as her reading notebooks and a bibliography and guide to her literary sources and allusions have been published. McNeillie’s and Stuart N. Clarke’s editions of the essays are complete with annotations and references.

For a survey of earlier criticism of Woolf’s essays, see Mark Goldman , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976), 1–6 . See also Eleanor McNees , ed., Virginia Woolf Critical Assessments , 4 vols (Mountfield, East Sussex: Helm Information, 1994) .

A series of studies began to emerge in the mid-1990s that re-evaluated the importance of the essays, including Beth Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , Virginia Woolf and the Essay (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and Leila Brosnan , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999) ; Elena Gualtieri , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) ; and Randi Saloman’s   Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) . These works situate Woolf within the traditions of the essay and non-fiction prose and illustrate Woolf’s deep understanding of the genre. They focus primarily on the aesthetic nature of her essays, her feminism, her journalistic impulses, and the influence of European ‘essayism’.

  Walter Pater , Conclusion to The Renaissance , in Harold Bloom , ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 60 .

See Perry Meisel , The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980) .

  Anne Fernald , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer, 1994), 165–89 . Fernald outlines the qualities of personal prose, which she distinguishes from personal criticism and autobiography. Woolf wrote about ‘thinking as a deeply personal act in her criticism’ (168). Fernald’s discussion ‘of the personal in Virginia Woolf emphasizes thought’ and why ‘various readers come to take Woolf so personally’ (172).

  Jane Marcus , Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988) . Brenda Silver , Virginia Woolf Icon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) .

  Barbara Tomlinson , Feminism and Affect at the Scene of Argument: Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 19 .

  Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 19.

  Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 57.

  Sarah Ahmed , The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13 .

  Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion , 13.

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To the Lighthouse

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What is the significance of water (especially the sea) throughout the novel? Does it represent transcience or permanence?

What does the Lighthouse signify to individual people in the novel, and do they invest it with symbolic meanings that resonate with their own characters and relationship?

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Virginia Woolf’s politics of peace

Published between the wars, Woolf’s essay Three Guineas still has lessons for today’s conflict-ravaged world.

By Elif Shafak

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The day I first encountered Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (in an edition with A Room of One’s Own ), I was a young aspiring writer in Istanbul. It was a sweltering afternoon: the hustle and bustle of the ancient metropolis, the call to prayer spilling from the nearby mosques, the smells of fried mussels and sesame bagels wafting from the street vendors’ stalls, the seagulls picking through rubbish bins, the cats sauntering out of alleyways and the taste of salt in the wind.

And there I was, sporting a long hippie skirt, a green tote bag large enough to fit in several notebooks, and a terrible hairstyle, having made the mistake of visiting the hairdresser just the day before in the hope of magically obtaining naturally curly hair – something I had always wanted. What I got instead was a dreadful perm which had left parts of my head burned and my heart full of regrets. So in this confused state of existence, I walked out of a bookstore near Taksim Square, carrying Virginia Woolf’s words close to my chest. I hurried to a café, eager to dive in to the book. Little did I know that by the time I had finished it something would have shifted in me. Thus began my lifelong infatuation with Woolf, who was not only a remarkable novelist and storyteller, but also a feminist thinker and a public intellectual.

In the UK, and also to a large extent in the US, we have a problem with the word “intellectual”. This is not the case in other countries; for instance, in France where there is a long – albeit male-dominated – tradition of public intellectuals. It is not the case in Turkey, either. In my motherland, as populist authoritarianism continues to hold sway over society, intellectuals are attacked, arrested, exiled or even imprisoned – but their existence, if not importance, is also generally acknowledged.

History shows us that in times of political crisis or economic decline, in times of inflamed populism and nativism, a dormant anti-intellectualism can flare up, taking the form of hostility towards experts, scholars, scientists, journalists or people in arts and literature. In the Anglosphere, intellectuals are seen, as the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote, as “pretentious, conceited, effeminate and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous and subversive”. An intellectual is a dandified man who cannot be trusted – the antithesis of the image of strong and fearless manliness imposed on young boys as a model for male behaviour.

Let’s also consider the gender roles embedded in the word “intellectual”. There is a persistent patriarchal tendency that associates women with sentimentality and emotions while attributing rationality and analytical skills mainly to men. As a woman of letters, Virginia Woolf was acutely aware of this pattern. She questioned the cognitive segregation that patriarchy both created and thrived on. She railed against the way in which women were excluded from scholarly, cerebral, analytical work, and steered away from intellectually stimulating, interdisciplinary conversations.

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Much has been said about how Woolf underlined the importance of women having a space and an income of their own if they ever were to become writers or poets – but it is not always noted that she did not stop there. Taking the argument further, Woolf explained in A Room of One’s Own that even when a woman is lucky enough to be in possession of a room and £500, even when she has the time and freedom to write, the themes she deals with in her books will, in all likelihood, be regarded as trivial. To this day, a woman novelist is expected to write about domestic, “feminine” subjects. To this day, women’s writing is regarded as less intellectual.

A decade after A Room of One’s Own (1929) was published, Woolf wrote Three Guineas . She was writing in the shadow of one world war, with another looming. Between 1914 and 1918, many civilians across the UK did not immediately grasp the extent of the suffering on the battlefield. It would take time for people to fully comprehend the gruesome reality of life in the trenches, the unseen scars and traumas inflicted by combat. A committed pacifist and antifascist, Woolf saw the invisible and could not unsee it. Her nephew had been killed in Spain, where he had volunteered to be an ambulance driver in the civil war. She had lost dear friends to conflict. She wanted everyone to understand the ravaging consequences of violence. More importantly, she wanted to dismantle the patriarchal structures that had perpetuated jingoism, militarism and war throughout history.

In Three Guineas Woolf imagines an established, educated man asking her opinion as to how to prevent war. How bizarre! Women are outsiders in this debate, never included in decision-making and policy design. Wars are waged by and between men; women are simply expected to go along with it. Woolf bitterly arraigned the rise of fascism and the rhetoric of warmongering, questioning the roles patriarchy assigned to wives and sisters and mothers: dedicated, giving, selfless. She believed a solution could only come from outsiders. The call to peace could not originate from the centre; only from the periphery. “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Woolf’s pacifism was strongly linked to a transnational perspective in line with Kantian cosmopolitanism and universalism. Today she might be criticised for being a “citizen of nowhere”.

Three Guineas , composed as a series of letters and published in 1938, received hostile reviews even from Woolf’s friends. The essay was perhaps too subtle for its time. It came as a shock to many that in response to activists who were urging people to fight fascism before it was too late, Woolf was prioritising the need to defy patriarchy. Was she too naive and shortsighted? Was she wise to focus on the structures that perpetuated wars?

Today our world is plagued, once again, with wars, violence against civilians, collective displacement, even mass starvation. Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan… Can women ever create a peaceful alternative? We may or may not agree with Woolf’s answer, but the question remains universal and urgent. Someday, women must build an alternative narrative, which can only come from the margins, a place of in-betweendom where we can meet each other. As Woolf said, “Unless we can think peace into existence we – not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born – will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead.”

Another controversial aspect of Three Guineas was Woolf’s changing attitude towards feminism: “What more fitting,” she writes, “than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated.” This is puzzling. Here is a writer who pioneered feminist literary criticism, displayed a genuine awareness of gender discrimination and dared to question the link between militarism and patriarchy. A writer who inspired countless other women across the world, including the 20-something-year-old me in Istanbul – but now she calls feminism a dead, corrupt word. Why this contradiction?

The relationship between Woolf and feminism was neither static nor straightforward and it has been explored by various scholars. Some, like Elaine Showalter, have argued that Woolf abandoned her “troubled feminism” to move towards a notion of androgyny. Others, like Toril Moi, offer a more affirmative reading, underlining how the novelist tried to find an alternative approach outside binary constructs and fixed identities. This is also where I stand. Not because everything Woolf said or wrote was consistent with feminism, but because feminism itself is not a homogeneous whole composed of undifferentiated voices. It is an immense landscape, a vast queendom, with multiple pathways, some well known, others yet to be discovered. Questioning previous waves of feminism, trying to transcend its precedents while deeply caring about gender equality, is an essential part of feminist theory and practice.

Writing in an experimental style, challenging literary conventions, following the fluidity of memory, perception and subjectivity, reshaping the narrative form through stream of consciousness, Woolf was consistently in love with freedom. Hers was a deliberate and radical departure from linear structured storytelling. She was a political writer. She understood that power is not necessarily based on force and coercion, long before second-wave feminism popularised the phrase “the personal is political”. Woolf was a pioneer of feminist literary criticism, an extraordinary storyteller and a cosmopolitan public intellectual.

Today our world is being rapidly reshaped by smartphones, algorithms, AI, widening inequalities, populist demagoguery, xenophobia and warmongering. We are encouraged to become info-maniacs, never intellectuals. Clickbait has evolved into rage-bait.

We live in a society in which there is too much information, but very little knowledge and even less wisdom. Drawing on sentiments and ideas, empathy and intelligence, the sensual and the cerebral, literature is the great synthesiser, the antidote to the age of hyper-information. Today, just as when Virginia Woolf was writing, a new literature is needed for a new world.

A longer version of this essay was delivered as the “A Room of One’s Own” Lecture at Cambridge Literary Festival in April 2024. To watch the full lecture on the CLF Player visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024

Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Writers — Virginia Woolf

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Essays on Virginia Woolf

Prompt examples for virginia woolf essays, the stream of consciousness technique.

Explore Virginia Woolf's use of the stream of consciousness narrative technique in her works. How does this literary style enhance the reader's understanding of the characters and their inner thoughts and emotions?

The Role of Women in Woolf's Novels

Analyze the portrayal of women and their roles in Virginia Woolf's novels. How does she challenge traditional gender norms and expectations? Discuss the ways in which her female characters assert themselves and seek independence.

The Bloomsbury Group and Literary Influence

Discuss Virginia Woolf's association with the Bloomsbury Group and its influence on her writing. How did her interactions with other writers and artists shape her literary style and themes?

Depictions of Mental Health

Examine how Virginia Woolf portrays mental health and psychological states in her works, particularly in novels like "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse." How does she explore the inner workings of the human mind?

The Concept of Time

Explore the theme of time in Woolf's novels. How does she manipulate time, memory, and the passage of years in her narratives? Discuss the significance of time as it relates to the characters and their experiences.

Woolf's Contribution to Modernist Literature

Analyze Virginia Woolf's role in the modernist literary movement. How does she exemplify the characteristics of modernist literature, including experimentation with narrative structure and a focus on individual consciousness?

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: The Superficiality of Social Conventions in Society

Mrs dalloway's criticism of societal conventions, the androgynous ideal; androgyny in virginia woolf’s writing, gender topic in the works of james joyce and virginia woolf, let us write you an essay from scratch.

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Societal Standards and The Impact of The Individual in Virginia Woolf’s to The Lighthouse and The Waves

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Symbolism Exploited in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

The theme of flowers in mrs. dalloway by virginia woolf, the hidden wish of words: albee’s "who’s afraid of virginia woolf" and "three tall women", virginia woolf's feminist ideas and its connection to alice walker's the color purple, gender roles and relationships in virginia woolf’s to the lighthouse, social inequality in works by douglass and woolf, virginia woolf: a life of tragedies, legacy, love, and loneliness: an analysis of allusions in virginia woolf’s to the lighthouse, virginia woolf's take on relationship between author, reader and character, men and women in virginia woolf’s to the lighthouse, "model" mother in to the lighthouse by virginia woolf, the detail of "the self" in virginia woolf's "the waves", mrs. dalloway: the self-characterization and introspection of virginia woolf, modernity on verisimilitude illustrated by virginia woolf, the fight of virginia woolf against gender inequality, virginia woolf's description of sally seton, the theme of gender in virginia woolf's mrs dalloway, the window towards the lighthouse, an analysis of chapter 17 in to the lighthouse, mrs. dalloway's concept of time.

January 25, 1882, Kensington

March 28, 1941, Lewes, United Kingdom

Novelist, Essayist, Publisher, Critic

  • Mrs Dalloway (1925)
  • To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando (1928)
  • A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • The Waves (1931)
  • "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
  • "As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world."
  • "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941

Virginia Woolf was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One's Own (1929), The Waves (1931)

Before the Second World War and long before the second wave of feminism, Virginia Woolf argued that women's experience, particularly in the women's movement, could be the basis for transformative social change. Woolf has become an iconic feminist in both pop culture and academic circles.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) is recognised as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). She also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power.

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.” “Why are women... so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

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virginia woolf essay topics


  1. Read The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol I Online by Virginia Woolf

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  2. The Theme of Death in Virginia Woolf’s Novel "Mrs. Dalloway" [Free

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  3. ⇉Analysis of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Essay Example

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  4. (PDF) The Literary Essay as Encomium in Virginia Woolf’s “The Enchanted

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  5. Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer

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  6. Feminism in Virginia Woolf Free Essay Example

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  1. Virginia Woolf

  2. VIRGINIA WOOLF: MODERN FICTION #explanation #intamil

  3. The central theme of Virginia Woolf's essay

  4. Modern Fiction by Virginia Woolf [Essay-Summary & Analysis]

  5. Virginia woolf/ Life and works/Bloomsbury Group/stream of consciousness/assistant professor/ugc net

  6. Virginia Woolf's Non-Fiction


  1. Virginia Woolf Study Guide: Essay Topics

    What kinds of rivalry, what kinds of love? Describe the philosophy, or modus operandi, used by the Bloomsbury Group in order to encourage free and open discussion (hint: a philosophy promoted by G.E. Moore) Name some of Virginia's Modernist contemporaries and compare and contrast their work to hers. Add your thoughts right here!

  2. Selected Essays

    According to Virginia Woolf, the goal of the essay 'is simply that it should give pleasure…It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.' One of the best practitioners of the art she analysed so rewardingly, Woolf displayed her essay-writing skills across a wide range of subjects ...

  3. Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf

    One of the collection of Virginia Woolf's essays including: "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", The Patron and The Crocus, The Modern Essay, The Death Of The Moth Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car, Three Pictures, … Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf. From Project Gutenberg Australia. This eBook was produced by: Col Choat

  4. The Essays

    Virginia Woolf's essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. Her topics range from the home of Thomas Carlyle in 'Great Men's Houses' (1932) to aerial battles in 'Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid' (1940) to the nature of sickness in 'On Being Ill' (1926).

  5. To the Lighthouse: Suggested Essay Topics

    Virginia Woolf. Study Guide. Study Guide; Full Text; Summary Summary & Analysis The Window: Chapters 1-4 ... Suggested Essay Topics Save. Deeper Study Suggested Essay Topics. Previous Next . 1. To the Lighthouse opens with a portrayal of the Oedipal struggle between James and Mr. Ramsay. This conflict resounds throughout the book. ...

  6. Suggested Topics for Woolf Seminar Papers

    Hussey's Virginia Woolf: A-Z is the place to start on any of these topics. ... "Modern Fiction" and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" are especially relevant essays. Don't try to cover every aspect of Woolf's relation to Modernism, but rather focus in on what interests you, e.g., the way she develops characters or the way she warps ...

  7. A Room of One's Own Essay Topics

    The main criticisms of A Room of One's Own highlight Woolf's limited point of view, especially her presumptions that exclude women of color, LGBTQ+ women, women in lower social classes, etc. Consider modern feminist ideas to explain how Woolf's main arguments could be made more inclusive. 3. Woolf uses many metaphors in this work to make ...

  8. Suggested Topics for Woolf Seminar Papers

    Suggested Topics for Seminar Papers (due July 28). Hussey's Virginia Woolf: A-Z is the place to start on any of these topics. Note that all of them require analysis.. Type AA Topics: Argumentative Analysis This is the typical seminar paper that develops an original idea.

  9. Virginia Woolf Critical Essays

    Perhaps related to her mental condition is Virginia Woolf's interest in perception and perspective, as well as their relationship to imagination, in many stories. In two short avant-garde pieces ...

  10. Virginia Woolf World Literature Analysis

    Essays and criticism on Virginia Woolf, including the works Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, A Room of One's Own - Magill's Survey of World Literature

  11. Collected essays : Woolf, Virginia : Free Download, Borrow, and

    Collected essays Bookreader Item Preview ... Collected essays by Woolf, Virginia. Publication date 1966 Topics ... Woolf, Leonard Boxid IA40110901 Camera USB PTP Class Camera Collection_set printdisabled External-identifier urn:lcp:collectedessays0002wool:lcpdf:2b5b42ac-0dc9-4a97-9600-ac1bc17b7062 ...

  12. Virginia Woolf

    Virginia Woolf (born January 25, 1882, London, England—died March 28, 1941, near Rodmell, Sussex) was an English writer whose novels, through their nonlinear approaches to narrative, exerted a major influence on the genre.. While she is best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary ...

  13. Mrs. Dalloway Essay Topics

    Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

  14. To the Lighthouse Essay Questions

    Essays for To the Lighthouse. To the Lighthouse essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. The Heroines of Crime and Punishment, King Lear, and To the Lighthouse; The Process of Perception: Cervantes' Don Quixote and Woolf's Lily ...

  15. Virginia Woolf : essays on the self : Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941

    Topics English essays -- 20th century, Self, Self (Philosophy), English essays Publisher Widworthy, Barton, Honiton, Devon : Notting Hill Editions ... Essays on the Self is a surprising collection spanning twenty-one years of Virginia Woolf's life, from the ages of thirty-seven to fifty-eight, the year before her suicide. The question of the ...

  16. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    For Virginia Woolf, though the most interesting play of the season, a work of many compelling virtues, high seriousness and enormous verbal éclat, is an exemplary failure, a fascinating ...

  17. The Essays of Virginia Woolf : Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941, author

    The Essays of Virginia Woolf by Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941, author. Publication date 1986 Topics English essays -- 20th century, English essays Publisher San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Collection inlibrary; printdisabled; internetarchivebooks Contributor Internet Archive Language

  18. Virginia Woolf's politics of peace

    Support 110 years of independent journalism. Published between the wars, Woolf's essay Three Guineas still has lessons for today's conflict-ravaged world. By Elif Shafak The day I first encountered Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas (in an edition with A Room of One's Own), I was a young ...

  19. ≡Essays on Virginia Woolf. Free Examples of Research Paper Topics

    2 pages / 1026 words. Abstract In this essay the feminist theories of Virginia Woolf are examined and analysed, as well as connected to the famous novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Woolf introduces the theories of women's economic and social freedom being crucial for women's progression in society...

  20. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Suggested Essay Topics

    Suggestions for essay topics to use when you're writing about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

  21. Virginia Woolf Essays: Examples, Topics, & Outlines

    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel written by Virginia Woolf. It was published in 1925. The book highlights various issues in life such as love, death, social status, and mental illness. Woolf also condenses the story of Clarissa into a single day comprising of past experiences and events (Latham 64).

  22. Mrs. Dalloway: Suggested Essay Topics

    Suggested Essay Topics. 1. Mrs. Dalloway is constructed from many different points of view, and points of view are sometimes linked by an emotion, a sound, a visual image, or a memory. Describe three instances when the point of view changes and explain how Woolf accomplishes the transitions. How do the transitions correspond to the points of ...

  23. Orlando: Suggested Essay Topics

    Describe the scene in which Orlando changes sex from a male to a female. Explain why Woolf chooses such specific imagery (and the characters of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty) to describe the sex change. Discuss the idea of writing in the novel. Are certain styles of literature held to be better or worse than other kinds?