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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Virginia Woolf: Woman power
BBC Knowledge Text's Rob White finds Virginia Woolf's reputation undergoing a reassessment on the 60th anniversary of her death.
Clive and Vanessa Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes...to name the members of the Bloomsbury group is to call the roll of some of the most glittering intellects of the last century.
You would have thought membership of such an illustrious set could only serve to boost Virginia Woolf's literary stock.
But no. In England, at least, the Bloomsbury tag comes at the price of a degree of unpopularity.
The group is sometimes seen as a sort of cerebral Peter's Friends without the jokes - Oxbridge narcissists unconcerned with the lives of the less privileged.
The minutiae of their daily lives have been reheated so often by newspaper features editors that The Bloomsbury Group has become a long-running broadsheet soap opera.
Such scrutiny has done the Bloomsburys few favours. Viewed through its distorting lens, some of the most talented artists and thinkers of the years between the wars emerge as caricatures.
Virginia Woolf's reputation, in particular, has also suffered as a result of postwar critical fashion, which was for so many years led by Professor FR Leavis and his wife, Queenie.
Queenie, who had brought up three children while working as a teacher, writer and editor, writes: "There is no reason to suppose Mrs Woolf would know which end of the cradle to stir."
Fortunately, the record is being set straight as a reappraisal spearheaded by feminist academics gains in momentum.
Two new critical studies from opposite sides of the Atlantic paint the writer in tones more vivid than those of your average Bloomsbury drawing room.
In her new guide, Virginia Woolf for Beginners, author Gina Wisker highlights the political, polemical aspects of the writer in a bid to counter a popular view that she acknowledges is still coloured by inverted snobbery.
"She [Woolf] works with the Women's Co-operative Guild and publishes the writings of working class women," Wisker explains, pointing to the Woolfs' establishment of the Hogarth Press from their home.
Californian writer Professor Merry Pawlowski also examines the legacy of Woolf's radical politics in a collection of essays, entitled Virginia Woolf and Fascism, which is due for publication this spring.
Prof Pawlowski says: "Virginia Woolf gives women all over the world a feeling that they can believe in themselves.
"She was an amazing woman who, despite bouts with mental illness, accomplished an enormous amount during her lifetime.
"She was a wondrously prolific writer, and very active and involved in her society. She gives hope."
Pawlowski - in sharp contrast to Queenie Leavis - stresses Woolf's engagement with the world outside the salon.
"I think the greatest contribution she made to her society was to try to argue against the growing menace of fascism in Europe. And it went unheeded."
But what form did her resistance to fascism take? Central to both Wisker's and Pawlowski's readings of Woolf is the 1938 polemical work Three Guineas, one of the writer's least wellknown texts.
Woolf is perhaps the first writer to analyse the psychology of fascism; she is certainly the first to describe such a psychology in gender terms.
Wisker puts it succinctly: "The argument would be that patriarchy divides things into binary oppositions - male/female, black/white - and that one of the net results of this is that you end up with a hierarchy, and you end up with boundary divisions.
"If you end up with boundaries, you are into imperialism, because you want to extend the ownership of your land; you feel you are superior in religion and behaviour to other people.
"In Three Guineas, she's actually talking about the war as a product of that kind of sense of hierarchy."
Pawlowski points out that the argument fully anticipates modern work on the so-called fascist unconscious, citing an influential set of studies, entitled Male Fantasies, by the German academic Klaus Theweleit.
In these, the writer examines diaries and stories written by a group of hardcore Nazis, and concludes that fascism draws its energy from the archetype of what he terms the soldier male, and is characterised by a fear of, and hostility towards, women.
She says Theweleit's conclusions would have come as no surprise to Woolf.
"She did not know the full story, dying, of course, in 1941, although it was known that Jews were being herded into concentration camps.
"But she knew that something was desperately wrong, and felt "that fascism, at its core, is against women - women are its ultimate enemy, if you will."
Even in non-fascist modern Britain, Woolf's thesis is one that would raise the hackles of many men.
Few want to hear that there's something inherently fascistic about the way they think and speak; and some would doubtless argue that Woolf's theories about men and women depend on the very binary opposition tactic that she herself condemns as being characteristic of patriarchy.
So it's hardly surprising Three Guineas left few ripples in its wake on publication - Pawlowski quotes the novelist and Bloomsbury luminary EM Forster as dismissing the book as Woolf's "most cantankerous".
She says the economist Maynard Keynes and even the writer's husband, Leonard, were among the many group members keen to play it down.
Virginia Woolf has always been acknowledged as a great formal innovator; less so as a woman who threw down the gauntlet to the age in which she lived, daring it to peer into the wellsprings of its own violence.
Perhaps the new willingness of critics to focus on the less well known aspects of her work tells us it is only now that we are ready to even begin trying to answer some of the awkward questions she posed.
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