Three Guineas

three guineasAbout a week or so ago, my Read More Woolf group met for the last time, to discuss Three Guineas. I had to miss a few meetings during the semester (Orlando and Between the Acts), but I made it to more than I missed, and having this introduction to Woolf’s work was absolutely wonderful for me. I do plan to make up the Woolf reading I missed, and in addition, to read Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t think I could stop now if I tried. Many thanks to my colleague, who led the group, and to the students who were so insightful.

Three Guineas is the only piece of Woolf’s nonfiction we discussed this semester. It was written in 1938, looking forward to the imminent second World War. In it, Woolf takes up a man’s request for her to send money to help him prevent war. How, she asks, can a woman do such a thing? What power can women possibly have, to prevent war, if men cannot do it? She looks at the notion that perhaps if women were educated, as they currently were not, they might be able to help. But men were educated, and they still wanted to make war; so women’s education would have to be along quite different lines. I’ll quote at length because I found it marvelous:

Let us then discuss as quickly as we can the sort of education that is needed. Now since history and biography–the only evidence available to an outsider–seem to prove that the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently. It is young and poor; let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded on poverty and youth. Obviously, then, it must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it. Next, what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses; salaries and uniforms and ceremonies. The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people; such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them. The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers. There should be no difficulty in attracting them. For there would be none of the barriers of wealth and ceremony, of advertisement and competition which now make the old and rich universities such uneasy dwelling-places–cities of strife, cities where this is locked up and that is chained down; where nobody can walk freely or talk freely for fear of transgressing some chalk mark, of displeasing some dignitary. But if the college were poor it would have nothing to offer; competition would be abolished. Life would be open and easy. People who love learning for itself would gladly come there. Musicians, painters, writers, would teach there, because they would learn. What could be of greater help to a writer than to discuss the art of writing with people who were thinking not of examinations or degrees or of what honour or profit they could make literature give them but of the art itself?

Once Woolf establishes that women’s education, done rightly, can help prevent war, she sends them one of her three guineas, and moves on to women in the professions. Surely, she says, in her quiet, sly voice, surely women in the professions do not need my guinea? They ought to be making enough money of their own. But of course, in 1937, they were not and could not. That is not Woolf’s deeper concern, however. As in education, so with the professions: a man can earn a lot of money in the professions and still want to make war; perhaps he must want to make war. Woolf’s question then becomes, “How can we enter the professions and still remain civilized human beings?” If there is something to be gained, some benefit from being in a state of inequality — as Woolf puts it, the hard teachers of poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties — she wants women to hold on to those benefits with all their might as they enter a state of equality. If those in charge can manage this, they will have Woolf’s second guinea.

And now, back to the original gentleman who asked for Woolf’s money to help prevent war. Having educated women rightly, having supported them in the professions in such a way as to preserve their liberty of mind, Woolf is prepared to send this gentleman her third guinea, because her aims are the same as his. But she will not join his society. Instead, she proposes an Outsiders’ Society, that will work by different means toward the same goals.

This piece struck me deeply with Woolf’s quiet, linear thought, her passion, her humor. Her tone at the beginning of the letter — oh dear, what can we women possibly do? — is utterly belied by each careful incision, made by her intellect and wit. The quirk at the corner of her mouth when she says that men’s uniforms and hoods and gowns are a sign of their barbarity made me laugh out loud. (“A woman who advertised her motherhood by a tuft of horsehair on the left shoulder would scarcely, you will agree, be a venerable object.”) And yet she leaves the reader in no doubt of her gravity. Proving step by step that she has no more reason to be “English” than any other nationality, she proclaims, shockingly, “As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

It made me think carefully to realize that this essay was written within three years of Gaudy Night: the fictional Shrewsbury College, always cheese-paring and scraping for money, always watching its reputation and begging for recognition from the rest of the University, always wondering what the men would think, was Woolf’s home ground. It was to Shrewsbury, essentially, that she wanted to send her first guinea. The world tottered into war nonetheless. I wonder what we could do about it now.

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4 Responses to Three Guineas

  1. Alex in Leeds says:

    I struggle with Woolf’s fiction but adore her witty, sharp non-fiction. Three Guineas is definitely due a re-read. :)

    • Jenny says:

      This semester is really my first encounter with Woolf, except for A Room of One’s Own. I will say I struggled with The Waves, but otherwise have been really delighted. I’m so glad I did this.

  2. Alex says:

    I am deeply envious of your having had the opportunity to read and discuss Woolf in this way. I have always loved her non-fiction but have never been able to come to terms with her novels and would love the opportunity to work my way through to an appreciation of them with a group led by people more knowledgeable than myself. As to her stance on educated and professional women, she had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the problems they faced through some of her acquaintances, especially the women from the Strachey family who were prominent in several academic and professional fields.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I don’t think the people in your group need to be more knowledgeable than you are. We did have one professor who was an expert, but most of us were encountering this for the first time just as I was, and we all had a lot of contributions to make, just based on being voracious readers. I’d really recommend the group approach. And you’re so right about her circle!

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