Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”

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