Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Virginia Woolf would burn down Columbia University. Discuss.

"Rags. Petrol. Matches... burn the college to the ground." 
(Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas")

Yesterday I co-taught a class on Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas" at Columbia University. The text ties in nicely with my research on conscientious objectors for Book Two, so apart from feeling tremendously honoured/flattered/privileged to be invited, I was also genuinely interested in hearing what the students would make of a pacifist essay written just before World War Two.

"Three Guineas" begins with Virginia Woolf's reply to a letter from an anti-war society. The correspondent's question is simple: How are we to prevent war? Oh, and he would also like Woolf to make a donation (one of the three guineas) and become a member of his society.

Woolf responds by citing two other begging letters. One is from a fund to rebuild a women's college; the other, from a society helping "the daughters of educated men", ie women like Woolf, find employment in the professions. Woolf's point is that the question of war, and how to prevent it, links all three letters, all three guineas. Why? Because it is 1938 and women, who spent centuries on the margins of society, now have certain rights. They can vote, they can study at universities that were previously closed to them, they can earn a living. This gives them a choice: the choice between joining the "procession of the sons of educated men", thereby perpetuating a system that encourages war through nationalism, elitism and militarism; or using their experience as outsiders to create something new and different.
As Woolf puts it: "We have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don't we? On what terms shall we join that procession?"

It's a question that keeps feminists - and activists from all sorts of marginalised groups - busy to this day, but the passage that I especially looked forward to discussing with the students was Woolf's response to the treasurer of the college re-building fund:

The guinea should be earmarked 'Rags. Petrol. Matches'. And this note should be attached to it. 'Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire... and let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry "Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done this 'education'!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this passage sparked the liveliest moments of the two-hour class. Students felt particularly strongly about the canon, the core texts that make up Columbia University's idea of the basis for Western civilisation. "Filled with dead white men," was one student's comment (Woolf is one of only two dead white women on the Contemporary Civilization reading list). "Canon-based education is a way of excluding people," said another, suggesting more diverse voices be added.
"Beyond our university education, there are universal aspects of being human that we should tap into," was a third comment, inspired by Woolf's idea of personal experience of oppression and exclusion as "unpaid-for" education.
On the other hand, references to Freud, Plato, Nietzsche and Sophocles popped up throughout the class, so clearly the canon, however narrow by some standards, has its uses.

What would Virginia, who loathed Oxford and Cambridge, have made of all that?
Would she have been pleased to see so many young, intelligent women voicing their opinions in a class at an elite university - and reading "Three Guineas" with such enthusiasm, more than 70 years after it was written?
Or would she have cried out in horror at tuition fees of some $40,000 a year, and gone off to look for petrol and matches?

When I prepared the class, I came across a poignant little fact (courtesy of Woolf scholar Michele Barrett): after the publication of "Three Guineas", Woolf received a real-life begging letter asking her to donate a manuscript to a fund-raising effort for Spanish refugees.
She donated "Three Guineas".

The manuscript of "A Room of One's Own", in contrast, was given to Cambridge after her death. There it was misfiled and lay forgotten for nearly half a century.

No matches. Promise.

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