Three Guineas

Last updated

Three Guineas
First edition
Author Virginia Woolf
Cover artist Vanessa Bell
CountryUnited Kingdom
Publisher Hogarth Press
Publication date
Pages285 pp.
OCLC 1304213

Three Guineas is a book-length essay by Virginia Woolf, published in June 1938.



Although Three Guineas is a work of non-fiction, it was initially conceived as a "novel–essay" which would tie up the loose ends left in her earlier work, A Room of One's Own . [1] The book was to alternate between fictive narrative chapters and non-fiction essay chapters, demonstrating Woolf's views on war and women in both types of writing at once. This unfinished manuscript was published in 1977 as The Pargiters.

When Woolf realised the idea of a "novel–essay" wasn't working, she separated the two parts. The non-fiction portion became Three Guineas. The fiction portion became Woolf's most popular novel during her lifetime, The Years , which charts social change from 1880 to the time of publication through the lives of the Pargiter family. It was so popular, in fact, that pocket-sized editions of the novel were published for soldiers as leisure reading during World War II.

Structure and overview

The entire essay is structured as a response to an educated gentleman who has written a letter asking Woolf to join his efforts to help prevent war. War was looming in 1936–7 and the question was particularly pressing to Woolf, a committed pacifist. [2] In the gentleman's letter (he is never named), he asks Woolf her opinion about how best to prevent war and offers some practical steps. Woolf opens her response by stating first, and with some slight hyperbole, that this is "a remarkable letter—a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented." [3] :3 Despite the remarkable nature of the letter, Woolf has left it unanswered because as the daughter of an educated man, without access or place in the public world of professions, universities, societies, and government, she fears that there are fundamental differences that will make her "impossible for [educated men] to understand." [3] :3 This sets up the fundamental tension of the work between, on the one hand, the desire to leave behind the stifling private home so as to help prevent war, an aim that Woolf certainly shares with her interlocutor, and, on the other, an unwillingness to simply ally with the public world of men. "Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed." [3] :74

In the course of responding to the educated man's questions and practical suggestions, Woolf turns to two other letters: a request for funds to help rebuild a woman's college and a request for support for an organisation to help women enter the professions (professional life). Both allow Woolf to articulate her criticisms of the structure of education and the professions, which mostly involves showing how they encourage the very attitudes that lead to Fascism both at home and abroad. [3] :81 Woolf does not refuse the values of education and public service outright but suggests conditions which the daughters of educated men will need to heed if they are to prevent being corrupted by the public order. She imagines, for example, a new kind of college that avoids teaching the tools of domination and pugnacity, "an experimental college, an adventurous college…. It should teach… the art of understanding other people's lives and minds…. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers." [3] :34

In the final section, Woolf returns from the topics of education and the professions to the larger questions of preventing war and the practical measure suggested for doing so. In it she argues that although she agrees with her interlocutor that war is evil, they must attempt to eradicate it in different ways. "And since we are different," Woolf concludes, "our help must be different." [3] :143 Thus, the value of Woolf's opinion (and help) on how to prevent war lies in its radical difference from the ways of men. Its impossibility of being completely understood is, then, the condition of its usefulness.


Woolf wrote the essay to answer three questions, each from a different society:

The book is composed of Woolf's responses to a series of letters. The question and answer format creates a sense of dialogue and debate on the politically charged issues the essay tackles, rather than just presenting simple polemical diatribes on each topic. The principle of dialogue is one that informs much of Woolf's work, and is also seen in her novels when she gives voice to different classes and marginalised groups in society through a diversity of characterisations. [4] For example, the sky-writing scene in Mrs. Dalloway includes characters with a variety of class-influenced dialects. The "guineas" of the book's title are themselves a badge of social class, the money amount of 21 shillings (1.05 pounds sterling) for which no coin any longer existed, but which was still the common denomination for solely upper-class transactions (e.g., purchase of pictures or race-horses, lawyers' or medical specialists' fees, and so on.)

The epistolary format also gives the reader the sense of eavesdropping on a private conversation. [5] We listen in on Woolf's suggestions to a barrister on how to prevent war, to a women's league on how to support females in the professions, and to a women's college on how to encourage female scholarship. All three sources have written to Woolf asking for financial donations. What she donates, though, is her advice and philosophy.

Woolf was eager to tie the issues of war and feminism together in what she saw as a crucial point in history. She and her husband Leonard had visited both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the early part of the decade. [5] The ideology of fascism was an affront to Woolf's conviction in pacifism as well as feminism: Nazi philosophy, for example, supported the removal of women from public life.


Contemporary responses

Q. D. Leavis (literary critic) wrote a scathing critique of Three Guineas shortly after its publication in 1938. She denounces the essay because it is only concerned with 'the daughters of educated men', seeing Woolf's criticisms as irrelevant to most women because her wealth and aristocratic ancestry means she is 'insulated by class'. [6] Elsewhere Three Guineas was better received. Woolf reports a favorable response in her diary of 7 May 1938. "I am pleased this morning because Lady Rhonda writes that she is profoundly excited and moved by Three Guineas. Theo Bosanquet, who has a review copy, read her extracts. And she thinks it may have a great effect, and signs herself my grateful outsider." [2] :93

Recent responses

The views expressed in Three Guineas have been described as feminist, pacifist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist. [7] Feminist historian Jill Liddington has praised Three Guineas as "an eloquent and impish attack on patriarchal structures", notes how the book puts forward the argument that "men's power under patriarchy dovetails with militarism", and claims "Three Guineas offers an important bridge between the earlier feminist flowering and the later 1980s wave of a women's peace movement". [7]

In 2002, City Journal published a critique of Three Guineas by the conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple, "The Rage of Virginia Woolf" (later reprinted in Dalrymple's anthology, Our Culture, What's Left of It ), in which Dalrymple contended that the book is "a locus classicus of self-pity and victimhood as a genre in itself" and that "the book might be better titled: How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved". [8] In response, Woolf scholar Elizabeth Shih defended Three Guineas and claimed Dalrymple's article was full of "ad hominem moments". [9] Shih argued that Dalrymple "obtusely and consistently misreads Woolf's hyperbole", interpreting literally Woolf's comments about burning male-dominated colleges, and Woolf's likening women using their sexuality to control men to prostitution. [9] Shih also criticised Dalrymple's attacks on Woolf's anti-militarism and her calls for working-class education. [9] Shih suggested Dalrymple's objection to Three Guineas was due to his opposition to Woolf's "politicization of the private lives of women". [9]


  1. For an account of the development of Three Guineas see Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and her Works (London: Hogarth, 1965).
  2. 1 2 Woolf, Virginia. A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf (London: Hogarth, 1959)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. (New York: Harvest, 1966)
  4. Snaith, Anna. Virginia Woolf: Private and Public Negotiations. New York: St. Martin's Press. 2000.
  5. 1 2 Snaith, Anna. "Three Guineas," The Literary Encyclopedia. 2001.
  6. Leavis, Q.D. "Caterpillars of the Commonwealth Unite!" Scrutiny (Sept 1938): 208
  7. 1 2 Jill Liddington. The Long Road to Greenham : Feminism and Anti-Militarism in Britain since 1820, London, Virago, 1989 ISBN   0-86068-688-4 (pp. 14–15).
  8. Theodore Dalrymple (Summer 2002). "The Rage of Virginia Woolf". City Journal . Retrieved 7 August 2011.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Elizabeth Shih, "When Woolf Goes Missing (From Herself): The Surfeit of Short Articles on Virginia Woolf's Life and Work". Virginia Woolf Miscellany , Number 62, Spring 2003, (pp. 2–3).

Related Research Articles

Virginia Woolf English modernist writer known for use of stream of consciousness

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

Bloomsbury Group Influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists

The Bloomsbury Group—or Bloomsbury Set—was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. This loose collective of friends and relatives was closely associated with the University of Cambridge for the men and King's College London for the women, and they lived, worked or studied together near Bloomsbury, London. According to Ian Ousby, "although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts." Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. A well-known quote, attributed to Dorothy Parker, is "they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles".

Maxine Hong Kingston Chinese American author

Maxine Hong Kingston is a Chinese-American author and Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1962. Kingston has written three novels and several works of non-fiction about the experiences of Chinese Americans.

<i>Mrs Dalloway</i> 1925 novel by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post–First World War England. It is one of Woolf's best-known novels.

<i>A Room of Ones Own</i> book by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in September 1929. The work is based on two lectures Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, women's constituent colleges at the University of Cambridge.

Dame Hermione Lee, is a British biographer, literary critic and academic. She is a former President of Wolfson College, Oxford, and a former Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford and professorial fellow of New College. She is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature.

Queenie Dorothy Leavis was an English literary critic and essayist.

<i>The Years</i> book

The Years is a 1937 novel by Virginia Woolf, the last she published in her lifetime. It traces the history of the genteel Pargiter family from the 1880s to the "present day" of the mid-1930s.

Jane Marcus (1938–2015) was a pioneering feminist literary scholar, specializing in women writers of the Modernist era, but especially in the social and political context of their writings. Focusing on Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Nancy Cunard, among many others, she devised groundbreaking analyses of Woolf's writings, upending a generation of criticism that ignored feminist, pacifist, and socialist themes in much of Woolf's work and critique of imperialism and bourgeois society. Marcus's understanding of Woolf's place within the larger context of English literature has become prevailing wisdom today in the fields affected by her theorization and research, despite the controversial nature of her positions when they were originally formulated and how much opposition she garnered from earlier scholars and critics.

<i>Regarding the Pain of Others</i> 2003 book-length essay by Susan Sontag

Regarding the Pain of Others is a 2003 book-length essay by Susan Sontag, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was her last published book before her death in 2004. It is regarded by many to be a follow-up or addendum to On Photography, despite the fact that the two essay collections convey Sontag's radically different opinions about photography. The essay is especially interested in war photography. Using photography as evidence for her opinions, Sontag sets out to answer one of the three questions posed in Virginia Woolf's book Three Guineas, "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?"

This is a bibliography of works by the English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf.

<i>Writing War</i> book by Lynne Hanley

Writing War: Fiction, Gender, & Memory is a 1991 text on women authors, war stories, and literary criticism by American professor Lynne Hanley.

Susan Sellers is a British author, translator, editor and novelist. She is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews, and co-General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the writings of Virginia Woolf. Sellers' first novel, Vanessa and Virginia, is a fictionalised account of the life of Vanessa Bell and of her complex relationship with her sister. It has also been translated into sixteen languages, including Chinese(Nanjing University Press, 2012), Spanish(emece, 2011), Turkish(Sel, 2011), French(editions autrement, 2011), Swedish(Ordfront, 2010) and Dutch, and was adapted for the stage by Elizabeth Wright and directed by Gersch in 2009. The play premiered in Aix-en-Provence on 17 September 2010, and toured in the UK, France, Germany and Poland, which culminated in a 3-week run at Riverside Studios, London. Her second novel, Given the Choice, is set in the contemporary art and music worlds, focusses on a strong and contentious central character, Marion, and gives the reader a choice of three possible endings. As the cover explains, "Given the Choice is a novel about growing older and growing up, about making choices and learning to live with them."

Hualing Nieh Engle, née Nieh Hua-ling, is a Chinese novelist, fiction writer, and poet. She is a professor emerita at the University of Iowa.

"Modern Fiction" is an essay by Virginia Woolf. The essay was written in 1919 but published in 1921 with a series of short stories called Monday or Tuesday. The essay is a criticism of writers and literature from the previous generation. It also acts as a guide for writers of modern fiction to write what they feel, not what society or publishers want them to write.

Julia Stephen English philanthropist, wife of Leslie Stephen, mother of Virginia Woolf

Julia Prinsep Stephen was a celebrated Englishwoman, noted for her beauty as a Pre-Raphaelite model and philanthropist. She was the wife of the biographer Leslie Stephen and mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, members of the Bloomsbury Group.

<i>A Letter to a Young Poet</i> letter by Virginia Woolf

A Letter to a Young Poet was an epistolary letter by Virginia Woolf, written in 1932 to John Lehman, laying out her views on modern poetry.

Lady Gertrude Helena Bone was a British writer who published during the Edwardian era. She wrote short stories, three novels, and several illustrated collections.