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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
The Rage of Virginia Woolf
Summer 2002

In 1938, the year my mother left Germany for good and never saw her parents again, Virginia Woolf published a book entitled Three Guineas. It was about how women could prevent war.

Virginia Woolf’s name is not normally associated with great affairs of state, of course. Quite the reverse. She regarded them with a fastidious disgust, as a vulgar distraction from the true business of life: attendance to the finer nuances of one’s own emotional state. Along with the other members of the Bloomsbury group—that influential and endlessly chronicled little band of British aesthetes of which she was a moving spirit—she was dedicated to the proposition that beings as sensitive as they to the music of life ought not to be bound by gross social conventions, and that it was their duty (as well as their pleasure) to act solely upon the promptings of the sympathetic vibrations of their souls. In a demotic age, however, their justification for personal license could not long be confined to socially superior types such as themselves. Before very long, what was permissible for the elite became mandatory for hoi polloi; and when the predictable social disaster occurred, in the form of a growing underclass devoid of moral bearings, the elite that had absorbed (indeed, reveled in) Bloomsbury’s influence took the growth of the underclass as evidence that their original grudge against society and its conventions had been justified all along. The philosophy brought about the disaster, and the disaster justified the philosophy.

The Cambridge Guide to English Literature describes Three Guineas as an established classic—but a classic of what genre exactly? Of political philosophy? Contemporary history? Sociological analysis? No: it is a locus classicus of self-pity and victimhood as a genre in itself. In this, it was certainly ahead of its time, and it deserves to be on the syllabus of every department of women’s studies at every third-rate establishment of higher education. Never were the personal and the political worse confounded.

The book is important because it is a naked statement of the worldview that is unstated and implicit in all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, most of which have achieved an iconic status in the republic of letters and in the humanities departments of the English-speaking world, where they have influenced countless young people. The book, therefore, is truly a seminal text. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf lets us know without disguise what she really thinks: and what she thinks is by turns grandiose and trivial, resentful and fatuous. The book might be better titled: How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.

The guineas of the title refer to a unit of currency: a pound and a shilling. Even in Woolf’s day, no guinea coin or guinea banknote actually existed. It was purely a notional unit, used for transactions of superior social status, such as the purchase of art at auction, the payment of surgeons, or, as in this book, the giving of charitable contributions. Virginia Woolf writes of three requests made of her for donations of one guinea each: the first by an eminent lawyer for his society for the protection of intellectual freedom and the promotion of peace; the second by the head of a Cambridge University women’s college to help rebuild and enlarge the college; and the third by the treasurer of a society for the aid of professional women, to enable them to buy the evening clothes necessary to their status in life.

Three Guineas tries to show how the threat of war is linked to the condition of women. War throughout the ages, Mrs. Woolf says, has been a male activity, and during those same ages men have suppressed women: ergo, if men cease to suppress women and treat them as equals, there will be no war. One might think that to descend from the aesthetic to the ideological plane would be distasteful for a woman of such languorous, highly strung, thoroughbred equine beauty as she; but under the influence of a general idea, Mrs. Woolf revealed herself to be a thoroughgoing philistine of the most revolutionary and destructive type, quite prepared to bring the temple crashing down about her ears, that her grudges might be paid back. Let my ego be satisfied, though civilization fall!

My copy of the book is a slightly battered first edition that was once in the library of Michel Leiris, the French writer and anthropologist who knew all the best-worst (or worst-best) people, such as Sartre and de Beauvoir. Leiris’s annotations consist only of a list of three pages of special impact to him, written in the elegant hand of a bygone era, and small crosses on the top outside corners of the pages themselves—pages 62, 63, and 64.

And what do pages 62, 63, and 64 say? On the preceding page, page 61, Mrs. Woolf begins her discursive reply to a request for a contribution for the rebuilding and extension of a Cambridge women’s college. Where education is concerned, Mrs. Woolf certainly does not want more of the same—the granting of the same opportunities to more women—having previously argued that all the education prior to the Great War did not prevent that cataclysm from happening but on the contrary actually provoked it by fostering a spirit of competition among those who underwent it. “Let us,” she writes, “ . . . discuss as quickly as we can the sort of education that is needed.” Since the past has been nothing but a catalog of vice, folly, cruelty, and the suppression of women, the college of her dreams “must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own.”

And what might these lines be? “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.” This is surely an odd architectural position for an aesthete to take: a position whose baleful practical consequences are, alas, visible throughout the whole island of Great Britain, where hardly a townscape has escaped being ruined by it. The avoidance of dust (and therefore presumably of housework or other oppressive forms of maintenance) is elevated to the pantheon of life’s highest goals: and Mrs. Woolf’s use of the word “perpetrate” in connection with “traditions” is indicative of her revolutionary state of mind, since “perpetrate” generally takes as its object a heinous crime or a massacre or some other disaster. For Mrs. Woolf, tradition in general, not any particular tradition, is what needs to be eliminated.

What furnishings should the college of Mrs. Woolf’s dreams contain? Certainly not a repository of the best that has been said and thought. “Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases,” she advises. No: “Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply.” (By now we have passed on to the pages bearing Michel Leiris’s marks.) What is this but a manifesto for Cool Britannia avant la lettre, an expression of the shallow belief that the new is better than the old merely by virtue of its novelty?

And what, most importantly, would be taught in Mrs. Woolf’s college of dreams? “Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.” (Let us remind ourselves that she is talking of the university of Milton, Wordsworth, and Wittgenstein.) “The . . . college should teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people; such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature.” The superior virtue of poverty and the poor is assumed; and Mrs. Woolf obviously conceives of medicine as a kind of Gandhian cottage industry (though she personally always availed herself of the best specialists available), carried out by bucolics and wise-women, gathering herbs by moonlight and operating, if at all, on kitchen tables. She continues: The college “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.” Not being a systematic thinker, to put it kindly, Mrs. Woolf here fails to realize that she is proposing to enclose women in precisely the little domestic world from which she also claims to be rescuing them.

Mrs. Woolf’s ideal college—the kind that would prevent rather than promote wars—would not be in any way elitist. It would “not [be] parcelled out into the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid.” It would, rather, be a place “where all the different degrees and kinds of mind, body and soul met and co-operated.” It would be entirely nonjudgmental, even as to intellect. For her, the urge to compete does not inhere in man’s nature, nor does it result in anything other than violent strife. Henceforth, there is to be no testing oneself against the best, with the possibility, even the likelihood, of failure: instead, one is perpetually to immerse oneself in the tepid bath of self-esteem, mutual congratulation, and benevolence toward all.

Of course, it is a mistake to suppose that a hypothetical future state of perfect toleration means toleration in or of the present: far from it. Mrs. Woolf would not let her opponents, or those who think differently, live in peace: on the page after the last marked by Michel Leiris, she gives full expression to her slash-and-burn concept of cultural renewal: “No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan. . . . [T]herefore 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 heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows [before, presumably, being burned to death] and cry “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”’”

This incendiary passage, Mrs. Woolf insists in her very next sentence, is not mere empty rhetoric: though she subsequently retreats a little from her incitement to arson by pointing out the self-defeating nature of that crime, insofar as the college she was proposing to burn down was necessary to train women to be able to earn the guinea of discretionary income with which to buy the materials to burn it down in the first place. What a dilemma! The passion, if not the logic, of her argument is clear and perhaps casts a new light on the deliberate destructiveness of the motives that lay behind her literary innovations. She was nothing if not a great hater of all that had gone before her.

What was the wellspring of this great hatred? No doubt some would say it was the sexual abuse that she was alleged to have suffered as a child at the hands of her two half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth: but the extent and gravity of that abuse is open to question and would in any case hardly explain (let alone justify) the desire of a famous and successful 56-year-old novelist to destroy civilization in the name of preventing war. And if by any chance it were the explanation, it would certainly not redound to her credit: for the conclusion that an entire civilization needed to be destroyed because it permitted her sexual abuse is no better than the conclusion that the existence of any injustice demonstrates that all efforts to achieve justice are a sham. A self-pitying lack of proportion, far from alien to Mrs. Woolf, was in fact the very signature of her mind.

Mrs. Woolf belonged by birth not merely to the upper middle classes but to the elite of the intellectual elite. She was a Stephen, her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, being an eminent essayist, editor, and critic, the founding editor of the monumental and magnificent Dictionary of National Biography and at one time the publisher of Thomas Hardy. He knew everyone who was anyone in the literary and intellectual world. Mrs. Woolf’s uncle, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, was an eminent legal scholar and historian, jurist, judge, and political philosopher, who wrote a brilliant and still-classical riposte to John Stuart Mill’s essay on liberty. She grew up in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere in which it would clearly be difficult to equal, let alone surpass, the achievements of her elders. One way to surpass her father and her uncle in achievement was, of course, to disparage and destroy all they had erected.

Her historiography was very modern: she scoured the records to justify the backward projection of her current resentments. For her, there was no such thing as the human condition, with its inevitable discontent and limitations. She thought that all the things she desired were reconcilable, so that freedom and security, for example, or artistic effort and complete selflessness, might abide in perpetual harmony. As a female member of the British upper middle class and one of what she called “the daughters of educated men,” she felt both socially superior to the rest of the world and peculiarly, indeed uniquely, put upon. The very locution, “the daughters of educated men,” is an odd one, capturing her oscillation between grandiosity and self-pity: she meant by it that class of women who, by virtue of their gentle birth and hereditarily superior minds, could not be expected to perform physical labor of any kind, but who were prevented by the injustice of “the system” from participating fully in public and intellectual affairs.

In her descriptions of this class, self-pity vies with snobbery. Her reply to the philanthropist who requested a donation to buy evening clothes for professional women vibrates with outrage that the daughters of educated men should find themselves in financial difficulties (which, in her view, should properly belong only to social inferiors). “Not only are we incomparably weaker than the men of our own class,” she writes to the eminent lawyer; “we are weaker than the women of the working class.” “Economically, the educated man’s daughter is much on a level with the farm labourer.” “Society has been so kind to you [the educated men, one of whom is her interlocutor], so harsh to us [the daughters of educated men, of whom she is one]: it is an ill-fitting form that distorts the truth; deforms the mind; fetters the will.” It must therefore be destroyed—presumably by those whose will has been fettered and whose minds have been deformed.

For those who actually know anything about the hardships endured by the British working class, male and female, during the years of the Depression, statements that insinuate an equality, or even a superiority, of suffering on the part of the daughters of educated men are little short of nauseating: but they would clearly appeal to the pampered resentful, a class that was to grow exponentially in the postwar years of sustained prosperity.

According to Mrs. Woolf, women of her own class were so dependent upon men that for centuries they were incapable of having, much less expressing, opinions of their own. For her, “independent opinion” was indispensably based upon independent income, though later in the book she lays down criteria for the independence of income that are so stringent and rarefied that only heiresses could meet them. Poor struggling Mrs. Oliphant, for example, the Victorian novelist and biographer, came nowhere near meeting them, be-cause she was obliged to earn money herself for the upkeep of her children. (Mrs. Woolf suggested as a solution that the daughters of educated women should be paid a government subsidy, so that they might create works of art—or do nothing at all—free of all sordid monetary conditions.) Her desire to have it all ways at once—to be utterly independent because unconditionally supported by the tax-payers—illustrates her kind of querulous and irresponsible sense of entitlement.

Her sole conclusion from the entire literature of the nineteenth century is that women were constantly ridiculed for “attempting to enter their solitary profession,” marriage—as if that vast and magisterial literature accorded women no other role in life; as if it depicted relations between men and women as being nothing but domination and subordination. So grotesque is this as a reading of, say, Jane Austen that it amounts to an outright lie. And is Mrs. Micawber an object of contempt or of affection, even admiration?

As for the fabled influence of women on men, Mrs. Woolf will have none of it. She writes that it is so “beneath our contempt” that “many of us would prefer to call ourselves prostitutes simply and to take our stand openly under the lamps of Piccadilly Circus rather than use it.” I confess that I find the idea of Mrs. Woolf as a streetwalker under the lamps of Piccadilly Circus irresistibly funny: but could there be a clearer case of the triumph of hyperbolic self-pity over honesty?

No interpretation of events, trends, or feelings is too silly or contradictory for Mrs. Woolf if it helps to fan her resentment. Explaining the evident enthusiasm of the daughters of educated men at the outbreak of the Great War, she writes, “So profound was [their] unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its inanity that [they] would undertake any task however menial [such as working in factories and hospitals], exercise any function however fatal that enabled [them] to escape. . . . [U]nconsciously [they] desired our splendid war.” That they might have been actuated by the same patriotism as the men who volunteered for the slaughter was for her an impossibility, for she denies that the daughters of educated men were truly English: like the proletarians of Marx’s imagination, they have no country. “The law of England,” she writes, “denies us, and let us hope it will long continue to deny us, the full stigma of nationality.” As ever wanting it both ways, she complains at one moment of exclusion and at the next, that inclusion is not worthwhile. She is like a humorless version of Groucho Marx, who did not want to be a member of any club that would accept him. What is a joke for Groucho Marx is serious political philosophy for Virginia Woolf.

She explains the falling birthrate among the daughters of educated men by their refusal any longer to provide cannon fodder for wars: thus ignoring the fact that the decline in fertility had been long and continuous, affecting all classes of society—even in Sweden, which had not had a war since Napoleonic times.

Not that one could entirely blame Mrs. Woolf for her lack of dialectical rigor, for, as she writes, “The daughters of educated men have always done their thinking from hand to mouth. . . . They have thought while they stirred the pot, while they rocked the cradle.” This piece of self-pity drew the memorable riposte from the literary critic Q. D. Leavis, herself no unqualified admirer of the common man, that Mrs. Woolf wouldn’t know which end of the cradle to stir.

Resentment playing so large a part in Mrs. Woolf’s mental economy, much of her intellectual effort went into justifying it. She is thus a very modern figure indeed, even though she died 60 years ago. Her lack of recognition that anything had ever been achieved or created before her advent that was worthy of protection and preservation is all but absolute, along with her egotism. How, she asks, can we, the daughters of educated men, enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings?—a question that implies that such professionals as Lister, Lord Birkenhead, or Marconi, working during Mrs. Woolf’s lifetime, were neither civilized themselves nor contributed anything to civilization. By so contemptuously denying the achievements of the past, bought at so great a cost of thought and effort, she totally misunderstood the material and intellectual conditions that made possible her own life, with its languorous contemplation of the exquisite.

The only occasion in the book when Mrs. Woolf implicitly recognizes past achievement, she does so not to praise it but to denigrate the lack of it among her fellow countrymen. Suppose an outsider (as she far from truthfully calls herself) feels the temptation to patriotism: “Then she will compare English painting with French painting; English music with German music; English literature with Greek literature. . . . When all these comparisons have been faithfully made by the use of reason, the outsider will find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference.” There is nothing here of Shakespeare or Newton, of Wren or Turner—an omission extraordinary in the daughter of the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. And it is extraordinary to believe that patriotism is justified only by supremacy in all the arts and sciences simultaneously—a doctrine that would be exceedingly hard on, say, a Norwegian or a Bolivian patriot.

Patriotism is for Mrs. Woolf only one of the many “unreal loyalties” against which she rails. Loyalty to school, to university, to church, to club, to family, to traditions or structures of any kind—even municipal pride—are to her the equivalent of Marx’s false consciousness. The only clue that Mrs. Woolf offers as to what she considers real rather than unreal loyalties occurs in a brief discussion of the Antigone of Sophocles: “You want to know which are the unreal loyalties which we must despise, which are the real loyalties which we must honour? Consider Antigone’s distinction between the laws and the Law. . . . Private judgement is still free in private; and that freedom is the essence of freedom.” Louis XIV claimed only that he was the state: Mrs. Woolf claimed that she was the Law. For Mrs. Woolf, loyalty to herself was the only real, true loyalty.

It comes as no surprise that a thinker (or perhaps I should say a feeler) such as Mrs. Woolf, with her emotional and intellectual dishonesty, should collapse all relevant moral distinctions, a technique vital to all schools of resentment. Time and again we find her misappropriating the connotation of one thing and attaching it to another, by insinuating a false analogy: that since both the British policeman and the Nazi stormtrooper wore a uniform, the British policeman was a brute. It is one of the chief characteristics of modern rhetoric, designed not so much to find the truth as (in the words of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam) to “maintain your rage.”

One would hardly guess from reading Three Guineas that it was written at a uniquely dangerous historical juncture, in the shadow of a barbaric threat. It would be unfair to blame Mrs. Woolf for lacking the prescience of the catastrophe to come that many other people lacked: though she had had the advantage of seeing the virulence of the Nazis firsthand when she toured Hitler’s Germany with her Jewish husband, whom the Foreign Office had advised not to go, as his safety could not be assured. But all that the experience taught her was that English society—with its unfairness toward women, especially the daughters of the educated class—was proto-Nazi, if not worse. At least the Nazis had the courage of their brutality and were not hypocrites, like the English.

Thus, when a man wrote to the newspaper to suggest that the employment of women was a cause of mass unemployment among men, and that the real place of women was in the home, Mrs. Woolf comments: “There we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes he has the right, whether given by God, Nature, sex or race is immaterial, to dictate to other human beings how they live; what they shall do.”

Comparing the letter writer’s views on the subject with those of Hitler, she continues: “But where is the difference? Are they not both saying the same thing? Are they not both the voice of Dictators, whether they speak English or German, and are we not all agreed that the dictator when we meet him abroad is a very dangerous as well as a very ugly animal? And he is here among us, raising his ugly head, spitting his poison, small still, curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf, but in the heart of England. Is it not from this egg . . . to quote Mr Wells . . . that ‘the practical obliteration of [our] freedom will spring?’ And is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?”

Her inability to distinguish metaphor from the literal truth is unremitting. Discussing the struggle for female emancipation, she says: “It is true that the combatants did not inflict flesh wounds; chivalry forbad; but you will agree that a battle that wastes time is as deadly as a battle that wastes blood.”

As deadly? As deadly? It is small wonder that Mrs. Woolf finds it difficult to draw a distinction between the Church of England and the Nazi party. Citing a Church of England commission that recommended against the ordination of women, she writes: “The emphasis which both priests and dictators place upon the necessity for two worlds [the public for men and the domestic for women] is enough to prove that it is essential to their domination.”

Over and over she lets her rage and resentment blind her. Discussing the need, in the name of peace and the avoidance of all competition between people, to eschew all ceremonial and public distinctions, she writes that right-minded people such as she “will dispense with personal distinctions—medals, ribbons, badges, hoods, gowns—not from any dislike of personal adornment, but because of the obvious effect of such distinctions to constrict, to stereotype and to destroy. Here, as so often, the example of the Fascist States is at hand to instruct us—for if we have no example of what we wish to be, we have, what is probably equally valuable, a daily and illuminating example of what we do not wish to be. With the example, then, that they give us of the power of medals, symbols, orders . . . to hypnotize the human mind, it must be our aim not to submit ourselves to such hypnotism.” There is thus no real difference between a university degree convocation and a Nuremberg rally.

In reply to the lawyer who asks her for a contribution to promote peace, she writes: “The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or in Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain, is now apparent to you.” In other words, there is no relevant difference between the defects of Britain and those of Germany, or between the Garrick Club (which still admits no women members) and Treblinka. Referring to the dictator Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, she writes, “And he shut [Antigone] not in Holloway [the women’s prison to which suffragettes who broke the law were briefly sent] or in a concentration camp, but in a tomb.” Holloway equals a concentration camp: Mrs. Woolf’s signature mode of argument.

For Mrs. Woolf, the man in uniform is inherently evil, whether the uniform be that of the SS or the Great Western Railway, of the Gestapo or the Metropolitan Police. There is no difference; it all leads to the same calamity. Oddly enough, the one comparison that Mrs. Woolf does not make is that between the Nazis’ book-burning and her own proposal to burn down colleges with libraries, replacing the old books with new ones. The Nazis, too, were all in favor of new books. Had they ever occupied Britain, she would have found common cause with them, since to her the culture and intellectual freedom that the eminent peace-loving lawyer wants her to protect are “rather abstract goddesses.”

A person who believed that all the established institutions of her own country were tyrannical, as tyrannical as those of the worst tyrannies ever established in the history of the world, and who believed that all loyalty to country or to anything other than one’s own inner freedom was false, that all uniforms were equally evil and therefore that there was nothing to choose between them, that war on all occasions was a manifestation of male psychopathology and the desire to dominate brought about by competitive education, and that therefore there could be no such thing as a just war, would have made a wonderful collaborator, ready with every sophistical excuse to hand. She was most unlikely to be a furious defender of her country against the foreign invader: Mrs. Woolf believed she had nothing to defend, her life as the daughter of an educated man being already so intolerable. When in 1936 a British Member of Parliament, Sir E. F. Fletcher, “urged the House of Commons to stand up to dictators,” Mrs. Woolf saw not the desire to oppose radical evil but only “a desire for dominance,” exactly analogous in her opinion (and here I can hardly refrain from pointing out that I am rendering the literal truth of what she wrote) to the demand of a husband, whose wife appeared in a Bristol court at the same time as Fletcher made his speech, applying for financial support after she left him because he had insisted that she address him as Sir and obey his every command without delay. It was not even Hitler, nota bene, who was analogous in Mrs. Woolf’s mind to the domineering husband, but the man who proposed to stand up to Hitler.

There was no more intellectual freedom in Britain than in Nazi Germany, as far as Mrs. Woolf was concerned, because “Mrs. Oliphant sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living,” and all writers were more or less in the same position. She protests and complains as a woman and as a writer, but above all as a human being, who has discovered with bitterness that being born privileged does not alter the conditions and limitations of human existence.

So what, in Mrs. Woolf’s opinion, should women actually do if war with Germany came? Since it was evidently a matter of indifference if the Nazis won (every British male being already a virtual Nazi), the answer was obvious to Mrs. Woolf: they should do nothing.

“Their first duty . . . would be not to fight with arms. . . . Next they would refuse . . . to make munitions or nurse the wounded [because the prospect of being nursed if wounded would give men a perverse incentive to fight]. . . . [T]he next duty to which they would pledge themselves [would be] not to incite their brothers to fight, or to dissuade them, but to maintain an attitude of complete indifference.” And she commended as wise and courageous the mayoress of the London suburb of Woolwich, who made a speech in December 1937, in which she said that she “would not even so much as darn a sock to help in a war.”

Well, war came—as it happens, not so very long after Mrs. Woolf wrote her book and my mother arrived in England. Strangely enough, my mother, who was 17 at the time (about 40 years younger than Mrs. Woolf) and who had been denied an education in a far more forceful manner than anything to which Mrs. Woolf and the daughters of educated men had been subjected, was able despite her disadvantages to spot at once the morally relevant difference between Britain and her erstwhile homeland. Had Mrs. Woolf’s views prevailed, of course, my mother’s life would have been a short one. Failing to notice the brutal dictatorship under which the daughters of educated men lived, she became a fire-watcher by night during the Blitz and a mechanic constructing tank engines by day. She did not refuse to knit socks.

Once the war started and the bombs began to fall (destroying the Woolfs’ London house), even Mrs. Woolf began to think that a Nazi victory might not be such a good thing. Even more astonishing, she began to see virtues in the very people whom previously she had only disdained. Writing to the composer Ethel Smyth in 1940, she said: “What I’m finding odd and agreeable and unwonted is the admiration this war creates—for every sort of person: chars, shopkeepers, even more remarkably, for politicians—Winston at least—and the tweed-wearing, sterling dull women here . . . with their grim good sense.”

Eventually, Mrs. Woolf must have wondered from what deep source the virtues she noticed had arisen—or could they have been present all along and she had failed to notice them? Might the revelation by the war of the utter frivolity of her previous attitudinizing have contributed to her decision to commit suicide? If the good life is a matter of judgment, the war proved that all her adult life she had none. My mother, with her wrench by day and helmet by night, did more for civilization (a word that Mrs. Woolf enclosed in quotation marks in Three Guineas, as if did not really exist) than Mrs. Woolf had ever done, with her jeweled prose disguising her narcissistic rage.

Had Mrs. Woolf survived to our time, however, she would at least have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind—shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal—had triumphed among the elites of the Western world.

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