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We should be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s statue is the latest to come under review

Artillery Row

“A woman must have a bust and a memorial of her own, if she has written good enough fiction”. Whilst this wasn’t exactly what Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, it might as well have been for those angered by Camden Council’s decision to “review” the statues in the borough. The decision is part of a move to address statues that have legacies of “racism, slavery, … [and] imperialism”, and to make the commemorations more “inclusive”.

There is, of course, an argument to be made for the removal of Woolf’s statue. Her diaries are littered with odious racial epithets and descriptions, and, despite having married the Jewish Leonard Woolf, she was an undeniable anti-Semite. No Cecil Rhodes, but no saint either.

Woolf’s snottiness spills over into her fiction

And there are plenty of people — don’t shout it too loudly, but esteemed Critic contributors amongst them — who would advocate removing the statue for her lack of literary ability. They are joined by Tom Stoppard who, in his film Enigma (2001) includes the line “the greatest service that Virginia Woolf ever offered to English literature was drowning herself”, and both generations of the Amis family.

In a letter to Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis declared that when reading a novel by Woolf, he wants “to keep saying ‘No, he didn’t’, ‘No. it didn’t happen as you describe it, ‘No, that’s just what she didn’t say’.” Even the 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo expressed her dislike of To the Lighthouse (1927).

Experimental, confusing, unabashedly modernist — Virginia Woolf is not everyone’s cup of tea, but does this add to her unworthiness for a public statue?

The fact of the matter is that Woolf herself might not have appreciated such a commemoration. Whilst the bust was created during Woolf’s lifetime — by Bloomsbury Set artist Stephen Tomlin in 1931 — the copy of it that is currently being “reviewed” by Camden Council was erected in 2004, long after the author’s suicide in 1941. Woolf herself was somewhat more ambiguous about courting mass appeal. 

The Stephens were more likely to be found in the pages of periodicals than they were in the peerage

In his 2020 novel Inside Story, Martin Amis’s characters rail against Woolf for being a snob: “Imagine reading Ulysses and mainly coming away with the notion that Joyce was vulgar”. But, despite Amis’s denigrations, Woolf would have had no problems being thought of as elitist. Her comments on Ulysses are hardly covert in their haughtiness. She calls the book “illiterate, undebred” and goes on to declare it the work of a “self-taught working man”, a type she believed to be “egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating”. 

Admittedly these thoughts were confined to her diaries, but she did not moderate the bohemian disdain for the lower-classes as she read on:

I should be reading the last immortal chapter of Ulysses: but I’m hot with Badmington [sic] in the orchard . . . we dine in 35 minutes; & I must change

Badminton, changing for dinner, and houses with orchards — it is easy to see how John Carey’s brilliant book about the darlings of modernism and their snobbishness The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) had a point. 

Woolf’s snottiness spills over into her fiction. Charles Tansley is such a drag on the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse not simply because he is a dull young philosophy student, but because of his class. He is insecure, unknowing, and shaken by the scene that greets him — and, as a result, manages to annoy even the graciously accommodating Mrs Ramsay.

Woolf even tied her romantic interest in Vita Sackville-West to her aristocratic birth: “I trace her passions 500 years back, & they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine” she wrote in her diary.

This is not to say that Woolf was an unbridled aristocrat. Her family, The Stephens, were more likely to be found in the pages of periodicals than they were in the peerage, and they favoured literate intellectualism over nobility. Woolf’s mother, Julia, modelled for Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter. And indeed, A Room of One’s Own is nothing if not uncompromising about the flawed aristocratic laws of primogeniture.

Woolf’s snobbishness, then, depended on something other than birth. It was founded on intellect — the construction of a coterie who “get it” — alongside an admittedly more shallow criteria. Her first (and cruelly underappreciated) novel, The Voyage Out (1915), is marked by an unrelenting elitism about beauty. Woolf’s speaker relishes a man’s ugliness, before remarking “naturally, looking like that, he was lazy, and ambitious, and full of moods and faults”.

And yet, despite this catalogue of snobbery — a list which could be ten times as large — it is hard to deny Woolf’s enduring appeal. She has pride of place on university curricula, and has entered the popular consciousness as the model of a feminist writing woman. And this is to say nothing of the near-cult status of her relationship with Vita, which was even dramatised in a film directed by Chanya Button in 2018. 

But, if Camden Council is truly wanting to improve the “inclusivity” of their range of statues, Woolf should be the first to go — and I think she might even have said so herself.

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