Books · General philosophising · Political

Writing about Writing about Writing

Virginia Woolf on Class Privilege & Literature

In her paper The Leaning Tower, (text just about available here) originally a lecture given to the Worker’s Education Association in Brighton in 1940, Woolf criticises the writers of previous two-and-a-half decades, including Auden and Louis MacNeice. Like earlier writers, they enjoyed class privilege:

‘They have all been raised above the mass of people upon a tower of stucco – that is their middle-class birth; and of gold – that is their expensive education’

But unlike them, they were not able to be ‘scarcely conscious either of [their] high station or… limited vision’, as they saw change and revolution (communist and fascist) all around: ‘all the old towers were being thrown to the ground’. The tower of class privilege was at last perilously unstable. Woolf argues that it is the leaning of this tower that gives the thirties poets their ill-fitting class consciousness:

‘Discomfort; pity for themselves; anger against society. And yet… you cannot abuse that society whole-heartedly while you continue to profit by that society. And so very naturally you abuse society in the person of some retired admiral or spinster or armament manufacturer, and by abusing them hope to escape whipping yourself. The bleat of the scapegoat sounds loud in their work, and the whimper of the schoolboy crying “Please sir, it was the other fellow, not me”.’

Woolf points out that these writers were unable to escape the privilege that to some extent tormented them. They could not discard their upbringing or education; they could not throw away their capital

‘Did DH Lawrence, a miner’s son, continue to live like a miner? No; for it is death for a writer to throw away his capital; to be forced to earn a living in a mine or a factory.’

So they stayed on their towers and wrote in ‘bitterness… confusion and compromise’. This is how Woolf explains the

‘violence of their attack upon bourgeois society and also its half-heartedness. They are profiting by a society which they abuse. They are flogging a dead horse… because a living horse… would kick them off its back… How can a writer who has no experience of a… classless society create that society? Yet… they feel compelled to preach, if not by their living, at least by their writing, the creation of a society in which everyone is equal and… free’

While she leaves us in no doubt of her low opinion of the ‘pedagogic, didactic, loudspeaker strain’ of their work, she acclaims the ‘leaning tower’ writers for ‘hav[ing]… the courage to tell the… unpleasant truth about [themselves]’

It seems to me that Woolf credits the thirties writers with a useful, a progressive first step. Amazingly, she concludes by speculating that

‘the next generation may inherit from them… a mind no longer crippled, evasive, divided. They may inherit that unconsciousness which [Woolf guesses] is necessary if writers are to get beneath the surface, and to write something that people remember when they are alone. For that great gift of unconsciousness the next generation will have to thank the creative and honest egotism of the leaning tower group.’

We might read this as the assertion that while writers are hampered by class consciousness, the burden of guilty privilege, the best kind of literature is not possible. The audience might conclude that she hopes that there will be nothing for literature to struggle and fight for, so it will be able to retreat from politics and get on with its rightful, aesthetic project. My own, possibly strained reading, based on the fact that Woolf is talking to a working-class audience in receipt of an education that might enable them to become writers, is that she hopes the broadening of the writing community will allow middle-class writers to stop trying to speak for working-class people in the ‘didactic, loudspeaker’ tone she finds so grating.

Woolf makes several efforts when she gave the lecture to point out the partiality of her own viewpoint and to encourage listeners to ‘see… with your own eyes’. She speaks as ‘we’, assuming common ground between herself and the audience.  More on this problematic aspect and analysis of the reception of the lecture/essay can be found in Erika Yoshida’s essay here

Another interesting aspect of this piece is that Woolf totally ignores gender issues, to the extent of referring to writers including Jane Austen as ‘[men] of education’. Her mildly ironic tone elsewhere leads me to suspect there might be a hint of the same here, and I can’t believe Woolf thought that class privilege was about to evaporate, gender privilege was unimportant, or that she believed these structures could be ignored.

So, the suggestion that Woolf thought the consciousness of privilege, which she apparently characterises as a sort of commendable aberration, would be able to vanish from literature is suspect to me.

I think that what she hoped for partly came to pass:  writers and readers became more diverse. Working class, female, non-white and other ‘outsider’ voices gradually began to infiltrate and shake up the literary world. So, what has happened to privileged authors? Have they stopped scapegoat-bashing, or more importantly, loud-speaking for groups they can’t claim to represent? Hardly! Have they gone back into their stabilised ivory towers and calmly settled down to write sonnets then? Is this really what Woolf wanted? The distinction between art and propaganda implicit in her lecture is unsustainable (as George Orwell points out in a contemporaneous book review) but I‘d like to credit her with a more nuanced idea than the ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ manifesto presented in the preface of Oscar Wilde’s (nauseating, to me at least) The Picture of Dorian Grey. Rather than release the middle-class from the obligation of class-consciousness, I believe Woolf hoped that modernism would force this consciousness to evolve into something more mature.


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