restricted access Virginia Woolf Against Empire (review)
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Reviewed by
Kathy Phillips. Virginia Woolf Against Empire. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. xi + 267 pp.

Virginia Woolf studies are being revitalized once again, this time by an expanded political focus on race and colonialism just as, twenty years ago, they were remade by feminist criticism. Now, in the wake of the conference papers and journal articles that have opened up this suggestive territory, comes Kathy Phillips’s Virginia Woolf Against Empire, a relatively comprehensive study of Woolf’s literary responses to British imperialism. Phillips surveys most of Woolf’s fiction, as well as the rarely discussed play Freshwater, to trace Woolf’s critique of empire as both inherently evil and crucially linked to other systems of oppression, preeminently gender relations. According to Phillips, Woolf made her critique with characteristic obliqueness by juxtaposing phrases and sentences to imply a condemnation of imperialism. Phillips’s portrait of Woolf as a committed social critic is appealing, and her characterization of Woolf’s indirect technique makes sense given Woolf’s general avoidance of direct polemic in her fiction. Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf Against Empire does not live up the considerable promise of its subject and its premises. While it has its strengths, its analysis is too simple to do justice to either Woolf or imperialism.

Phillips does offer several persuasive observations. In her discussion of The Waves, her portrait of Louis (anachronistically called a multinational businessman) uncovers recurring references to empire in his monologues and effectively links his deprived childhood to his professional acquisitiveness. And, without breaking much new ground, she does establish Between the Acts as a concertedly anti-imperialist work. Nevertheless, her interpretations are often marred by overreading and a heavy-handed insistence on imperialism as the “real topic” of Woolf’s writing. The result is a series of one-dimensional, coercive readings [End Page 176] that, for this reader, provoked a slew of protesting marginal comments. Phillips has an excellent eye for references to economics and politics, but too often she inflates her claims beyond credibility. When a character refers to the Pharaohs and closes his hands “like the sides of a dock,” Woolf has not necessarily, as Phillips argues, made a critique of British action in Suez.

Phillips’s treatment of imperialism has similar flaws. What she calls the “intricate interrelations” among systems of oppressions are not very intricate in her analysis. Ideology is reduced to a series of “isms”—sexism, racism, capitalism, militarism, materialism, and imperialism—which, placed side by side, resemble one another. While Phillips demonstrates quite ably that Woolf describes different forms of oppression in terms of each other, she does not attempt a more systematic, precise, or complex analysis of the connections and differences among these sets of power relations. In fact, she seems uninterested in other analyses that might flesh out the complexities of these juxtapositions. It is especially disappointing that, because of her focus on the novels, she does not attempt a sustained reading of Three Guineas, Woolf’s most complete attempt to theorize the relationship between class, sex, capital, and empire. Other commentators from Catherine MacKinnon to Sir William Blackstone are quoted in sound bites from secondary sources, without attention to the nuances of their arguments, and historical context is provided in brief summaries, often only a few sentences long and sometimes consisting of undigested factual information. Thus, Mary Datchet’s fantasies of “monsters couchant in the sand” in Night and Day is glossed with a list of England’s desert territories. Nor does the book delve very deeply into the feminist criticism of the last twenty years or the growing body of work on race and imperialism. These perspectives would certainly have complicated Phillips’s view of empire, gender, and ideology.

They would probably have forced a more complex consideration of Woolf’s own attitudes as well. Much of Woolf’s writing might be “against Empire,” but she was a privileged member of it as well. Phillips, however, exempts Woolf from any involvement in the ideologies of oppression, except as a critic. Without wishing to blunt the edge of Woolf’s radicalism, one might nevertheless consider her sometimes unquestioned sense of class and racial superiority, clearly visible in...