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  • Virginia Woolf’s Veil:The Feminist Intellectual and the Organization of Public Space

Let us then by way of a very elementary beginning lay before you a photograph—a crudely coloured photograph—of your world as it appears to us who see it from the threshold of the private house; through the veil that St. Paul still lays upon our eyes; from the bridge which connects the private house with the world of public life.

—Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas1

Two years after the compulsory unveiling of women in Iran, Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas.2 In its invocation of the veil—coupled with a key reference to the Middle Eastern harem—the novel suggests the ways in which these linked emblems of the confinement of women are symbolic of a culture where space is segregated on the basis of gender (Milani 5). But the concept of the gendered segregation of space is only the most obvious of what Woolf describes; she also frames her culture in a Kodak moment, taking its picture as she, one of the "daughters of educated men," stands at the threshold that separates her private world from the public world of men, shut up with other women of her class "like slaves in a harem" (135). Even [End Page 722] as a few Islamic nations began to drop the veil, Woolf's tongue-in-cheek adoption of the veil of St. Paul is both deliciously ironic and well suited to her point about English patriarchy that appearance and substance are indeed two different things.

My purpose here is to examine the concept of spatial arrangement in the text of Woolf's Three Guineas as it functions on multiple levels that call into play text and context, seen and unseen, absent and present. My essay consequently maps textual space in the novel as 1) Woolf maps geographical space divided by gender; 2) as intertextual space between Three Guineas and its research source, "Monks House Papers"; and 3) as Woolf's organization of textual space around and in relation to her illustrations. It is, in my view, the double metaphor of the veil linked to the harem/private house that helps to bind inner, inter, and extra visual/textual spaces into a cohesive argument.

In the earliest reference to women's seclusion in the private house in Three Guineas, Woolf imagines a woman of her own class, the "daughter of an educated man," as she "issues from the shadow of the private house, and stands on the bridge which lies between the old world and the new" to contemplate the power of her ability to earn her own money and escape the slavery of dependence on a father or other patriarchal figure (30). Perhaps Woolf imagines this young woman to be her descendant, empowered by feminist intellectuals like herself to step outside private space. For if this young woman cannot be imagined, then it is utterly futile for a woman like Woolf to respond to the fictional letter from an English gentleman, the imaginary impetus for the text of Three Guineas, which asks her, "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?" (7).

Woolf's response to an impoverished vision of the world of women in the West was to invoke the iconography of the East. As Leila Ahmed writes:

It is the idea of the veil much more than the veil's material presence that is the powerful signifier: of women's proper seclusion and relegation to a private world, of their proper non-participation, passivity and even invisibility—metaphorically signified by the veil—in the public domain. And so long as the veil is notionally present in a society (as it is when it is in use among a portion of society and particularly among the elite, to whose status and mores others aspire) then that society is as surely riven in two, and women—whenever possible in practice, and always, on the ideal plane—are non-participant, passive and invisible.

(160) [End Page 723]

For Woolf, though, the idea of the veil is doubly meaningful, suggesting not only the seclusion it represents in the Middle East but also an acknowledgment...

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