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  • Publication and “Public Women”: Prostitution and Censorship in Three Novels by Virginia Woolf
  • Celia Marshik (bio)

In June of 1903, more than a decade before she would publish her first novel, Virginia Woolf confessed to a friend that “I have—what you call fallen more than once [. . .] I have sold my brains, which are my virtue” (Letters 1: 79). Twenty-two years later, Woolf compared her publication outlets in another letter and queried “whats [sic] the objection to whoring after Todd [Editor of Vogue]? Better whore [. . .] than honestly and timidly and coolly and respectably copulate with the Times Lit. Sup.” (3: 200). In both letters, written at quite different stages of her career, Woolf used commercial sexuality to figure a writer’s relationship with her public. Most startlingly, her second letter upholds “whoring” at the expense of respectable intercourse, which is deprecated as a pedestrian form of union.

The importance of these passages is easy to miss because Woolf deploys an old trope for figuring authorship; writers had previously expressed the idea that “art is prostitution” (Bernheimer 1). However, Woolf’s novels indicate that she saw more than a metaphorical connection between publication and prostitution. By writing about the [End Page 853] subjects she cared about, by exploring “the courtesan [and] the harlot,” Woolf courted a rejection and punishment similar to that meted out to prostitutes (Room 88). As social reformers worked to censor women’s bodies through penal and medical codes visited upon prostitutes, who brought “private” sexuality into the “public” sphere, they also pressed government agencies for censorship of writers who explored sexuality within published works. 1

Such censorship did not keep prostitutes out of Woolf’s published novels, where she used them to interrogate the ideological organization of social space that forcibly domesticated many middle-class women. The British idiom for prostitutes—“public women”—indicates how late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century space was explicitly gendered. Since most educational and occupational opportunities were closed to her, a respectable middle- or upper-class woman was inherently private. If being a “public woman” meant sexual availability, the daughters of educated men—and women writers in particular, who were public/published women—had to challenge the separate spheres of ideology before they could assume a nondomestic role in the world. Woolf and her characters confront the prostitute as they unravel the gendered ideology of social space, and the whore is central to these texts’ contention that the public and private spheres are founded upon, and embedded within, one another through ongoing ideological and political practices—practices protected by official censorship.

Such censorship worked on women writers in an unusual fashion. 2 Catherine Gallagher observes that “the metaphor of author as whore” has “an ancient pedigree” (40) that remained troublesome for women authors through the nineteenth century (43). The activities of social purity movements in the twentieth century would revive this metaphor as women writers and prostitutes became vulnerable to policing through the marketing of their textual or sexual bodies.

Woolf clearly mistrusted contemporary social purity movements and their official mission of cleaning up the public sphere. She argued that “social reformers and philanthropists [. . .] harbor [. . .] discreditable desires under the disguise of loving their kind” (Diary 1: 293) and thus implied that those who tried to rid the public sphere of prostitution had vices of their own. Novelists of Woolf’s time could not, however, entirely dismiss the activities of social purity groups such as the National Vigilance Association (NVA), which aligned “obscene” literature [End Page 854] with the activities of prostitutes and worked to curtail both. 3 Although Woolf had significant reservations about the work of D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Radclyffe Hall, she denounced the prosecutions of these writers, which took place between 1915 and 1929, and she defended modern books from the actions of social purists and the censor. 4

A passage in the manuscript version of A Room of One’s Own indicates that official censorship had a clear impact on Woolf’s work. After reading Mary Carmichael’s observation that “Chloe liked Olivia,” Woolf’s narrator connects the suggestion of illicit sexuality (in this case, lesbianism) with obscenity trials:

there flashed into my mind the inevitable...

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