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  • Virginia Woolf's 'Harum-Scarum' Irish Wife: Gender and National Identity in The Years
  • Lisa Weihman (bio)

'As a woman I want no country. As a woman my

country is the whole world.'

(Three Guineas, 1938)

Three Guineas is Virginia Woolf's clearest statement against nationalism, and her politics are grounded in two deeply-held beliefs: first, patriotism is the primary cause of war; and second, the nation is founded and sustained through the legal and social domination of women by men.1 From her earliest years as a writer, Woolf critiques patriarchal dominance within the home and English imperial dominance throughout the world, linking these grievances as two halves of the same pernicious whole.2 Woolf's anti-nationalist beliefs grow throughout the 1930s, as she finds ample proof of the insidious nature of national self-love in the growth of fascism both in Europe and in England.3 The evolution of fascist ideologies of the Fatherland echoes in Woolf's depiction of England, particularly in her fictions of the English home, and within nearly all of her writing in the 1930s Woolf attacks the patriarchal traditions of English family life as the source of militarism and imperial aggression.

What is unusual about Three Guineas and the novel that preceded it, The Years (1937), however, is Woolf's refusal to depict women monodimensionally as the mute victims of patriarchal violence. Instead, the hybrid fictions of these texts expose women's complicity in the production of a fantasy of the national home through their support of the institutions that maintain and perpetuate nationalism as a positive value. Heteronormative gender roles are implicated in the construction of national narratives in The Years, but with a surprising twist: the novel's young female protagonist, Delia Pargiter, abandons her middle-class English family in order to fight for the cause of Irish nationalism. Mediated through the figure of Delia, the novel offers a substantial critique of women's nationalist [End Page 31] activism, with Ireland and Irish women the nearest example at hand. This might be surprising, given Woolf's critique of empire in all its manifestations and Ireland's emergence as the first post-colonial European nation, but Woolf's examination of nationalism in general and Ireland in particular in The Years suggests that fifteen years of Irish independence have taught political lessons that women must heed.

Through Delia's headstrong appropriation of Irish nationalism as a cause célèbre during the '1880' section of The Years, Woolf manifests both the patriarchal family's investment in female rivalry and the disastrous implications of unresolved œdipal obsessions. Woolf portrays Delia as high-strung and in search of power, a power that is personified for her by Charles Stewart Parnell, whose parliamentary agitation on behalf of Home Rule for Ireland inspires the young woman's romantic fantasies. The '1880' section of The Years elides the differences between arbitrary and often indifferent colonial rule and the Victorian father's control of the private family. Parnell's drive for Home Rule and the Land League's activism on behalf of Irish peasant farmers suffering under absentee landlords offer Delia a model of civil disobedience, and Delia is stirred by Parnellite rhetoric of 'justice and liberty' for Ireland.4 The text juxtaposes Delia's unhealthy fixation with Parnell and her father's Indian military service, suggesting that, for women in particular, worshipping either father or nation are equally dangerous roads to subjectivity. Indeed, Delia's decision to flee London for Ireland in the '1891' section of the text tellingly leads her full-circle to life as an Anglo-Irish wife, constricted by the demands of the Big House but too shortsighted to recognize how neatly she has symbolically been returned to the Father's house.

Woolf's The Years/Three Guineas project represents the author's most pronounced attempt to address two distinct concerns: the insidious effects of gender difference on larger social and political institutions such as empire, and the role of the artist within political discourse. Through her critique of the male literary canon and its complicity with violent political and gender repression, Woolf questions the accessibility of a woman artist to the political...


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pp. 31-50
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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