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  • Alison Light (bio)

"As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world"; this well-known quotation from Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas (1938) has always made me uneasy. I begin with it now as a brief response to those comments on the absence of extended discussion in my book of the interconnecting issues of nation, race, and empire. Seeking to connect fascism abroad with the tyranny of the patriarchal private house, Woolf argued that the English male was just as capable of authoritarianism, of "Hitlerism in the home," as the men of other nations. Since the history of her own class, "the daughters of educated men," as she understood it, was one of political powerlessness, Woolf advocates that they should embrace the role of "outsiders," glad to be denied "the full stigma of nationality" and the territorial mentality of the rulers and warmongers. A positive plea for peace and international freedom, Woolf's statement can also be read as a negation that only a woman of her time and class could make: a refusal of the histories of other nations and of the necessity, which many women as well as men have felt, of an idea of national belonging, especially when a country or a people is under threat, invaded, occupied, colonized, or struggling to be recognized as having its own rights to self-government. There is also a refusal of her own privilege, her "cultural capital" as well as her capital, her dependence on the labor of others, and her difference from them—a blindness that meant she could cheerfully address working men in public as "we" simply because, like them, she did not go to university (in Mrs Woolf and the Servants I reproduce the letters she received from Agnes Smith, a weaver in the north of England, who upbraided her for being, as Devoney Looser puts it, apparently so "clueless" about power). That refusal is part wishful thinking, part ignorance, and part, I think, what also characterizes the English between the wars—their public and private "isolationism"; it complicates how we might understand their nationalism in a period of withdrawal from the more sanguinary rhetorics of imperial expansion. Publicly and polemically, Woolf was anti-empire and deeply anti-authoritarian; privately, she often sounds like a "Little Englander." Woolf saw Britain as burdened with an imperialist history, yet her scathing and sometimes vile comments about "foreigners" can be read as the lingua franca of this "Little Englandism," as evidence of an emotional insularity and an assumption of national superiority that is unexamined and is itself the legacy of empire. Her isolationism is not a "pretense," as Eve Troutt [End Page 149] Powell suggests, but is, in my view, a deep structure of Englishness in the period. At best, Woolf politicizes powerlessness, making it a mode of passive resistance (her heroine in Three Guineas is Antigone, who starves to death rather than obey the despotic Creon). At worst, she retreats, I argue, and desperately defends herself against her own invasion fears, the loss of place and status at home and in the world, and a fear of the contamination of English culture—"the smell—unpleasant to the nose—of democracy," as she put it in her diary, remembering working-class mothers and children taking tea in a public park.1

The focus of Mrs Woolf and the Servants is this kind of insular English-ness and the power struggles between women of different classes—mistress and maid—who both played their part in shoring up the English patriarchal house. I wanted to write about how class feelings were generated at home between women and this, I think, I managed. But the ways in which those feelings and behaviors were also part of this larger, sometimes unconscious, nationalism or of a set of assumptions about race seemed to me to demand a different kind of book. Woolf tried to reject the role of mistress, which she inherited from her mother's generation who grew up in the early nineteenth century. Julia Stephen, her mother, derived what was called "the habit of command" from childhood in...


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