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  • Arguing with Photographs:Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, and Modernist Political Engagement
  • Naomi Toth (bio)

In 1931, Virginia Woolf hit on new idea for a book:

I have this moment, while having my bath, conceived an entire new book—a sequel to A Room of One's Own—about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions for Women perhaps—Lord, how exciting!1

This new book, soon entitled The Pargiters, was to be an "essaynovel" opening up a new avenue for formal experimentation after the text she was then completing, the "play-poem" The Waves.2 Integrating the world of "fact" into the aesthetic domain, connecting the sexual and professional spheres through the novelistic form, this work also promised to inaugurate a new phase in Woolf's approach to the relationship between literature and society. Yet by 1933 she had abandoned the project; the manuscript's remains were divided up into a novel, which became The Years, and an essay, which became Three Guineas. What went wrong?

Tracing the destiny of the manuscript's material reveals that The Pargiters's failure cannot be explained simply as a retrospective recognition of the essay and the novel's generic incompatibility. Nor may it be understood as a return to the "fact" versus "vision" opposition which characterized Woolf's interventions in debates on modern fiction in the 1920s. Rather, it has to do with Woolf's ambivalent attitude to a third term, "argument." For though she refers to The Years as a novel of both "fact" and "vision," she maintains its status as art by siphoning off the analyses [End Page 67] and explanatory discourse of The Pargiters manuscript and channeling it into the essay Three Guineas. As a result, the two texts establish different relationships to consensus: the essay adopts an overtly non-consensual, clearly political stance; the novel, on the other hand, retains an ideal of harmonious unity which, while not exactly affirmed, is nonetheless entertained and advanced, tending to smooth over differences between men and women, soldiers and civilians, belligerents and pacifists. This outcome suggests that the principles of aesthetic autonomy and its attendant drive for cohesion and unity, principles that have been operative since the emergence of the modern institution of literature itself, remain persistent in Woolf's thinking about writing, determining the composition of The Years and Three Guineas, and ensuring that The Pargiters's promise of a new form of literary political engagement went unrealized.3

And yet, an attentive reading of Three Guineas allows us to deconstruct the premises of Woolf's separation of argument from aesthetics. Her engagement with photography, a medium poised on the frontier between the factual and the aesthetic, is key to this move. By analyzing emotional reactions to photographs and the political positions they engender, Three Guineas demonstrates how excluding argument from the presentation of "facts" masks the power stakes at play in representation itself. The essay also implicitly suggests that the same process might be at work in attempts to suppress argument from works of "vision." Woolf's recourse to photography therefore allows her to develop a politicized approach to both "facts" and "vision", providing her readers with the tools to critique the aesthetic autonomy The Years attempts to maintain. In other words, she hands us the arms with which to read her work against itself. This makes Three Guineas, which results from the exclusion of argument from aesthetic "vision," exemplary of the contradictions that traversed the literary avant-garde's relationship to social and political change in the 1930s.

Fact, Vision, and Argument

In attempting to unite "fact" with "vision," Virginia Woolf reconfigures the terms of the debate over avant-garde poetics she had engaged in during the 1920s, which had seen her pitting "materialist" "realists" interested in "facts" against "spiritual" "moderns" who focused on the "visions" of the "mind."4 Indeed, in the years following World War I, she consistently opposed the "surface" reality of "evidence" and "fact"—a category in which she included sociological detail as well as didacticism—to the "vision" of the "depths" beneath them, beyond external reality.5 The writers she variously labels "materialist," "realist," or "Edwardian," in addition to being prisoners of...