USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was perhaps the greatest writer of her generation. Her novels were experimental. She told her stories from the inner perspectives of the characters – laying bare their emotions, psychological impulses, desires, wishes and insecurities. Woolf put a magnifying glass to British Victorian and Edwardian society, especially to its domestic culture and the role of women in that culture. The war, for Woolf, put the flaws of this culture into stark relief. What British Victorian and Edwardian culture valued most, ideals of masculinity, adventurousness, colonialism, hard work, professional and social hierarchy, industry, and codes of conduct, proved in the end to be a potent cocktail of self-destruction.

In her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Woolf tries to understand the connections between British social values and the destruction of WWI through the inner lives of members of the Ramsay family and its guests. The beginning of the novel takes us into an evening at the Ramsays’ house on the coast. They are hosting some distinguished guests. The mother and wife, Mrs. Ramsay, controls the domestic space, including her husband’s tempers. The male guests are portrayed as outwardly conceited and inwardly insecure. They are rational on the surface but almost childish in their emotional reactions. They are concerned with professional success and status. All are preoccupied with social conventions, etiquette and manners.  The novel, after a brief middle section (which is wonderful) concludes with a similar scene after the war. The Ramsay’s eldest son Andrew has been killed on the front in France. Mrs. Ramsay has died during the war, perhaps due to stress or grief – we don’t know exactly. The postwar scene is a pale reflection of the earlier one. The guests seem lost, more interior. The fulcrum of their social world, the wife/mother, is gone. The break between the prewar world and the postwar world seems insurmountable. The Victorian era, Woolf tells us, as hard as people might try, cannot be recreated in the 1920s. The war has taken too much, called too much into question, shaken the very foundation of British society.

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