1941: The Illusion Fails

  • John Mepham
Part of the Macmillan Literary Lives book series


It has been suggested that there was a revolution in Virginia Woolf’s thinking in 1940, detectable in two interventions in public debate that she made that year.1 In the spring she gave a lecture to a Worker’s Education Association meeting in Brighton, which was then published as ‘The Leaning Tower’ (CE II 162). It is remarkable that she agreed to give this lecture at all, since her few other public lectures had all been to audiences of university or professional women. It seems to have been important to her to reach out to a wider audience. It is quite astonishing that in this lecture she addressed her audience in the first person plural as if she and they, regardless of their differences of class, accent and culture, had enough in common to see the world in similar terms. The target of her criticism was the group of young writers who had come into prominence in the 1930s. They all viewed the world from a distinct position of privilege, for they stared down on the rest of society from a height which derived from their being men, wealthy, and expensively educated. In the 1930s these privileged young poets had become self-conscious of their privilege and hence of their limited vision. In compensation they began to write political poetry in a didactic, preaching strain. In the future, she hoped, writing would not be left to this privileged class, but would be taken on by ‘commoners and outsiders like ourselves’.


Wide Audience Person Plural Privileged Class Village Life Common Reader 
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  1. 1.
    Quentin Bell, ‘Bloomsbury and “The Vulgar Passions”’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 1979, p. 256.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Penguin, 1979) p. 179.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Sigmund Freud, Civilisation, War and Death, ed. John Rickman (Hogarth Press, 1939) p. 93.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    The history of the revisions of Between the Acts is given in Virginia Woolf, Pointz Hall: The Earlier and Later Typescripts of Between the Acts, ed. Mitchell Leaska (New York University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    The texts of two essays left unfinished at her death, ‘The Reader’ and ‘Anon’, together with introductory notes by Brenda Silver, are in a special Woolf issue of Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 25, nos. 3/4, Fall/Winter 1979. The quotation is from ‘Anon’ p. 403.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    F. R. Leavis, ‘After “To the Lighthouse”’, Scrutiny, vol. 10, no. 3, January 1942, p. 295.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    E. M. Forster, ‘Virginia Woolf’, Two Cheers for Democracy (Penguin, 1965) p. 250.Google Scholar

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© John Mepham 1991

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  • John Mepham

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