Tag Archives: christopher isherwood

Outcast from Struggle: Virginia Woolf and Christopher Isherwood

Literature is mostly written from the upper stratospheres of class looking down, so it is often bewildering reading it from the bottom looking up. Frustrating. Enraging. Sometimes sad.

SRB_0004I was struck once again, reading this passage describing Virginia Woolf‘s feelings sitting in a meeting of a working women’s guild, how terrible capitalism is for the wealthy as well as the poor. How unhealthy.

If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head. hence my interest is merely altruistic. It is thin spread and moon coloured. there is no lifeblood or urgency about it. However hard I clap my hands or stamp my feet there is a hollowness in the sound which betrays me. I am a benevolent spectator. I am irretrievably cut off from the actors. (148)

But the barrier is impassable. And nothing perhaps exacerbated us more at the Congress (you must have noticed at times a certain irritability) than the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together so that life will be richer and books more complex and society will pool its possessions instead of segregating them–all this is going to happen inevitably, thanks to you [Margaret Llewellyn Davies], very largely, and to Miss Harris and to Miss Kidd–but only when we are dead. (153, ‘Memories of a Working Women’s Guild’)

Margaret Llewelyn Davies and her assistant in the Guild’s office at Kirby Lonsdale


Being a great reader of Mark Bould’s blog (because I like him so much), this immediately resonated with a quote he had posted from Christopher Isherwood — which I shall steal without compunction because life is too short for me to ever read the book:

The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their soiled everyday clothes. Most of the men wore breeches with coarse woollen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never even been to a communist meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of the upturned rows of faces; faces of the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each other or to be seen, or even to fulfil a social duty. They were attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At the intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched by the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping. (Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1963. 48-49)

At least Virginia Woolf recognises, with sadness, that she and the women like her are part of the structure that oppresses. ‘…the thought that this force of theirs, this smouldering heat which broke the crust now and then and licked the surface with a hot and fearless flame, is about to break through and melt us together … all this is going to happen inevitably … but only when we are dead,’ she writes. There is no such recognition in Isherwood.

Does this knowledge appear in Woolf’s fiction? What struck me most about The Years was the silences, the things that could not be expressed. Her characters danced around issues of class and oppression and Empire. There is another revealing passage about this to be found here:

But the great obstacle to asking questions openly in public is, of course, wealth. The little twisted sign that comes at the end of a question has a way of making the rich writhe; power and prestige come down upon it with all their weight. Questions, therefore, being sensitive, impulsive and often foolish, have a way of picking their asking place with care. They shrivel up in an atmosphere of power, prosperity and time-worn stone. They die by the dozen on the threshold of great newspaper offices. They slink away to less favoured, less flourishing quarters where people are poor and therefore have nothing to give, where they have no power and therefore have nothing to lose. (161, ‘Why?’)

It is an interesting displacement to people in poverty, the power and ability to ask questions. If only wealthy people would yield the power of creating solutions to them as well. It is a strange (and not entirely praise-worthy) yielding of responsibility, but yet an unexpectedly honest one. Woolf doesn’t go into what she has to lose, but clearly this is part of what stops speech, prevents full expression and I can imagine the pain of that. It is what oppressed in the streets of Kensington, and Bloomsbury does not escape it. Perhaps this is part of her withering, and her death.

The Co-operative Women’s Guild still exists, you can find them here. Really the point is, I think, that it is in struggle and in speaking  that a hope of full life lies.