I’m taking a class this coming semester that focuses entirely on Virginia Woolf. As I’m still reeling from Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, I decided to start reading a collection of Woolf’s short stories (Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories). The quote below comes from a story called “A Society,” which critiques women’s roles in society and the discussion of such.
This is definitely one of my favorite quotes in the story, but another section that I particularly love reads:
“War! War! War! Declaration of War!” men were shouting in the street below.
We looked at each other in horror.
“What war?” we cried. “What war?” We remembered too late that we had never thought of sending anyone to the House of Commons. We had forgotten all about it. We turned to Poll, who had reached the history shelves in the London Library, and asked her to enlighten us.
“Why,” we cried, “do men go to war?”
“Sometimes for one reason, sometimes for another,” she replied calmly. “In 1760, for example
” The shouts outside drowned her words. “Again in 1797 in 1804 It was the Austrians in 1866 1870 was the Fraco-Prussian In 1900 on the other hand ”
“But it’s now 1914!” we cut her short.
“Ah, I don’t know what they’re going to war for now,” she admitted.
Not only does this present an interesting question about the reasons for war, but it also leads to a few interesting questions about the relevance of history books in the context of the present.
In the story, Poll is a girl whose father’s will left her money, but who has to read every book in the London Library in order to get it. This leads to her entire friend group going out into the world for years just to ask questions and figure things out. They decide that they won’t do their part to repopulate Earth until after they’ve answered some of these questions. Each member of the group (the size of which is never really defined) goes out to investigate a different area
I’m familiar with the saying, “he who doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat it.” However, when considered from this angle, it seems that Woolf encourages a moderation of this sentiment. Sure, history books can definitely help to provide context for the present
Maybe we should popularize a saying that goes something like, “They who keep their eyes in history books are doomed to gather dust.”
Reading books is one of my favorite pastimes, but Virginia Woolf probably never imaged the existence of the laptop I’m currently on, let alone some of the current issues we face.
I wonder what she would think about Donald Trump.
I’ll leave you with one last interesting quote to consider:
“Oh, dear,” cried Castalia, pushing the book away from her, “what fools we were! It was all Poll’s father’s fault,” she went on. “I believe he did it on purpose
that ridiculous will, I mean, forcing Poll to read all the books in the London Library. If we hasn’t learnt to read,” she said bitterly, “we might still have been bearing children in ignorance and that I believe was the happiest life after all. I know what you’re going to say about war,” she checked me, “and the horror of bearing children to see them killed, but our mothers did it, and their mothers, and their mother before them. And they didn’t complain. They couldn’t read. I’ve done my best,” she sighed, “to prevent my little girl from learning to read, but what’s the use? I caught Ann only yesterday with a newspaper in her hand and she was beginning to ask me if it was ‘true.’ Next she’ll ask me whether Mr. Lloyd George is a good man, then whether Mr. Arnold Bennett is a good novelist, and finally whether I believe in God. How can I bring my daughter up to believe in nothing?” she demanded.