Memories of a Working Women’s Guild

Virginia Woolf

These pages relating to the English Women's Co-operative Guild are addressed to a former officer of this organization who had placed in Mrs. Woolf’s hands a collection of letters written by its members. The Guild, which now has an enrolment of some 70,000 and is the largest association of its kind in England, was founded in 1883 to stimulate the ideas and activities of working women. It holds important annual Congresses, and it is of one of these which met at Manchester, in 1913, that Mrs. Woolf gives her impressions in the early part of her article.—THE EDITORS.

When you asked me to write a preface to a book which you had collected of papers by working women I replied that I would rather be drowned than write a preface to any book whatever. Books should stand on their own feet, my argument was (and I think it is a sound one). If they need shoring up by a preface here, an introduction there, they have no more right to exist than a table that needs a wad of paper under one leg in order to stand steady. But you left me the papers, and, turning them over, I saw that on this occasion the argument did not apply; this book is not a book. Turning the pages, I began to ask myself what is this book then, if it is not a book? What quality has it? What ideas does it suggest? What old arguments and memories does it rouse in me? and as all this had nothing to do with an introduction or a preface, but brought you to mind and certain pictures from the past, I stretched my hand for a sheet of notepaper and wrote you the following letter.

You have forgotten (I wrote) a hot June morning in Manchester in the year 1913, or at least you will not remember what I remember, because you were otherwise engaged. Your attention was entirely absorbed by a green table, several sheets of paper, and a bell. Moreover, you were frequently interrupted. There was a woman wearing something like a Lord Mayor’s chain round her shoulders; she took her seat perhaps at your right; there were other women without ornament save fountain pens and despatch boxes—they sat perhaps on your left. Soon a row had been formed up there on the platform, with tables and inkstands and tumblers of water; while we, many hundreds of us, scraped and shuffled and filled the entire body of some vast municipal building beneath. Perhaps an organ played. The proceedings somehow opened. The talking and laughing and shuffling suddenly subsided. A bell struck; a figure rose; she took her way from among us; she mounted a platform; she spoke for precisely five minutes; she descended. Directly she sat down another rose; mounted the platform; spoke for precisely five minutes and descended; then a third rose; then a fourth—and so it went on, speaker following speaker, one from the right, one from the left, one from the middle, one from the background—each took her way to the stand, said what she had to say and gave place to her successor. There was something military in the regularity of the proceeding. They were like marksmen, I thought, standing up in turn with rifle raised to aim at a target. Sometimes they missed, and there was a roar of laughter; sometimes they hit, and there was a roar of applause. But whether the particular shot hit or missed there was no doubt about the carefulness of the aim. There was no beating about the bush; there were no phrases of easy eloquence. The speaker made her way to the stand primed with her subject. Determination and resolution were stamped on her face. There was so much to be said between the strokes of the bell that she could not waste a second. The moment had come for which she had been waiting perhaps for many months. The moment had come for which she had stored hat, shoes, and dress—there was an air of discreet novelty about her clothing. But, above all, the moment had come when she was going to speak her mind, the mind of her constituency, the mind of the women who had sent her from Cornwall perhaps or Sussex, or some black mining village in Yorkshire, to speak their mind for them in Manchester.

It soon became obvious that the mind which lay spread over so wide a stretch of England was a vigorous mind working with great activity. It was thinking in June, 1913, of the reform of the divorce laws; of the taxation of land values; of the minimum wage. It was concerned with the care of maternity; with the Trades Board Act; with the education of children over fourteen; it was unanimously of opinion that adult suffrage should become a government measure—it was thinking, in short, about every sort of public question, and it was thinking constructively and pugnaciously. Accrington did not see eye to eye with Halifax, nor Middlesborough with Plymouth. There was argument and opposition; resolutions were lost and amendments won.

Meanwhile—let me try after seventeen years to sum up the thoughts that passed through the minds of your guests, middle-class people who had come from London and elsewhere not to take part, but to listen—meanwhile, what was it all about? What was the meaning of it? These women were demanding divorce, education, the vote—all good things. They were demanding higher wages and shorter hours—what could be more reasonable? And yet though it was all so reasonable, much of it so forcible, some of it so humorous, a weight of discomfort was settling and shifting itself uneasily from side to side in your visitors’ minds. All those questions, I found myself thinking—and perhaps this was at the bottom of it—which matter so intensely to the people here, questions of sanitation and education and wages, this demand for an extra shilling, or another year at school, for eight hours instead of nine behind a counter or in a mill, leave me, in my own blood and bones, untouched. If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not matter to me a single jot. Hence my interest is merely altruistic. It is thin spread and moon-colored. There is no life blood 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. I sit here hypocritically, clapping and stamping, an outcast from the flock.

Books should stand on their own feet, my argument was (and I think it is a sound one).

On top of this too, my reason (it was in 1913, remember) could not help assuring me that even if the resolution, whatever it was, were carried unanimously, the stamping and the clapping was an empty noise. It would pass out of the open windows and become part of the clamor of the lorries and the striving of the hooves on the Manchester cobbles beneath—an inarticulate uproar. The mind might be active; the mind might be aggressive; but the mind was without a body; it had no legs and arms with which to enforce its will. In all that audience, among all those women who worked, women who had children, women who scrubbed and cooked and bargained and knew to a penny what they had to spend, there was not a single woman with a vote. Let them fire off their rifles if they liked, but they would hit no target; there were only blank cartridges inside. The thought was irritating and depressing.

The clock had now struck half past eleven; there were still then many hours to come. And if one had reached this stage of irritation and depression by half past eleven in the morning, into what depths of boredom would one not be plunged by half past five in the evening? How could one sit out another day of speechifying? How, above all, could one face you, our hostess, with the information that your Congress had proved so insupportably depressing that one was going back to London by the very first train? The only chance lay in some happy conjuring trick, some change of attitude by which the mist and blankness of the speeches could be turned to blood and bone. Otherwise they remained intolerable.

But suppose one played a childish game; suppose one said, as a child says, “Let’s pretend…”? “Let’s pretend,” one said to oneself, looking at the speaker, “that I am Mrs. Giles of Durham City.” A woman of that name had just turned to address us. “I am the wife of a miner. He comes back thick with coal grime. First he must have his bath. Then he must have his dinner. But there is only a wash tub. My range is filled with saucepans. There is no getting on with the work. All my crocks are covered with dust again…. Why in the Lord’s name have I not hot water laid on and electric light when middle-class women…” So up I jump and demand passionately “labor-saving appliances and housing reform.” Up I jump in the person of Mrs. Giles of Durham; in the person of Mrs. Phillips of Bacup; in the person of Mrs. Edwards of Wolverton. But, after all, the imagination is largely the child of the flesh. One could not be Mrs. Giles because one’s body had never stood at the wash tub; one’s hands had never wrung and scrubbed and chopped up whatever the meat may be that makes a miner’s dinner. The picture was always letting in irrelevancies. One sat in an armchair or read a book. One saw landscapes or seascapes, in Greece or perhaps in Italy, where Mrs. Giles or Mrs. Edwards must have seen slag heaps and row upon row of slate roofs in a mining village. Something at any rate was always creeping in from a world that was not their world and making the picture false and the game too much of a game to be worth playing.

It was true that one could always correct these fancy portraits by taking a look at the actual person—at Mrs. Thomas, or Mrs. Langrish, or Miss Bolt of Hebden Bridge. Certainly, there were no armchairs, electric light, or hot water laid on in their homes, no Greek hills or Mediterranean bays in their lives. They did not sign a cheque to pay the weekly bills, or order, over the telephone, a cheap but quite adequate seat at the Opera. If they travelled it was on excursion day, with paper bags and hot babies in their arms. They did not stroll through the house and say, that cover must go to the wash, or those sheets need changing. They plunged their arms in hot water and scrubbed the clothes themselves. In consequence they had thickset muscular bodies. They had large hands; they had the slow emphatic gestures of people who are often stiff and fall tired in a heap on hard-backed chairs. They touched nothing lightly. They gripped papers and pencils as if they were brooms. Their faces were firm, with heavy folds and deep lines. It seemed as if their muscles were always taut and on the stretch. Their eyes looked as if they were always set on something actual—on saucepans that were boiling over, on children who were getting into mischief. Their faces never expressed the lighter and more detached emotions that come into play when the mind is perfectly at ease about the present. They were not in the least detached and cosmopolitan. They were indigenous and rooted to one spot. Their very names were like the stones of the fields, common, gray, obscure, docked of all the splendors of association and romance. Of course they wanted baths and ovens and education and seventeen shillings instead of sixteen and freedom and air and… “And,” said Mrs. Winthrop of Spenny Moor, breaking into these thoughts with words that sounded like a refrain, “we can wait.” “Yes,” she repeated, at the conclusion of her speech—what demand she had been making I do not know—“we can wait.” And she got down rather stiffly from her perch and made her way back to her seat, an elderly woman dressed in her best clothes.

Then Mrs. Potter spoke. Then Mrs. Elphick. Then Mrs. Holmes of Edgbaston. So it went on, and at last after innumerable speeches, after many communal meals at long tables and many arguments—after seeing jams bottled and biscuits made, after some song singing and ceremonies with banners—the new President received the chain of office with a kiss from the old President; the Congress dispersed; and the separate members who had stood up and spoken out so boldly while the clock ticked its five minutes went back to Yorkshire and Wales and Sussex and Cornwall and hung their clothes in the wardrobe and plunged their hands in the wash tub again.

They gripped papers and pencils as if they were brooms.

Later that summer the thoughts, here so inadequately described, were again discussed, but not in a public hall hung with banners and loud with voices. The head office of the Guild, the centre from which speakers, papers, inkstands, and tumblers, as I suppose, were issued, was then in Hampstead. There, if I may remind you again of what you may well have forgotten, you invited us to come; you asked us to tell you how the Congress had impressed us. But I must pause on the threshold of that very dignified old house with its eighteenth-century carvings and panelling, as we paused then in truth, for one could not enter and go upstairs without encountering Miss Wick. Miss Wick sat at her typewriter in the outer office. Miss Wick, one felt, was set as a kind of watch-dog to ward off the meddlesome middle-class wasters of time who come prying into other people’s business. Whether it was for this reason that she was dressed in a peculiar shade of deep purple I do not know. The color seemed somehow symbolic. She was very short, but owing to the weight which sat on her brow and the gloom which seemed to issue from her dress she was also very weighty. An extra share of the world’s grievances seemed to press upon her shoulders. When she clicked her typewriter, one felt that she was making that instrument transmit messages of foreboding and ill omen to an unheeding universe. But she relented and like all relentings after gloom hers came with a sudden charm. We went upstairs, and upstairs was a very different figure—there was Miss Janet Erskine indeed, and Miss Erskine may have been smoking a pipe—there was one on the table. She may have been reading a detective story—there was a book of that kind on the table—at any rate, she seemed the image of detachment and equanimity. Had one not known that Miss Erskine was to the Congress what the heart is to the remoter veins—that the great engine at Manchester would not thump and throb without her—that she had collected and sorted and summoned and arranged that very intricate but orderly assembly of women—she would never have enlightened one. She had nothing whatever to do—she came to the office because an office is a good place in which to read detective stories—she licked a few stamps and addressed a few envelopes—it was a fad of hers—that was what her manner conveyed. It was Miss Erskine who moved the papers off the chairs and got the teacups out of the cupboard. It was she who answered questions about figures and put her hand on the right file of letters.

Again let me telescope into a few sentences and into one scene many random discussions at various places. We said then—for you now emerged from an inner room and if Miss Wick was purple and Miss Erskine was coffee-colored, you, speaking pictorially (and I dare not speak more explicitly), were kingfisher blue and as arrowy and decisive as that quick bird—we said then that the Congress had roused thoughts and ideas of the most diverse nature. It had been a revelation and a disillusionment. We had been humiliated and enraged. To begin with, all their talk, we said, or the greater part of it was of matters of fact. They want baths and money. When people get together communally they always talk about baths and money; they always show the least desirable of their characteristics—their lust for conquest and their desire for possessions. To expect us, whose minds, such as they are, fly free at the end of a short length of capital to tie ourselves down again upon that narrow plot of acquisitiveness and desire is impossible. We have baths and money. Society has supplied us with all we need in that direction. Therefore however much we sympathized, our sympathy was largely fictitious. It was aesthetic sympathy, the sympathy of the eye and of the imagination, not of the heart and of the nerves; and such sympathy is always physically uncomfortable. Let us explain what we mean, we said.

The women are magnificent to look at. Ladies in evening dress are lovelier far, but they lack the sculpturesque quality that these working women have. Their arms are undeveloped. Fat has softened the lines of their muscles. And though the range of expression is narrower in working women, their expressions have a force and emphasis, of tragedy or humor, which the faces of ladies lack. But at the same time, it is much better to be a lady; ladies desire Mozart and Cézanne and Shakespeare; and not merely money and hot water laid on. Therefore to deride ladies and to imitate, as some of the speakers did, their mincing speech and little knowledge of what it pleases them to call “reality” is not merely bad manners, but it gives away the whole purpose of the Congress, for if it is better to be a working woman by all means let them remain so and not claim their right to undergo the contamination of wealth and comfort.

In spite of this, we went on, apart from prejudice and bandying compliments, undoubtedly the women at the Congress possess something which ladies have lost, something desirable, stimulating, and at the same time very difficult to define. One does not want to slip easily into fine phrases about “contact with life,” about “facing facts,” “the teaching of experience,” for they invariably alienate the hearer, and moreover no working man or woman works harder with his hands or is in closer touch with reality than a painter with his brush or a writer with his pen. But the quality that they have—judging from a phrase caught here and there, a laugh, or a gesture seen in passing—is a quality that Shakespeare would have liked. One can fancy him slipping away from the brilliant salons of educated people to crack a joke in Mrs. Robson’s back kitchen. Indeed, we said, one of our most curious impressions at your Congress was that “the poor,” “the working classes,” or by whatever name you choose to call them are not down-trodden, envious, and exhausted; they are humorous and vigorous and thoroughly independent. Thus, if it were possible to meet them not as sympathizers, as masters or mistresses with counters between us or kitchen tables, but casually and congenially as fellow beings with the same ends and wishes even if the dress and body are different, a great liberation would follow. How many words, for example, must lurk in those women’s vocabularies that have faded from ours! How many scenes must lie dormant in their eyes unseen by us! What images and saws and proverbial sayings must still be current with them that have never reached the surface of print; and very likely they still keep the power which we have lost of making new ones. There were many shrewd sayings in the speeches at the Congress which even the weight of a public meeting could not flatten out entirely.

They had gone into factories when they were fourteen.

But, we said, and here perhaps fiddled with a paper knife or poked the fire impatiently by way of expressing our discontent, what is the use of it all? Our sympathy is fictitious, not real. Because we pay our bills with cheques and our clothes are washed for us and we do not know the liver from the lights, we are condemned to remain forever shut up in the confines of the middle classes wearing tail coats and silk stockings and called Sir or Madam as the case may be, when we are all, in truth, simply Johns and Susans. And they remain equally deprived. For we have as much to give them as they us—wit and detachment, learning and poetry and all those good gifts which those who have never answered bells or touched their foreheads with their forefingers enjoy by right. But the barrier is impassable. And nothing perhaps exasperated 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 bound to happen inevitably thanks to you, very largely, and to Miss Erskine and to Miss Wick--but only when we are dead.

It was thus that we tried in the Guild office that afternoon to explain the nature of fictitious sympathy and how it differs from real sympathy and how defective it is because it is not based upon sharing the same important emotions unconsciously. It was thus that we tried to describe the contradictory and complex feelings which beset the middle-class visitor forced to sit out a congress of working women in silence.

Perhaps it was at this point that you unlocked a drawer and took out a packet of papers. You did not at once untie the string that fastened them. Sometimes, you said, you got a letter which you could not bring yourself to burn; once or twice a Guildswoman at your suggestion had written a few pages about her life. It might be that we should find these papers interesting; it might be that if we read them the women would cease to be symbols and become instead individuals. But they were very fragmentary and ungrammatical; they had been jotted down in the intervals of housework. Indeed, you could not at once bring yourself to give them up, as if to expose their simplicity were a breach of confidence. It might be that their illiteracy would only perplex, you said; that the writing of people who do not know how to write—but at this point we burst in. In the first place, every English woman knows how to write, in the second, even if she does not she has only to take her own life for subject and write the truth and not fiction or poetry for our interest to be so keenly roused that—in short, we cannot wait but must read the packet at once.

Thus pressed you did by degrees and with many delays—there was the war for example, and Miss Wick died, and you and Janet Erskine retired from the Guild, and a testimonial was given you in a casket, and many thousand working women tried to say how you had changed their lives—tried to say what they will feel for you to their dying day—after all these interruptions, you did at last gather the papers together and finally put them in my hands. There they were, typed and docketed with a few snapshots and rather faded photographs stuck between the pages. And when, at last, I began to read, there started up in my mind’s eye the figures that I had seen all those years ago at Manchester with such bewilderment and curiosity. But they were no longer addressing a large meeting in Manchester from a platform, dressed in their best clothes. The hot June day with its banners had vanished, and instead one looked back into the past of the women who had stood there; into the four-roomed houses of miners, into the homes of small shopkeepers and agricultural laborers, into the fields and factories of fifty or sixty years ago. Mrs. Barrows for example had worked in the Lincolnshire fens when she was eight with forty or fifty other children, and an old man had followed the gang with a long whip in his hand “which he did not forget to use.” That was a strange reflection. Most of the women had started work at seven or eight, earning a penny on Saturday for washing a doorstep, or twopence a week for carrying suppers to the men at the iron foundry. They had gone into factories when they were fourteen.

They had worked from seven in the morning till eight or nine at night and had made thirteen or fifteen shillings a week. Out of this money they had saved some pence with which to buy their mother gin—she was often very tired in the evening and had borne perhaps thirteen children in as many youthful years; or they fetched opium to assuage some miserable old woman’s ague in the fens. Betty Potter killed herself when she could get no more. They had seen half-starved women standing in rows to be paid for their match boxes while they snuffed the roast meat of their employers’ dinner cooking within. The smallpox had raged in Bethnal Green, and they had known that the boxes went on being made in the sick room and sold to the public with the infection thick on them. They had been so cold working in the wintry fields that they could not run when the ganger gave them leave. They had waded through floods when the Wash overflowed its banks. Kind old ladies had given them parcels of food which turned out to contain only crusts and rancid bacon rind.

The minds of working women were humming and their imaginations were awake.

All this they had done and seen and known when other children were still dabbling in seaside pools and spelling out fairy tales by the nursery fire. Naturally their faces had a different look on them. But they were also, one remembered, firm faces, faces with something indomitable in their expression. And the reason can only be that human nature is so tough that it will take such wounds, even at the tenderest age, and survive them. Keep a child mewed up in Bethnal Green and she will somehow snuff the country air from seeing the yellow dust on her brother’s boots, and nothing will serve her but she must go there, and see the “clean ground” as she calls it for herself. It was true that at first the “bees were very frightening,” but all the same she got to the country and the blue smoke and the cows came up to her expectations. Put girls after a childhood of minding smaller brothers and sisters and washing doorsteps into a factory when they are fourteen and their eyes will turn to the window and they will be happy because, as the work room is six stories up, the sun can be seen breaking over the hills “and that was always such a comfort and a help.”

Still stranger, if one needs additional proof of the strength of the human instinct to escape from bondage and attach itself to a country road or a sun rising over distant hills, is the fact that the highest ideals of duty flourish in an obscure hat factory as surely as on a battlefield. There were women in Christie’s hat factory, for example, who worked for “honor.” They gave their lives to the cause of putting straight stitches into the bindings of men’s hat brims. Felt is hard and thick; it is difficult to push the needle through; there are no rewards or glory to be won; but such is the incorrigible idealism of the human mind that there were “trimmers” in those obscure places who would never put a crooked stitch in their work and ruthlessly tore out the crooked stitches of others. And as they drove in their straight stitches they reverenced Queen Victoria and thanked God, drawing up to the fire, that they were all married to good Conservative working men.

Certainly that story explained something of the force, of the obstinacy which one had seen in the faces of the speakers at the Congress in Manchester. And then if one went on reading these papers, one came upon other signs of the extraordinary vitality of the human spirit. The dauntless energy which no amount of childbirth and washing up can quench entirely had reached out, it seemed, and seized upon old copies of magazines; had attached itself to Dickens; had propped the poems of Burns against a dishcover to read while cooking. They read at meals; they read before going to the mill. They read Dickens and Scott and Henry George and Bulwer-Lytton and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Alice Meynell and would like “to get hold of any good history of the French Revolution, not Carlyle’s please,” and B. Russell on China, and William Morris and Shelley and Florence Barclay and Samuel Butler’s Note Books—they read with the indiscriminate greed of a hungry appetite that crams itself with toffee and beef and tarts and vinegar and champagne all in one gulp.

Naturally, such reading led to argument. The younger generation had the audacity to say that Queen Victoria was no better than an honest charwoman who had brought up her children respectably. They had the temerity to doubt whether to sew straight stitches into men’s hat brims should be the sole aim and end of a woman’s life. They started arguments and even held rudimentary debating societies on the floor of the factory. In time the old trimmers even were shaken in their beliefs and came to think that there might be other ideals in the world besides straight stitches and Queen Victoria. Ideas, indeed, were seething in their brains. A girl, for instance, would reason, as she walked along the streets of a factory town, that she had no right to bring a child into the world if that child must earn its living in a mill. A chance saying in a book would fire her imagination and make her dream of future cities where there were to be baths and kitchens and wash houses and art galleries and museums and parks.

The minds of working women were humming and their imaginations were awake. But how were they to realize their ideals? How were they to express their needs? Of middle-class organizations there were many. Women were beginning to found colleges, and even here and there to enter the professions. But these were middle-class women with some amount of money and some degree of education behind them. How could women whose hands were full of work, whose kitchens were thick with steam, who had neither education nor encouragement nor leisure remodel the world according to the ideas of working women? It was then, I suppose, some time early in the Eighties, that the Women’s Guild crept modestly and tentatively into existence, occupying for a time a certain space in the “Cooperative” news which was called the “Woman’s Corner.” It was there that Mrs. Acland asked, “Why should we not hold our Co-operative Mothers’ Meetings, when we may bring our work and sit together, one of us reading some co-operative work aloud, which may afterwards be discussed?” And on April 18, 1883, she announced that there were seven members who had achieved this object.

And yet since writing is an impure art much infected by life, the letters you gave me seem to possess some qualities even as literature that the literate and instructed might envy.

This was the tiny magnet that drew to itself all that restless wishing and dreaming. This was the central meeting place where was formed and solidified what was else so scattered and incoherent. The Guild must have given the older women, with their husbands and children, what “clean ground” had given the little girl in Bethnal Green, or the view of day breaking over the hills had given to the girls in the hat factory. It gave them in the first place a room where they could sit down and think remote from boiling saucepans and crying children; and then that room became a place where one could make, and share with others in making, the model of what a working woman’s house should be. Then as the membership grew and twenty or thirty women made a practice of meeting weekly, that one house became a street of houses; and if you have a street of houses you must have stores and drains and post boxes; and at last the street becomes a town, and a town brings in questions of education and finance and the relation of one town to another town. And then the town becomes a country; it becomes England; it becomes Germany and America; and so from debating questions of butter and bacon, working women at their weekly meetings have to consider the relations of one great nation to another.

So it was that in the year 1913 Mrs. Robson and Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Wright were getting up and asking not only for baths and wages and electric light but also for cooperative industry and adult suffrage and the taxation of land values and divorce law reform. It was thus that they were to ask, as the years went by, for peace and disarmament and the sisterhood of nations. And the force that lay behind their speeches was compact of many things—of men with whips, and sick rooms where match boxes are made, of hunger and cold, and many and difficult childbirths, of much scrubbing and washing up, of reading Shelley and William Morris and Samuel Butler, of meetings of the Women’s Guild, and committees and congresses at Manchester and elsewhere. All this lay behind the speeches of Mrs. Robson and Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Wright. The papers which you sent me certainly threw some light upon those old curiosities and bewilderments.

But it cannot be denied that, as I began by saying, they do not make a book; as literature they have many limitations. The writing lacks detachment and imaginative breadth, even as the women themselves lacked variety and play of feature. Here are no reflections; no view of life as a whole; no attempt to enter into the lives of other people. It is not from the ranks of working class women that the next great poet or novelist will be drawn. Indeed, we are reminded of those obscure writers before Shakespeare who had never been beyond the borders of their own parishes and found expression difficult and words few and awkward to fit together.

And yet since writing is an impure art much infected by life, the letters you gave me seem to possess some qualities even as literature that the literate and instructed might envy. Listen, for instance, to Mrs. Scott the midwife: “I have been over the hilltops when the snowdrifts were over three feet high, and six feet in some places. I was in a blizzard in Hayfield and thought I should never get round the corners. But it was life on the moors; I seemed to know every blade of grass and where the flowers grew and all the little streams were my companions.” Could she have said that better if Oxford had made her a doctor of letters? Or take Mrs. Layton’s description of a match box factory in Bethnal Green, and how she “looked through the fence and saw three ladies sitting in the shade doing some kind of fancy work.” It has something of the accuracy and clarity of a description by Defoe. And when Mrs. Burrows brings to mind that very bitter day when the children were about to eat their cold dinner and drink their cold tea under the hedge and the ugly woman asked them in to her parlor saying, “Bring these children into my house and let them eat their dinner there,” one must admit that she gets her effect, and brings the scene before us—the frozen children eating hot boiled potatoes in a ring on the floor—by whatever means she manages it. And then there is a fragment of a letter from Miss Wick, the sombre purple figure who typed as if the weight of the world rested on her shoulders. “When I was a girl of seventeen,” she writes, “my then employer, a gentleman of good position and high standing in the town, sent me to his home one night ostensibly to take a parcel of books, but really with a very different object. When I arrived at the house all the family were away, and before he would allow me to leave he forced me to yield to him. At eighteen I was a mother.” The stiff words, which conceal all emotion conventionally enough, are yet illuminating. Such then was the burden that rested upon that squat and sombre figure—such were the memories that she stored as she sat typing your letters, guarding your door with such tremendous fidelity in her purple dress.

But I will quote no more. These letters are only fragments. These voices are beginning only now to emerge from silence into half articulate speech. These lives are still half hidden in profound obscurity. To write even what is written has been a task of labor and difficulty. The writing has been done in kitchens, at odds and ends of time, in the midst of distractions and obstacles—but really there is no need for me, in a letter addressed to you, to lay stress upon the hardships of working women’s lives. Have not you and Janet Erskine given your best years—but hush! you will not let me finish that sentence and therefore, with the old messages of friendship and admiration, I will make an end.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
September 1, 1930


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