A Society by Virginia Woolf

This is how it all came about. Six or seven of us were sitting one day after tea. Some were gazing across the street into the windows of a milliner’s shop where the light still shone brightly upon scarlet feathers and golden slippers. Others were idly occupied in building little towers of sugar upon the edge of the tea tray. After a time, so far as I can remember, we drew round the fire and began as usual to praise men—how strong, how noble, how brilliant, how courageous, how beautiful they were—how we envied those who by hook or by crook managed to get attached to one for life—when Poll, who had said nothing, burst into tears. Poll, I must tell you, has always been queer. For one thing her father was a strange man. He left her a fortune in his will, but on condition that she read all the books in the London Library. We comforted her as best we could; but we knew in our hearts how vain it was. For though we like her, Poll is no beauty; leaves her shoe laces untied; and must have been thinking, while we praised men, that not one of them would ever wish to marry her. At last she dried her tears. For some time we could make nothing of what she said. Strange enough it was in all conscience. She told us that, as we knew, she spent most of her time in the London Library, reading. She had begun, she said, with English literature on the top floor; and was steadily working her way down to the Times on the bottom. And now half, or perhaps only a quarter, way through a terrible thing had happened. She could read no more. Books were not what we thought them. “Books,” she cried, rising to her feet and speaking with an intensity of desolation which I shall never forget, “are for the most part unutterably bad!”

Of course we cried out that Shakespeare wrote books, and Milton and Shelley.

“Oh, yes,” she interrupted us. “You’ve been well taught, I can see. But you are not members of the London Library.” Here her sobs broke forth anew. At length, recovering a little, she opened one of the pile of books which she always carried about with her—”From a Window” or “In a Garden,” or some such name as that it was called, and it was written by a man called Benton or Henson, or something of that kind. She read the first few pages. We listened in silence. “But that’s not a book,” someone said. So she chose another. This time it was a history, but I have forgotten the writer’s name. Our trepidation increased as she went on. Not a word of it seemed to be true, and the style in which it was written was execrable.

“Poetry! Poetry!” we cried, impatiently. “Read us poetry!” I cannot describe the desolation which fell upon us as she opened a little volume and mouthed out the verbose, sentimental foolery which it contained.

“It must have been written by a woman,” one of us urged. But no. She told us that it was written by a young man, one of the most famous poets of the day. I leave you to imagine what the shock of the discovery was. Though we all cried and begged her to read no more, she persisted and read us extracts from the Lives of the Lord Chancellors. When she had finished, Jane, the eldest and wisest of us, rose to her feet and said that she for one was not convinced.

“Why,” she asked, “if men write such rubbish as this, should our mothers have wasted their youth in bringing them into the world?”

We were all silent; and, in the silence, poor Poll could be heard sobbing out, “Why, why did my father teach me to read?”

Clorinda was the first to come to her senses. “It’s all our fault,” she said. “Every one of us knows how to read. But no one, save Poll, has ever taken the trouble to do it. I, for one, have taken it for granted that it was a woman’s duty to spend her youth in bearing children. I venerated my mother for bearing ten; still more my grandmother for bearing fifteen; it was, I confess, my own ambition to bear twenty. We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilized it. But now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results? Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.”

So we made ourselves into a society for asking questions. One of us was to visit a man-of-war; another was to hide herself in a scholar’s study; another was to attend a meeting of business men; while all were to read books, look at pictures, go to concerts, keep our eyes open in the streets, and ask questions perpetually. We were very young. You can judge of our simplicity when I tell you that before parting that night we agreed that the objects of life were to produce good people and good books. Our questions were to be directed to finding out how far these objects were now attained by men. We vowed solemnly that we would not bear a single child until we were satisfied.

Off we went then, some to the British Museum; others to the King’s Navy; some to Oxford; others to Cambridge; we visited the Royal Academy and the Tate; heard modern music in concert rooms, went to the Law Courts, and saw new plays. No one dined out without asking her partner certain questions and carefully noting his replies. At intervals we met together and compared our observations. Oh, those were merry meetings! Never have I laughed so much as I did when Rose read her notes upon “Honour” and described how she had dressed herself as an Æthiopian Prince and gone aboard one of His Majesty’s ships. Discovering the hoax, the Captain visited her (now disguised as a private gentleman) and demanded that honour should be satisfied. “But how?” she asked. “How?” he bellowed. “With the cane of course!” Seeing that he was beside himself with rage and expecting that her last moment had come, she bent over and received, to her amazement, six light taps upon the behind. “The honour of the British Navy is avenged!” he cried, and, raising herself, she saw him with the sweat pouring down his face holding out a trembling right hand. “Away!” she exclaimed, striking an attitude and imitating the ferocity of his own expression, “My honour has still to be satisfied!” “Spoken like a gentleman!” he returned, and fell into profound thought. “If six strokes avenge the honour of the King’s Navy,” he mused, “how many avenge the honour of a private gentleman?” He said he would prefer to lay the case before his brother officers. She replied haughtily that she could not wait. He praised her sensibility. “Let me see,” he cried suddenly, “did your father keep a carriage?” “No,” she said. “Or a riding horse!” “We had a donkey,” she bethought her, “which drew the mowing machine.” At this his face lighted. “My mother’s name——” she added. “For God’s sake, man, don’t mention your mother’s name!” he shrieked, trembling like an aspen and flushing to the roots of his hair, and it was ten minutes at least before she could induce him to proceed. At length he decreed that if she gave him four strokes and a half in the small of the back at a spot indicated by himself (the half conceded, he said, in recognition of the fact that her great grandmother’s uncle was killed at Trafalgar) it was his opinion that her honour would be as good as new. This was done; they retired to a restaurant; drank two bottles of wine for which he insisted upon paying; and parted with protestations of eternal friendship.

Then we had Fanny’s account of her visit to the Law Courts. At her first visit she had come to the conclusion that the Judges were either made of wood or were impersonated by large animals resembling man who had been trained to move with extreme dignity, mumble and nod their heads. To test her theory she had liberated a handkerchief of bluebottles at the critical moment of a trial, but was unable to judge whether the creatures gave signs of humanity for the buzzing of the flies induced so sound a sleep that she only woke in time to see the prisoners led into the cells below. But from the evidence she brought we voted that it is unfair to suppose that the Judges are men.

Helen went to the Royal Academy, but when asked to deliver her report upon the pictures she began to recite from a pale blue volume, “O! for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still. Home is the hunter, home from the hill. He gave his bridle reins a shake. Love is sweet, love is brief. Spring, the fair spring, is the year’s pleasant King. O! to be in England now that April’s there. Men must work and women must weep. The path of duty is the way to glory—” We could listen to no more of this gibberish.

“We want no more poetry!” we cried.

“Daughters of England!” she began, but here we pulled her down, a vase of water getting spilt over her in the scuffle.

“Thank God!” she exclaimed, shaking herself like a dog. “Now I’ll roll on the carpet and see if I can’t brush off what remains of the Union Jack. Then perhaps—” here she rolled energetically. Getting up she began to explain to us what modern pictures are like when Castalia stopped her.

“What is the average size of a picture?” she asked. “Perhaps two feet by two and a half,” she said. Castalia made notes while Helen spoke, and when she had done, and we were trying not to meet each other’s eyes, rose and said, “At your wish I spent last week at Oxbridge, disguised as a charwoman. I thus had access to the rooms of several Professors and will now attempt to give you some idea—only,” she broke off, “I can’t think how to do it. It’s all so queer. These Professors,” she went on, “live in large houses built round grass plots each in a kind of cell by himself. Yet they have every convenience and comfort. You have only to press a button or light a little lamp. Their papers are beautifully filed. Books abound. There are no children or animals, save half a dozen stray cats and one aged bullfinch—a cock. I remember,” she broke off, “an Aunt of mine who lived at Dulwich and kept cactuses. You reached the conservatory through the double drawing-room, and there, on the hot pipes, were dozens of them, ugly, squat, bristly little plants each in a separate pot. Once in a hundred years the Aloe flowered, so my Aunt said. But she died before that happened—” We told her to keep to the point. “Well,” she resumed, “when Professor Hobkin was out, I examined his life work, an edition of Sappho. It’s a queer looking book, six or seven inches thick, not all by Sappho. Oh, no. Most of it is a defence of Sappho’s chastity, which some German had denied, and I can assure you the passion with which these two gentlemen argued, the learning they displayed, the prodigious ingenuity with which they disputed the use of some implement which looked to me for all the world like a hairpin astounded me; especially when the door opened and Professor Hobkin himself appeared. A very nice, mild, old gentleman, but what could he know about chastity?” We misunderstood her.

“No, no,” she protested, “he’s the soul of honour I’m sure—not that he resembles Rose’s sea captain in the least. I was thinking rather of my Aunt’s cactuses. What could they know about chastity?”

Again we told her not to wander from the point,—did the Oxbridge professors help to produce good people and good books?—the objects of life.

“There!” she exclaimed. “It never struck me to ask. It never occurred to me that they could possibly produce anything.”

“I believe,” said Sue, “that you made some mistake. Probably Professor Hobkin was a gynæcologist. A scholar is a very different sort of man. A scholar is overflowing with humour and invention—perhaps addicted to wine, but what of that?—a delightful companion, generous, subtle, imaginative—as stands to reason. For he spends his life in company with the finest human beings that have ever existed.”

“Hum,” said Castalia. “Perhaps I’d better go back and try again.”

Some three months later it happened that I was sitting alone when Castalia entered. I don’t know what it was in the look of her that so moved me; but I could not restrain myself, and, dashing across the room, I clasped her in my arms. Not only was she very beautiful; she seemed also in the highest spirits. “How happy you look!” I exclaimed, as she sat down.

“I’ve been at Oxbridge,” she said.

“Asking questions?”

“Answering them,” she replied.

“You have not broken our vow?” I said anxiously, noticing something about her figure.

“Oh, the vow,” she said casually. “I’m going to have a baby, if that’s what you mean. You can’t imagine,” she burst out, “how exciting, how beautiful, how satisfying—”

“What is?” I asked.

“To—to—answer questions,” she replied in some confusion. Whereupon she told me the whole of her story. But in the middle of an account which interested and excited me more than anything I had ever heard, she gave the strangest cry, half whoop, half holloa—

“Chastity! Chastity! Where’s my chastity!” she cried. “Help Ho! The scent bottle!”

There was nothing in the room but a cruet containing mustard, which I was about to administer when she recovered her composure.

“You should have thought of that three months ago,” I said severely.

“True,” she replied. “There’s not much good in thinking of it now. It was unfortunate, by the way, that my mother had me called Castalia.”

“Oh, Castalia, your mother—” I was beginning when she reached for the mustard pot.

“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head. “If you’d been a chaste woman yourself you would have screamed at the sight of me—instead of which you rushed across the room and took me in your arms. No, Cassandra. We are neither of us chaste.” So we went on talking.

Meanwhile the room was filling up, for it was the day appointed to discuss the results of our observations. Everyone, I thought, felt as I did about Castalia. They kissed her and said how glad they were to see her again. At length, when we were all assembled, Jane rose and said that it was time to begin. She began by saying that we had now asked questions for over five years, and that though the results were bound to be inconclusive—here Castalia nudged me and whispered that she was not so sure about that. Then she got up, and, interrupting Jane in the middle of a sentence, said:

“Before you say any more, I want to know—am I to stay in the room? Because,” she added, “I have to confess that I am an impure woman.”

Everyone looked at her in astonishment.

“You are going to have a baby?” asked Jane.

She nodded her head.

It was extraordinary to see the different expressions on their faces. A sort of hum went through the room, in which I could catch the words “impure,” “baby,” “Castalia,” and so on. Jane, who was herself considerably moved, put it to us:

“Shall she go? Is she impure?”

Such a roar filled the room as might have been heard in the street outside.

“No! No! No! Let her stay! Impure? Fiddlesticks!” Yet I fancied that some of the youngest, girls of nineteen or twenty, held back as if overcome with shyness. Then we all came about her and began asking questions, and at last I saw one of the youngest, who had kept in the background, approach shyly and say to her:

“What is chastity then? I mean is it good, or is it bad, or is it nothing at all?” She replied so low that I could not catch what she said.

“You know I was shocked,” said another, “for at least ten minutes.”

“In my opinion,” said Poll, who was growing crusty from always reading in the London Library, “chastity is nothing but ignorance—a most discreditable state of mind. We should admit only the unchaste to our society. I vote that Castalia shall be our President.”

This was violently disputed.

“It is as unfair to brand women with chastity as with unchastity,” said Poll. “Some of us haven’t the opportunity either. Moreover, I don’t believe Cassy herself maintains that she acted as she did from a pure love of knowledge.”

“He is only twenty-one and divinely beautiful,” said Cassy, with a ravishing gesture.

“I move,” said Helen, “that no one be allowed to talk of chastity or unchastity save those who are in love.”

“Oh, bother,” said Judith, who had been enquiring into scientific matters, “I’m not in love and I’m longing to explain my measures for dispensing with prostitutes and fertilizing virgins by Act of Parliament.”

She went on to tell us of an invention of hers to be erected at Tube stations and other public resorts, which, upon payment of a small fee, would safeguard the nation’s health, accommodate its sons, and relieve its daughters. Then she had contrived a method of preserving in sealed tubes the germs of future Lord Chancellors “or poets or painters or musicians,” she went on, “supposing, that is to say, that these breeds are not extinct, and that women still wish to bear children——”

“Of course we wish to bear children!” cried Castalia, impatiently. Jane rapped the table.

“That is the very point we are met to consider,” she said. “For five years we have been trying to find out whether we are justified in continuing the human race. Castalia has anticipated our decision. But it remains for the rest of us to make up our minds.”

Here one after another of our messengers rose and delivered their reports. The marvels of civilisation far exceeded our expectations, and, as we learnt for the first time how man flies in the air, talks across space, penetrates to the heart of an atom, and embraces the universe in his speculations, a murmur of admiration burst from our lips.

“We are proud,” we cried, “that our mothers sacrificed their youth in such a cause as this!” Castalia, who had been listening intently, looked prouder than all the rest. Then Jane reminded us that we had still much to learn, and Castalia begged us to make haste. On we went through a vast tangle of statistics. We learnt that England has a population of so many millions, and that such and such a proportion of them is constantly hungry and in prison; that the average size of a working man’s family is such, and that so great a percentage of women die from maladies incident to childbirth. Reports were read of visits to factories, shops, slums, and dockyards. Descriptions were given of the Stock Exchange, of a gigantic house of business in the City, and of a Government Office. The British Colonies were now discussed, and some account was given of our rule in India, Africa and Ireland. I was sitting by Castalia and I noticed her uneasiness.

“We shall never come to any conclusion at all at this rate,” she said. “As it appears that civilisation is so much more complex than we had any notion, would it not be better to confine ourselves to our original enquiry? We agreed that it was the object of life to produce good people and good books. All this time we have been talking of aeroplanes, factories, and money. Let us talk about men themselves and their arts, for that is the heart of the matter.”

So the diners out stepped forward with long slips of paper containing answers to their questions. These had been framed after much consideration. A good man, we had agreed, must at any rate be honest, passionate, and unworldly. But whether or not a particular man possessed those qualities could only be discovered by asking questions, often beginning at a remote distance from the centre. Is Kensington a nice place to live in? Where is your son being educated—and your daughter? Now please tell me, what do you pay for your cigars? By the way, is Sir Joseph a baronet or only a knight? Often it seemed that we learnt more from trivial questions of this kind than from more direct ones. “I accepted my peerage,” said Lord Bunkum, “because my wife wished it.” I forget how many titles were accepted for the same reason. “Working fifteen hours out of the twenty-four, as I do——” ten thousand professional men began.

“No, no, of course you can neither read nor write. But why do you work so hard?” “My dear lady, with a growing family——” “But why does your family grow?” Their wives wished that too, or perhaps it was the British Empire. But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker. “I’m sure,” said Jill, “that if Sir Harley Tightboots hadn’t been carving the mutton when I asked him about the capitalist system he would have cut my throat. The only reason why we escaped with our lives over and over again is that men are at once so hungry and so chivalrous. They despise us too much to mind what we say.”

“Of course they despise us,” said Eleanor. “At the same time how do you account for this—I made enquiries among the artists. Now, no woman has ever been an artist, has she, Poll?”

“Jane-Austen-Charlotte-Brontë-George-Eliot,” cried Poll, like a man crying muffins in a back street.

“Damn the woman!” someone exclaimed. “What a bore she is!”

“Since Sappho there has been no female of first rate——” Eleanor began, quoting from a weekly newspaper.

“It’s now well known that Sappho was the somewhat lewd invention of Professor Hobkin,” Ruth interrupted.

“Anyhow, there is no reason to suppose that any woman ever has been able to write or ever will be able to write,” Eleanor continued. “And yet, whenever I go among authors they never cease to talk to me about their books. Masterly! I say, or Shakespeare himself! (for one must say something) and I assure you, they believe me.”

“That proves nothing,” said Jane. “They all do it. Only,” she sighed, “it doesn’t seem to help us much. Perhaps we had better examine modern literature next. Liz, it’s your turn.”

Elizabeth rose and said that in order to prosecute her enquiry she had dressed as a man and been taken for a reviewer.

“I have read new books pretty steadily for the past five years,” said she. “Mr. Wells is the most popular living writer; then comes Mr. Arnold Bennett; then Mr. Compton Mackenzie; Mr. McKenna and Mr. Walpole may be bracketed together.” She sat down.

“But you’ve told us nothing!” we expostulated. “Or do you mean that these gentlemen have greatly surpassed Jane-Elliot and that English fiction is——where’s that review of yours? Oh, yes, ‘safe in their hands.’”

“Safe, quite safe,” she said, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. “And I’m sure that they give away even more than they receive.”

We were all sure of that. “But,” we pressed her, “do they write good books?”

“Good books?” she said, looking at the ceiling. “You must remember,” she began, speaking with extreme rapidity, “that fiction is the mirror of life. And you can’t deny that education is of the highest importance, and that it would be extremely annoying, if you found yourself alone at Brighton late at night, not to know which was the best boarding house to stay at, and suppose it was a dripping Sunday evening—wouldn’t it be nice to go to the Movies?”

“But what has that got to do with it?” we asked.

“Nothing—nothing—nothing whatever,” she replied.

“Well, tell us the truth,” we bade her.

“The truth? But isn’t it wonderful,” she broke off—”Mr. Chitter has written a weekly article for the past thirty years upon love or hot buttered toast and has sent all his sons to Eton——”

“The truth!” we demanded.

“Oh, the truth,” she stammered, “the truth has nothing to do with literature,” and sitting down she refused to say another word.

It all seemed to us very inconclusive.

“Ladies, we must try to sum up the results,” Jane was beginning, when a hum, which had been heard for some time through the open window, drowned her voice.

“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 Franco-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.

The war was over and peace was in process of being signed, when I once more found myself with Castalia in the room where our meetings used to be held. We began idly turning over the pages of our old minute books. “Queer,” I mused, “to see what we were thinking five years ago.” “We are agreed,” Castalia quoted, reading over my shoulder, “that it is the object of life to produce good people and good books.” We made no comment upon that. “A good man is at any rate honest, passionate and unworldly.” “What a woman’s language!” I observed. “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 hadn’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 mothers 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.

“Surely you could teach her to believe that a man’s intellect is, and always will be, fundamentally superior to a woman’s?” I suggested. She brightened at this and began to turn over our old minutes again. “Yes,” she said, “think of their discoveries, their mathematics, their science, their philosophy, their scholarship——” and then she began to laugh, “I shall never forget old Hobkin and the hairpin,” she said, and went on reading and laughing and I thought she was quite happy, when suddenly she drew the book from her and burst out, “Oh, Cassandra, why do you torment me? Don’t you know that our belief in man’s intellect is the greatest fallacy of them all?” “What?” I exclaimed. “Ask any journalist, schoolmaster, politician or public house keeper in the land and they will all tell you that men are much cleverer than women.” “As if I doubted it,” she said scornfully. “How could they help it? Haven’t we bred them and fed and kept them in comfort since the beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they’re nothing else? It’s all our doing!” she cried. “We insisted upon having intellect and now we’ve got it. And it’s intellect,” she continued, “that’s at the bottom of it. What could be more charming than a boy before he has begun to cultivate his intellect? He is beautiful to look at; he gives himself no airs; he understands the meaning of art and literature instinctively; he goes about enjoying his life and making other people enjoy theirs. Then they teach him to cultivate his intellect. He becomes a barrister, a civil servant, a general, an author, a professor. Every day he goes to an office. Every year he produces a book. He maintains a whole family by the products of his brain—poor devil! Soon he cannot come into a room without making us all feel uncomfortable; he condescends to every woman he meets, and dares not tell the truth even to his own wife; instead of rejoicing our eyes we have to shut them if we are to take him in our arms. True, they console themselves with stars of all shapes, ribbons of all shades, and incomes of all sizes—but what is to console us? That we shall be able in ten years’ time to spend a week-end at Lahore? Or that the least insect in Japan has a name twice the length of its body? Oh, Cassandra, for Heaven’s sake let us devise a method by which men may bear children! It is our only chance. For unless we provide them with some innocent occupation we shall get neither good people nor good books; we shall perish beneath the fruits of their unbridled activity; and not a human being will survive to know that there once was Shakespeare!”

“It is too late,” I replied. “We cannot provide even for the children that we have.”

“And then you ask me to believe in intellect,” she said.

While we spoke, men were crying hoarsely and wearily in the street, and, listening, we heard that the Treaty of Peace had just been signed. The voices died away. The rain was falling and interfered no doubt with the proper explosion of the fireworks.

“My cook will have bought the Evening News,” said Castalia, “and Ann will be spelling it out over her tea. I must go home.”

“It’s no good—not a bit of good,” I said. “Once she knows how to read there’s only one thing you can teach her to believe in—and that is herself.”

“Well, that would be a change,” sighed Castalia.

So we swept up the papers of our Society, and, though Ann was playing with her doll very happily, we solemnly made her a present of the lot and told her we had chosen her to be President of the Society of the future—upon which she burst into tears, poor little girl.

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