Three Guineas was published in 1938 as the clouds grew ever darker over mainland Europe and the two dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, began to exert more of a negative, and patriarchal, influence over their neighbours. It is written in the form of a reply to a letter, which, before it can answer the original letter fully, must deal with connected issues arising from the receipt of a further two letters (bear with me here...). The original letter is sent by a barrister leading a public organisation to prevent the outbreak of war, in which he asks for Woolf's support, both financial and moral. In response, she takes over two hundred pages, leading the reader through a tangled maze of arguments about a woman's role in public life, outlining some of the recent progress made in the push towards equality as well as the many obstacles still standing in the way.
The first letter she polishes off is from a women's college, similar to the ones she lectured at in A Room of One's Own. Their plea for pecuniary assistance is mulled over by Woolf for fifty pages or so while she discusses whether educating women is actually a step towards eradicating war or a move towards perpetuating the system under criticism. The second letter is from a society for the promotion of working women, and Woolf again takes their plea for financial help very seriously, wondering if encouraging women to conform to masculine norms while receiving feminine standards of pay is a good idea at all. Once these preliminary matters have been addressed, she returns to the original letter and, while promising a small donation, she decides that the best way women can further this cause is not to join the society, but rather to work from the outside and bring about change by non-conformism. Yes, that does seem like one extremely long letter...
It's actually made even longer by the existence of two sets of notes for the book. The first, added by the editor, contains short notes about classical allusions or contemporary name-dropping and is fairly straight-forward. The second, however, added by Woolf herself, switches between simple references to her reading and anecdotal digressions lasting for a few pages, leading the poor reader to be torn between the desire to understand the background and a wish to just read more than a couple of paragraphs without turning to the back of the book again. Now, when one word points you to both sets of notes, it really is time to reach for the paracetamol. Where A Room of One's Own was a light skip through the daisies, Three Guineas is bog-snorkelling wearing concrete flippers.
Before you run away and look for a Harry Potter book instead though, it's not as bad as it sounds. There are still flashes of the dry humour evident in the companion piece, and Woolf's frequent comments reminding herself that she mustn't waste her reader's time with details (before then embarking on a ten-page digression) show a writer fully aware of the demands she is making on the reader and determined to make the medicine she administers as palatable as possible.
After almost 250 pages then, what is the gist of Woolf's lengthy epistle? Namely, that for women to assist in stopping war, they require a good education, equal pay and a decent career (but with the common sense to only work as much as they need to), and the freedom to stay out of structured societies in order to attack the system from the outside. Easy. And that's really all that needs to be said (even if Virginia needed slightly more space than me to get to that point).
Before I go though, it would be remiss of me to leave the title unexplained. A Guinea was an imperial amount of money, one pound and one shilling, which never actually existed in coin or note form. However, it had upper-class connotations, being the standard consulting fee in the professions, and it is this amount which Woolf decides to donate to each of the writers of the three letters (as symbolically shown in the photograph above). As pointed out by critics (and comments I have received), Woolf comes from this privileged class: while she may preach attacking the system from the outside, is she really just inside the glass house throwing stones?
Thanks again to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for this review copy!