This article uses the genre of speculative historical fiction as a point of entry into Virginia Woolf’s politics. Two spy novels, Ellen Hawkes and Peter Manso’s The Shadow of the Moth (1983) and Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden (2009), present scenarios in which Woolf becomes inadvertently drawn into wartime intrigues, forcing her to turn vigilante in an effort to expose abuses of power at the highest levels of government. Although farfetched, these pulp fictions may, in fact, contain a kernel of truth. Following (the real) Woolf’s theory that “bad books are not the mirrors but the vast distorted shadows of life,” this essay argues that such counterfactual narratives do not impose the world of the thriller onto Woolf; rather, they allegorize a spy-function already present in the writer’s life and work. From her participation in the 1910 Dreadnought Hoax, during which she and several companions disguised themselves as “Abyssinians” and successfully gained access to the flagship of the British navy, to her publication of Three Guineas (1938), in which she advocates for the creation of an anonymous “Society of Outsiders,” Woolf’s antiauthoritarian politics consistently draw upon the tropes of espionage, figuring feminism as a secret agency whose plot against the patriarchal “procession” emerges through forms of public discourse—sometimes openly and sometimes clandestinely “between the lines.” From this perspective, Woolf anticipates current debates over whistle-blowing and the ethics of disclosure, making her engaged outsider a precursor of the twenty-first-century hacktivist.
True Lies: Virginia Woolf, Espionage, and Feminist Agency
Mark David Kaufman is assistant professor of English at Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania. He has published essays in Hypermedia Joyce Studies, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Public Domain Review, and European Journal of American Studies. He is currently at work on a book project focusing on the relationship between modernism and espionage, the weaponization of the humanities during wartime, and the cultivation of writers as spies by the intelligence community.
Mark David Kaufman; True Lies: Virginia Woolf, Espionage, and Feminist Agency. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 September 2018; 64 (3): 317–346. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-7142072
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