Review of Clara Jones, Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist (Edinburgh UP, 2015)




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Peer reviewed



Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist makes an important and exciting contribution to the ongoing critical reassessment of the politics of a writer frequently portrayed as apolitical in her lifetime and for several decades after her death in 1941. In an early critical study, David Daiches argued that ‘Virginia Woolf remained on the whole outside politics, content to justify her position implicitly and unanswerably by her creative work’. Since the late 1970s, critics have steadily dismantled this image of Woolf as an isolated aesthete by exposing her novels’ critiques of patriarchy, imperialism and fascism, and the social and political commentary of her essays, letters, diary and unpublished writings. Yet, the perception of Woolf as standing outside of organised politics persists, in large part due to her own numerous statements of suspicion, distrust and distaste towards formalised social and political organisations. Critics have long known of Woolf’s 1910 letter to Janet Case offering to address envelopes for the suffrage campaign, for example, or her role in arranging speakers for the Richmond branch of the Women’s Co-operative Guild; but these activities and others have often been seen as reluctant or sceptical concessions to social and political work. The details of Woolf’s involvement in such activities have received remarkably little attention. Clara Jones’s book significantly addresses this omission by uncovering the circumstances and particularities of Woolf’s participation in four social and political organisations: Morley College, the People’s Suffrage Federation, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. From this research a new portrait emerges of Woolf as activist, if profoundly ambivalent in that activism and highly sensitive to the competing impulses of altruism, egoism, philanthropy and didacticism commonly at play within social and political movements. This book rescues Woolf’s ambivalent activism from obscurity and places it side-by-side with her writing. In addition, through its careful historical research, it offers fresh perspectives on a series of twentieth-century institutions and campaigns. (Extract from item. For full text please see published review at:



Virginia Woolf


Wood, A. (2016) Review of Clara Jones, Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist (Edinburgh UP, 2015), Literature & History, 25 (2), pp. 241-244


Research Institute

Institute of English