Virginia Woolf’s Vision of Utopia

Virginia Woolf, 1902. Photo by George Charles Beresford. commons.wikimedia.org.

Sometimes I forget how much Virginia Woolf is one of us. She would not claim Quakerism as her own. She rejected institutional religion. Yet the influence of Quakers on her life infuses her work. For that, I am grateful. 

Her aunt, Quaker Caroline Stephen, author of Quaker Strongholds, took Woolf into her home after her niece’s nervous breakdown in 1904. She encouraged Woolf to write. She arranged for her first paid publication. 

Although often given to scathing critiques of others, Woolf described Stephen as “wise” and “humane,” “a remarkable woman,” and as “tough an old heathen as they make.” (She also sometimes mocked her.) 

Stephen left Woolf the £2,500 ($423,000 in today’s money) that helped her embark on her writing career. A woman helped a woman. Woolf never forgot this generous gift. Decades later, she said it “unveiled the sky to me.” 

Quaker Violet Dickinson was also a close early friend, a woman of deep generosity and philanthropic impulse. “All of this [generosity] was the fruit of [Dickinson’s]. . .Quaker background,” writes Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee. Lee adds that Dickinson was “indispensable” to Woolf and played a “crucial enabling” role in her writing. Quaker Roger Fry, who brought modernist art to England, was another close friend and intellectual partner.

From early on, Woolf passionately embraced such Quaker values as pacifism, communitarianism, equality, integrity, and simplicity, though these streams were also fed from other sources.

Her final work, the utopic novel Between the Acts, imagines an annual community play held on the grounds of an English country estate before World War II. In the novel, a play is featured that is written by a character named Miss La Trobe. The play is a pageant that deliberately leaves out war. As the current crisis of climate change looms, I find hope in Between the Acts. Below I pull out five aspects of her utopian visioning that might help us today: 

Utopic Community Includes the Participation of the Whole Planet

Community in Between the Acts encompasses the entire earth. Humans, animals, plants, even weather are actively joined as one. The inclusive community participating in the play is joyous and includes animals: 

The very cows joined in. . . .the barriers which should divide Man the Master from the Brute were dissolved. Then the dogs joined in. Excited by the uproar, scurrying and worrying, here they came! Look at them!

Even the trees have a participatory role in the drama unfolding: 

O the trees, how gravely and sedately like. . .the spaced pillars of some cathedral church—barred the music. . .and prevented what was fluid from overflowing.

Miss La Trobe sets the play’s events in motion but lets them unfold as the spirit moves them. She has a moment of despair when she feels the play is failing, and at this point, she threatens to dismantle her utopia by exerting a dictatorial, exclusionary control:  

If only she’d a back-cloth to hang between the trees—to shut out cows, swallows, present time!

But then the rain comes: 

And then the shower fell, sudden, profuse. . . .The rain was sudden and universal. . . .“That’s done it,” sighed Miss La Trobe. . .Nature once more had taken her part. The risk she had run acting in the open air was justified.

Shutting out anything from utopia threatens everything, because every living thing has a part. The community dances together. Everyone loses their “I” in a joyous unity. 

The Rev. Streatfield speaks. He enters into the new vision, one marked by an absence of explaining: 

I am not here to explain. That role has not been assigned me. I speak only as one of the audience, one of ourselves. . . .O let us, the audience echoed (stooping, peering, fumbling), keep together. For there is joy, sweet joy, in company.

I love this new litany, one that includes the swallows. I love that part of Woolf’s utopic vision is the end of man-splaining—given up voluntarily by the preacher, the very man hired to “splain.” 

Utopia Is Ephemeral and Reiterative 

One of the striking elements of Woolf’s utopia is how short-lived it is. It lasts a few hours, once a year. As Miss La Trobe muses as the play ends, thinking of her audience: 

You have taken my gift! Glory possessed her—for one moment. But what had she given? A cloud that melted into the other clouds on the horizon. It was in the giving that the triumph was.

This radically differs from the idea of utopia as everlasting. 

In the eternal model, if we can only get it right, once and for all, all will be well. We will be happy forever and nothing will ever need to change. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that won’t work, if only because such a world would be incredibly boring. 

A friend once said about utopian experiments in the United States that these experiments can’t be labeled failures simply because they came and went. Most businesses, he noted, fail within five years, and yet nobody throws their hands up in the air and says, “We must abandon capitalism! It doesn’t work!” As Miss La Trobe understands, the glory lasts only “one moment.” But the glory can be repeated and repeated. 

Woolf’s utopia is reiterative. It is dynamic. It is ecstatic. And it dissolves. It must be formed and re-formed and formed again. As Miss La Trobe says: “another play always lay behind the play she had just written.” When this year’s play is over, she is joyful, then deflates: “‘A failure,’ she groaned. . . .”

But in a moment, she inflates again: 

Then suddenly the starlings attacked the tree behind which she had hidden. . . . The tree became a rhapsody, a quivering cacophony, a whizz and vibrant rapture, branches, leaves, birds syllabling discordantly life, life, life, without measure, without stop devouring the tree. Then up! Then off!

She put down her case and stood looking at the land. Then something rose to the surface.

“I should group them,” she murmured, “here.” It would be midnight; there would be two figures, half concealed by a rock. The curtain would rise. What would the first words be?

I love the way the birds’ energy becomes Miss La Trobe’s. I love the way she transcends her point of despair. Doing is more important than failing. To build utopia, we keep picking up and starting over again. This reiterative circularity is a woman’s traditional way of being. It is not the telos of patriarchy, where the great man comes to a glorious and triumphant end. 



Utopia Emerges from the Undercommons   

I think Woolf would be delighted with the term “undercommons.” As Jack Halberstam describes this realm in the introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, this is “a space and time which is always here. . .not to end the troubles but to end the world that created those particular troubles [my italics] as the ones that must be opposed.” 

In Between the Acts, the undercommons is a world in action. In this utopia, living beings and places usually pushed to the margins come to the center. Outsiders become insiders. Energy explodes. 

Miss La Trobe, who sets the utopia in motion, is herself an outsider. Her ancestry is unknown and probably not even British. She is middle-aged and a spinster, a despised status in mid-century England. 

Once the play is over and the undercommons again submerge, we learn:

old Mrs. Chalmers. . .cut her. The women in the cottages with the red geraniums always did that. She was an outcast. Nature had somehow set her apart from her kind.

But this outcast brings the community together. 

The undercommons abounds in Between the Acts. When it comes to the play, “they had to do it on the cheap.” The barn is the workroom and dressing room, and a motley crew of workers of all ages work together on the set. Cows and sheepdogs pass the door. A horned cow pokes its way in, as does Mr. Bond, the cowman. Albert “the idiot” (this is a word we shrink from, but Woolf uses it both to show Alfred’s outsider status and to redeem the term) is there. So is the elderly Mrs. Swithin in her knobbed shoes and “black stockings wrinkled over the ankles.” The crew members breathe in dust and seeds and find splinters in their fingers.  They work with cast-off materials. 

Everyone uses the resources at hand:

Look! Out they come, from the bushes—the riff-raff. Children?. . .Holding what? Tin cans? Bedroom candlesticks? Old jars? My dear, that’s the cheval glass from the Rectory! And the mirror—that I lent her. My mother’s. Cracked. What’s the notion? Anything that’s bright enough to reflect, presumably, ourselves?

Out of the least of these, the forgotten, the despised, the cracked mirrors, the backwaters, utopia can be built:

Look at ourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Then at the wall; and ask how’s this wall, the great wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by (here the mirrors flicked and flashed) orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves?

La Trobe gives Albert, the “idiot,” a prominent role in her play and he becomes a focal point. Some, like the reverend Streatfield understand:

He too, Mr. Streatfield appeared to be saying, is part of ourselves. But not a part we like to recognize, Mrs. Springett added silently.

Alfred helps create a utopia that transcends speech:

Contemplating the idiot, Mr. Streatfield had lost the thread of his discourse. His command over words seemed gone. . . .He had no further use for words.

At this point, in the silence, Woolf implies, we, the “orts, scraps and fragments,” are arriving at Utopia. 

Utopia Is within Dystopia . . . or Vice Versa

Utopia is often depicted as a place apart. It is an island or a forgotten kingdom surrounded by mountains, like Shangri La. It is the Amish or the Sioux. It is “not us.” According to this concept, it is a pure place, excised of all we hate. The monsters are banished, be they our political opponents or the difficult, unpleasant, unbeautiful people that show up in meetings. 

But Woolf rejects that vision. She knew as a woman raised in the Victorian era that purity kills. 

Purity tries to hide or cover rather than include. As Purity states in Woolf’s novel Orlando

I cover vice and poverty. On all things frail or dark or doubtful, my veil descends. Wherefore, speak not, reveal not. Spare, O spare! 

Woolf tells Purity to “begone!” She knows it is too easy to step from the cleansing veil to ethnic cleansing. Instead, she creates utopia within the mess of the real world.

Woolf implants utopia’s critics in utopia’s midst—because they are there. She doesn’t purify her utopic space by denying them their voices. It is central to her vision that we hear them: 

I thought it utter bosh. Did you understand the meaning? . . .Also, why leave out the Army, as my husband was saying, if it’s history?

“The village idiot,” whispered. . .Mrs. Elmhurst. . . .It wasn’t nice. Suppose he suddenly did something dreadful?

Woolf implies that all these questions need to be raised—and heard. 

Likewise, Miss La Trobe’s audience sees utopic beauty: “flaming windows, each daubed with golden sun.”  But they also see life’s imperfection: 

through the golden glory perhaps a crack in the boiler; perhaps a hole in the carpet. . .the daily drop of the daily bill.

Woolf finds utopia in the small gesture: “the resolute refusal of some pimpled dirty little scrub in sandals to sell his soul.” She insists on the utopic moment: “There is such a thing—you can’t deny it.” By shining a light on these moments, she encourages them to flourish. Woolf finds her utopia in imperfection.

Utopia is Disorientation

One traditional idea of utopia is a place that feels like “coming home.” In Between the Acts, however, utopia disorients. In utopia, we feel the oddity of a new way of being. We give up control.  

Moten and Harvey say that: 

the disorientation is not just unfortunate, it is necessary because you will no longer be in one location moving forward to another, instead you will already be part of “the “movement of things” and on the way to this “outlawed social life of nothing. The movement of things can be felt and touched and exists in language and in fantasy. . . .  

Woolf spent her writing life disorienting us with her language because she wanted to smash the forms that only reflect back what we want to see. At the end of the play, her audience is disoriented.

Energy explodes from this disorientation:

Ourselves! Ourselves!

Out they leapt, jerked, skipped. Flashing, dazzling, dancing, jumping. . . . Here a
nose. . . . There a skirt. . . . Then trousers only. . . . Now perhaps a face. . . . Ourselves? But that’s cruel. To snap us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume. . . . And only, too, in parts. . . . That’s what’s so distorting and upsetting and utterly unfair.

Utopia catches us as we really are. This disorienting truth is the beginning of transformation.

Diane Reynolds

Diane Reynolds is a member of Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio; a graduate of Earlham School of Religion; a journalist; the author of The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and an occasional Friends Journal book reviewer.

3 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Vision of Utopia

  1. I majored in comparative literature and Virginia Woolf was my favorite author. (The Waves’ innovations beat those in Joyce’s Ulysses by a country mile.) Didn’t know about her Quaker connections and never read Between the Acts but will now thanks to Diane Reynold’s tantalizing description of how Woolf constructed her utopia while deconstructing other common notions. That Woolf killed herself shortly after completing Between the Acts adds to its poignancy for me. I live with manic-depression and so did she. The novel may have been her last attempt to reconcile the extremes of her nature in a dynamic way, giving us a vision of utopia, that, as Reynolds suggests, was ahead of its time.

  2. This was great.
    “A woman helped a woman.” Thank you for this inspiring piece.
    “Doing is more important than failing. To build utopia, we keep picking up and starting over again.”
    This keeps me going!
    Thank you!

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