[Vwoolf] Woolf & Coleridge (the reference to "The Friend" in the last footnote of "Three Guineas")

Laura Cernat cernat.laura at kuleuven.be
Fri Jun 29 11:55:08 EDT 2018

Dear Woolf aficionados, experts, and apprentices,

I was wondering if any of you could help me with an explanation regarding some of the peculiarities of Woolf's political thought. Particularly, I've been struggling for a while now with a quandary regarding the contextualization of the last footnote of "Three Guineas".

The first quote that she gives there is from Coleridge's "The Friend", but what struck me from the start as very strange (and after weeks of seeking seems to remain impenetrable) is the choice for that particular essay [Essay IV from the first section "On the Principles of Political Knowledge" of the first volume - pages 186-202 in the 1969 Routledge & Kegan Paul edition of The Friend - called "On the Grounds of Government as Laid Exclusively in the Pure Reason"] to illustrate Woolf's famous idea of a Society of Outsiders. The reason why I found this choice so odd is that, upon reading the citation given by Woolf in its context (its place in the essay, in the political thought articulated by "The Friend", and in Coleridge's late work in general), I realized that this reference is in a way very anti-Woolfian: not only is the essay in question dismissive of women's rights (on p. 195 Coleridge approves of the exclusion of women from voting, on the grounds of their "state of dependence", and on p. 200 he talks of Marriage as the "most moral form" of property), but it goes against the grain of any initiative to find alternatives to patriarchal and state-controlled forms of organization. These aspects are not explicitly present in the two passages that Woolf cites, but they are easily observable upon reading the essay in full, even outside the context of the conservative political ideas so prominent in "The Friend".

Knowing how familiar Woolf was with Coleridge's work, even from an early age, and knowing that she was rereading him in the last few years of her life (as her diaries and letters attest), I was surprised to see her misinterpret his exposition of Rousseau's system (which is described only to be refuted in the rest of the essay) as Coleridge's own adherence to those principles. I oscillate between: 1. thinking that Woolf did not reread the whole of the essay when she transcribed it in her manuscript for "Three Guineas", copying it perhaps from an old notebook of hers [she cites the 1818 edition directly, so it can't be taken from an intermediary source], 2. thinking that she idealized Coleridge's thought to the point of not seeing its unfitness for the point she is trying to make, and, finally, 3. thinking that there is a more complex Woolf-Coleridge connection which, though hard to articulate (at least for me and at this point), could explain how his ideas about an organic form of state, and about the freedom derived from the service of "rightful" powers and causes [a rather paternalistic set of ideas at their origin] morphed into her ideas about resisting the pressures of pugnacious competitiveness, of "inner fascism", of the obsession with accumulation which drives us "round the mulberry tree of property". To me the two sets of ideas seem (now, at least) radically opposed, and it feels like Woolf is citing Coleridge's exposition of Rousseau only for the sake of Rousseau's ideas, which she agrees with, and not for the sake of Coleridge's own political thought, which (at least in the version exposed in "The Friend") contrasts so strongly with hers. However, I do get the sense that there is some sort of affinity between the two writers as political thinkers (perhaps hinging on the idea of education, since Woolf talks not in the name of all women but of "the daughters of educated men") and I would like to explore this further.

I have been reading lately on Woolf's political activism and writings (Alice Wood's book on "Woolf's Late Cultural Criticism", and Clara Jones's "Woolf: Ambivalent Activist"), but I still have a hard time articulating the connections between her conception of stately matters and Coleridge's views on politics. So, if anyone is working on this or can suggest a path out of this impasse, I would be very grateful.

With the kindest of wishes,

Laura Cernat

PhD student, KU Leuven, Department of Literary Studies

P. S. For those of you who have a more specific interest in the topic, here's the extract that Woolf cites:

"Coleridge however expresses the views and aims of the outsiders with some accuracy in the following passage: 'Man must be free or to what purpose was he made a Spirit of Reason, and not a Machine of Instinct? Man must obey; or wherefore has he a conscience? The powers, which create this difficulty, contain its solution likewise; for their service is perfect freedom. And whatever law or system of law compels any other service, disennobles our nature, leagues itself with the animal against the godlike, kills in us the very principle of joyous well-doing, and fights against humanity (...[omission in the original])  If therefore society is to be under a rightful constitution of government, and one that can impose on rational Beings a true and moral obligation to obey it, it must be framed on such principles that every individual follows his own Reason, while he obeys the laws of the constitution, and performs the will of the State while he follows the dictates of his own Reason. This is expressly asserted by Rousseau, who states the problem of a perfect constitution of government in the following words: Trouver une forme d'Association - par laquelle chacun s'unisant à tous, n'obeisse pourtant qu'à lui même, et reste aussi libre qu'auparavant, i.e. To find a form of society according to which each one uniting with the whole shall yet obey himself only and remain as free as before.' (The Friend, by S. T. Coleridge, vol. I, pp. 333, 334, 335, 1818 edition.)" [the quote is on pages 191-192 of the 1969 Routledge edition of The Friend]

In the subsequent pages, Coleridge rejects this system proposed by Rousseau, claiming that it is only applicable in a world governed by pure Reason, not in an imperfect human world. The first point in solving my query is probably figuring out if Woolf had registered the fact that Coleridge was not citing Rousseau to confirm his words, but to prepare their refutation.

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