Wednesday, 10 February 2021

No 113: Woolf and Wylie: two ecofeminists?


I’ve been working through two sets of letters: those of the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf, and those of my mother, Jill Wylie. This happenstance has generated some interesting points of comparison.

 In 1929, when Jill was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, not far from London, Virginia was 47, running her Bloomsbury circle of friends, relatives, artists and writers in the heart of that teeming city. Two years earlier she had published her best-known novel, To the Lighthouse (my personal favourite). I don’t suppose they ever passed one another in Oxford Street, though they could have; but in a few years Jill was off to Kenya to be raised on the family farm, eventually to marry an Ulster sailor and settle in the eastern highlands of then Southern Rhodesia, subsequently Zimbabwe. Five thousand miles between them, and two more different milieux you can hardly conceive.

 So what’s the connection?

 I’ve been returning to Woolf via an invitation to explore the notion that she was what’s known nowadays as an “ecofeminist”. I’m doing so in parallel with yet another assiduous letter-writer, South Africa’s ur-novelist Olive Schreiner; Woolf praised Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm in a 1924 review, when the first edition of Schreiner’s letters appeared. The term “ecofeminist” was coined only in 1974, so it’s a bit anachronistic to try to apply it to Woolf or Schreiner, but I do think there’s some evidence that they could both be termed proto-ecofeminists. Certainly both were early feminists of a kind, as evidenced by Woolf’s book Three Guineas, and Schreiner’s book Women and Labour. And both certainly evinced certain sensitivities to the natural world. Whether the links they make between the two aspects, nature and feminism, are as strong as some scholars have suggested, is the question I’m exploring.

 What is ecofeminism, anyway? There are various emphases, but the central assertion is that Nature and Woman have through history and in many societies been oppressed together, damaged in tandem, by patriarchal structures, attitudes and actions. When parts of the natural environment are demeaned, invaded and commercialised, for example, it is often the women living in that environment who most heavily suffer the consequences. Liberating one thus necessitates liberating the other. Now some ecofeminist scholars have asserted a quasi-spiritual, even mystical link between women and Nature; others have worried that that compounds the problem of essentialising what women supposedly are, and take a more materialist or social-constructionist view of the links. Big argument.

 My still rather superficial exploration of these two sets of letters piques my interest in this problematic.

 There are at least some intriguing parallels between Virginia and Jill (“Jill” is more succinct than “my mother”).

             Both women were self-identifying “tomboys” as youngsters, in Cornwall and Kenya respectively.

            Both were habitual walkers, preferring the natural and the offbeat to the highway, and on their walks experienced remarkably similar moments of near-ecstatic revelation or what Woolf called “moments of being”.

Both became obsessive writers from an early age; both published a handful of books, as well as a vast number of essays, diaries, letters and other writings. Woolf  does outnumber Wylie probably by a factor of ten: she left some 4000 letters and 400 essays (which leaves me only a few hundred of Jill’s to go through, and a pile of diaries a mere metre high). But then Woolf wasn’t spending the bulk of her time searching for lost dogs and feeding bushbuck fawns. Both, nevertheless, suffered from excessive modesty or self-doubt.

            Both certainly felt their position as designated women within dynamics largely designed by and for men, both domestically and politically, being obliged to conform in some ways, while finding other ways of resisting, ignoring and evading the strictures.

            Both had to weather man-made wars – Woolf two World Wars, Jill the Rhodesian bush war, the latter rather more up-close-and-personal.

            Both were what we now called “activists”, taking up the “verbal cudgels”, as Jill put it: in her case, mostly for animals’ rights and welfare, in Woolf’s case, mostly for those of women.

            They both were coolly fascinated by human social behaviour, but simultaneously nursed a certain streak of misanthropy. They found rather different ways of expressing it.

            Neither gave much credit to organised religion, and looked for other modes of transcendence or belonging.

            Both had to struggle through varieties of illness, though in Woolf’s case it was largely mental (driving her to suicide), in Jill’s case largely physical.

            And, importantly, both their (married) surnames begin with W.

 Of course, there are also profound differences.

 Woolf became most famous for her fiction. Though Jill wrote some neat stories in her time, she reads little fiction and wrote less; fact is always quite weird and fascinating enough for her, she’s always said. Where Woolf, as befitted her intellectual circle, wrote a lot of book reviews, Jill wrote a lot of SPCA reports and essays on animal behaviour. And I’m not saying that Jill’s writing – lucid, beautiful and emotive as it is – is anything like as finely literary as Woolf’s!

             Woolf was elusive, and virtually made elusiveness her methodology; scholars have pointed out the differences between the Woolf one might divine from the novels, and that which one gleans from the letters – and that neither gives us a complete impression. Jill, on the other hand, is lucid and direct. What you see is what you get: not because she is simple or unsubtle, but because she can cut to what she regards as the heart of the matter and express it with the honesty of a bloodhound. I’ve now read several concise pieces which have me exclaiming: But that’s just her, that’s the whole of Jill, transparent as a forest pool. No deceptive Woolfian gauzes and halos there!

             Woolf adopted an almost Victorian veneer of elegant salon mannerliness and effete urbanised decorum, whilst waspishly undermining it in numerous ways; her letters are models of scintillating viciousness. Jill’s letters, while almost as detailed on domestic affairs and meetings and relationships as Woolf’s, are more often gently humorous and brimming with empathy, more for animals than people. She could be critical or disgusted, but was very seldom if ever nasty, and her public letters were unfailingly measured, even when she was conveying controlled fury.

             Environment inevitably played a huge role. City-dwelling Woolf’s nature was experienced on sedate country walks or within the tamed purviews of Kew Gardens; Jill’s environment, in contrast, though not quite the stereotyped savannahs of “Africa”, was wild enough that on any given day she might be spat in the eyes by a cobra, charged by a bushpig, or confronted by an armed poacher. Jill herself was wild, and unlike Virginia would never be seen dead in a dress, let alone make-up.

             Jill’s life-world was almost entirely devoted to the well-being of animals, domestic and wild, so naturally her letters are mostly about them. (She would, however, still make space for comments on politics, comets, a film or a wedding, the crime rate or the saga of selling a fridge.) Contrastively, in the several hundred letters of Woolf’s I’ve read (in Banks’ selection, Congenial Spirits), the dogs and cats they evidently lived with are scarcely mentioned. Even ornaments get more description. Animals appear only in the form of sardonic symbols or metaphors by which to describe people. This is despite her having written a novel, Flush, ostensibly from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel; though sweetly done, the work is, in the end, really about Browning rather than the dog, the whole thing “by way of a joke”, Woolf said.

 Ideally, I suppose, ecofeminism ought on the one hand to incorporate the sense of a coherent ecology or functional ecosystem, based on the interdependence of humans, geologies, vegetations, weather and non-human creatures; and, on the other hand, a vision which expresses a recognisably feminist (i.e. more than merely ‘female’) perspective. Perhaps neither writer fully fits in. Woolf’s grip on ecology, despite her numerous close observations of flowers and trees, moths and snails, was slender; she had not, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, even read Charles Darwin, or much of any other naturalists. Such moments of union or communion with the natural environment as she describes (most famously that of Septimus in Mrs Dalloway), she ascribed to a rather woolly “transcendental philosophy”, as she herself called it. At the same time she vigorously researched and pursued ideas of feminism that we would now characterise as “activist”.

 Jill was not similarly engaged in ‘feminism’, though she wrote about masculinity at certain points. If there was a nascent feminism in her, it was by way of simply living her life with robust independence, no matter what, and by insisting on the primacy of emotional engagement (not cheap sentimentality) – love, trust, imaginative empathy, grief – in ways habitually disparaged by men. However, unlike Woolf, she is ecological as no one else I know: a researcher, observer, environmental and animal activist in every fibre of her being and action of her life-long practice. Though she has always been open to the idea of spirituality as a kind of life-force – she once described herself as “sort of pagan” – there was nothing transcendental about it. Often joyful, yes, but also hard-eyed and material. Her compassionate side warred constantly with deploring the natural system of everybody-eats-somebody-else, but she accepted it: she knew that the little duiker she had spent months rearing and rehabilitating might end up in the jaws of a leopard the very night she was released. The concomitant was endlessly repeated grief – and the capacity to shoulder those griefs and keep on going is for me the very definition of courage. Virginia Woolf, it strikes me, was equally gimlet-eyed, brave in her own way, but ultimately a rather more fragile creature.

 All that said, both women are tributes to the great art of letter-writing – an art that has largely died in the age of the telephone and the email, the Twitters and the TikToks.


For more of Jill Wylie's writings, go to Jill Wylie's Animal Wisdoms,