A Society by Virginia Woolf
An Extract From
THIS IS HOW it all came about. Six or seven of us were sitting one
day after tea. Some were gazing across the street into the windows of a
milliner's shop where the light still shone brightly upon scarlet
feathers and golden slippers. Others were idly occupied in building
little towers of sugar upon the edge of the tea tray. After a time, so
far as I can remember, we drew round the fire and began as usual to
praise men? how strong, how noble, how brilliant, how courageous, how
beautiful they were? how we envied those who by hook or by crook
managed to get attached to one for life? when Poll, who had said
nothing, burst into tears. Poll, I must tell you, has always been
queer. For one thing her father was a strange man. He left her a
fortune in his will, but on condition that she read all the books in
the London Library. We comforted her as best we could; but we knew in
our hearts how vain it was. For though we like her, Poll is no beauty;
leaves her shoe laces untied; and must have been thinking, while we
praised men, that not one of them would ever wish to marry her. At last
she dried her tears. For some time we could make nothing of what she
said. Strange enough it was in all conscience. She told us that, as we
knew, she spent most of her time in the London Library, reading. She
had begun, she said, with English literature on the top floor; and was
steadily working her way down to the Times on the bottom. And now half,
or perhaps only a quarter, way through a terrible thing had happened.
She could read no more. Books were not what we thought them. "Books,"
she cried, rising to her feet and speaking with an intensity of
desolation which I shall never forget, "are for the most part
Of course we cried out that Shakespeare wrote books, and Milton and
"Oh, yes," she interrupted us. "You've been well taught, I can see.
But you are not members of the London Library." Here her sobs broke
forth anew. At length, recovering a little, she opened one of the pile
of books which she always carried about with her?"From a Window" or "In
a Garden," or some such name as that it was called, and it was written
by a man called Benton or Henson, or something of that kind. She read
the first few pages. We listened in silence. "But that's not a book,"
someone said. So she chose another. This time it was a history, but I
have forgotten the writer's name. Our trepidation increased as she went
on. Not a word of it seemed to be true, and the style in which it was
written was execrable.
"Poetry! Poetry!" we cried, impatiently. "Read us poetry!" I cannot
describe the desolation which fell upon us as she opened a little
volume and mouthed out the verbose, sentimental foolery which it
"It must have been written by a woman," one of us urged. But no.
She told us that it was written by a young man, one of the most famous
poets of the day. I leave you to imagine what the shock of the
discovery was. Though we all cried and begged her to read no more, she
persisted and read us extracts from the Lives of the Lord Chancellors.
When she had finished, Jane, the eldest and wisest of us, rose to her
feet and said that she for one was not convinced.
"Why," she asked, "if men write such rubbish as this, should our
mothers have wasted their youth in bringing them into the world?"
We were all silent; and, in the silence, poor Poll could be heard
sobbing out, "Why, why did my father teach me to read?"
Clorinda was the first to come to her senses. "It's all our fault,"
she said. "Every one of us knows how to read. But no one, save Poll,
has ever taken the trouble to do it. I, for one, have taken it for
granted that it was a woman's duty to spend her youth in bearing
children. I venerated my mother for bearing ten; still more my
grandmother for bearing fifteen; it was, I confess, my own ambition to
bear twenty. We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were
equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we
have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and
the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilized it. But
now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results?
Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we
will find out what the world is like."
So we made ourselves into a society for asking questions. One of us
was to visit a man-of-war; another was to hide herself in a scholar's
study; another was to attend a meeting of business men; while all were
to read books, look at pictures, go to concerts, keep our eyes open in
the streets, and ask questions perpetually. We were very young. You can
judge of our simplicity when I tell you that before parting that night
we agreed that the objects of life were to produce good people and good
books. Our questions were to be directed to finding out how far these
objects were now attained by men. We vowed solemnly that we would not
bear a single child until we were satisfied.
Off we went then, some to the British Museum; others to the King's
Navy; some to Oxford; others to Cambridge; we visited the Royal Academy
and the Tate; heard modern music in concert rooms, went to the Law
courts, and saw new plays. No one dined out without asking her partner
certain questions and carefully noting his replies. At intervals we met
together and compared our observations. Oh, those were merry meetings!
Never have I laughed so much as I did when Rose read her notes upon
"Honour" and described how she had dressed herself as an ®thiopian
Prince and gone aboad one of His Majesty's ships. Discovering the hoax,
the Captain visited her (now disguised as a private gentleman) and
demanded that honour should be satisfied. "But how?" she asked. "How?"
he bellowed. "With the cane of course!" Seeing that he was beside
himself with rage and expecting that her last moment had come, she bent
over and received, to her amazement, six light taps upon the behind.
"The honour of the British Navy is avenged!" he cried, and, raising
herself, she saw him with the sweat pouring down his face holding out a
trembling right hand. "Away!" she exclaimed, striking an attitude and
imitating the ferocity of his own expression, "My hounour has still to
be satisfied!" "Spoken like a gentleman!" he returned, and fell into
profound thought. "If six strokes avenge the honour of the King's Navy,
" he mused, "how many avenge the honour of a private gentleman?" He
said he would prefer to lay the case before his brother officers. She
replied haughtily that she could not wait. He praised her sensibility.
"Let me see," he cried suddenly, "did your father keep a carriage?"
"No," she said. "Or a riding horse?" "We had a donkey," she bethought
her, "which drew the mowing machine." At this his face lighted. "My
mother's name?" she added. "For God's sake, man, don't mention your
mother's name!" he shrieked, trembling like an aspen and flushing to
the roots of his hair, and it was ten minutes at least before she could
induce him to proceed. At length he decreed that if she gave him four
strokes and a half in the small of the back at a spot indicated by
himself (the half conceded, he said, in recognition of the fact that
her great grandmother's uncle was killed at Trafalgar) it was his
opinion that her honour would be as good as new. This was done; they
retired to a restaurant; drank two bottles of wine for which he
insisted upon paying; and parted with protestations of eternal
Then we had Fanny's account of her visit to the Law Courts. At her
first visit she had come to the conclusion that the Judges were either
made of wood or were impersonated by large animals resembling man who
had been trained to move with extreme dignity, mumble and nod their
heads. To test her theory she had liberated a handkerchief of
bluebottles at the critical moment of a trial, but was unable to judge
whether the creatures gave signs of humanity for the buzzing of the
flies induced so sound a sleep that she only woke in time to see the
prisoners led into the cells below. But from the evidence she brought
we voted that it is unfair to suppose that the Judges are men.
Helen went to the Royal Academy, but when asked to deliver her
report upon the pictures she began to recite from a pale blue volume,
"O! for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is
still. Home is the hunter, home from the hill. He gave his bridle reins
a shake. Love is sweet, love is brief. Spring, the fair spring, is the
year's pleasant King. O! to be in England now that April's there. Men
must work and women must weep. The path of duty is the way to glory?"
We could listen to no more of this gibberish.
"We want no more poetry!" we cried.
"Daughters of England!" she began, but here we pulled her down, a
vase of water getting spilt over her in the scuffle.
"Thank God!" she exclaimed, shaking herself like a dog. "Now I'll
roll on the carpet and see if I can't brush off what remains of the
Union Jack. Then perhaps?" here she rolled energetically. Getting up
she began to explain to us what modern pictures are like when Castalia
"What is the average size of a picture?" she asked. "Perhaps two
feet by two and a half," she said. Castalia made notes while Helen
spoke, and when she had done, and we were trying not to meet each
other's eyes, rose and said, "At your wish I spent last week at
Oxbridge, disguised as a charwoman. I thus had access to the rooms of
several Professors and will now attempt to give you some idea? only,"
she broke off, "I can't think how to do it. It's all so queer. These
Professors," she went on, "live in large houses built round grass plots
each in a kind of cell by himself. Yet they have every convenience and
comfort. You have only to press a button or light a little lamp. Their
papers are beautifully filed. Books abound. There are no children or
animals, save half a dozen stray cats and one aged bullfinch? a cock. I
remember," she broke off, "an Aunt of mine who lived at Dulwich and
keep cactuses. You reached the conservatory through the double
drawing-room, and there, on the hot pipes, were dozens of them, ugly,
squat, bristly little plants each in a separate pot. Once in a hundred
years the Aloe flowered, so my Aunt said. But she died before that
happened?" We told her to keep to the point. "Well," she resumed, "when
Professor Hobkin was out, I examined his life work, an edition of
Sappho. It's a queer looking book, six or seven inches thick, not all
by Sappho. Oh, no. Most of it is a defence of Sappho's chastity, which
some German had denied, and I can assure you the passion with which
these two gentlemen argued, the learning they displayed, the prodigious
ingenuity with which they disputed the use of some implement which
looked to me for all the world like a hairpin astounded me; especially
when the door opened and Professor Hobkin himself appeared. A very
nice, mild, old gentleman, but what could he know about chastity?" We
"No, no," she protested, "he's the soul of honour I'm sure? not
that he resembles Rose's sea captain in the least. I was thinking
rather of my aunt's cactuses. What could they know about chastity?"
Again we told her not to wander from the point,? did the Oxbridge
professors help to produce good people and good books? ? the objects of
"There!" she exclaimed. "It never struck me to ask. It never
occurred to me that they could possibly produce anything."
"I believe," said Sue, "that you made some mistake. Probably
Professor Hobkin was a gyn¾cologist. A scholar is overflowing with
humour and invention? perhaps addicted to wine, but what of that? ? a
delightful companion, generous, subtle, imaginative? as stands to
reason. For he spends his life in company with the finest human beings
that have ever existed."
"Hum," said Castalia. "Perhaps I'd better go back and try again."
Some three months later it happened that I was sitting alone when
Castalia entered. I don't know what it was in the look of her that so
moved me; but I could not restrain myself, and, dashing across the
room, I clasped her in my arms. Not only was she very beautiful; she
seemed also in the highest spirits. "How happy you look!" I exclaimed,
as she sat down.
"I've been at Oxbridge," she said.
"Answering them," she replied.
"You have not broken our vow?" I said anxiously, noticing something
about her figure.
"Oh, the vow," she said casually. "I'm going to have a baby, if
that's what you mean. You can't imagine," she burst out, "how exciting,
how beautiful, how satisfying?"
"What is?" I asked.
"To? to? answer questions," she replied in some confusion.
Whereupon she told me the whole of her story. But in the middle of an
account which interested and excited me more than anything I had ever
heard, she gave the strangest cry, half whoop, half holloa?
"Chastity! Chastity! Where's my chastity!" she cried. "Help Ho! The
There was nothing in the room but a cruet contained mustard, which
I was about to administer when she recovered her composure.
"You should have thought of that three months ago," I said
"True," she replied. "There's not much good in thinking of it now.
It was unfortunate, by the way, that my mother had me called Castalia."
"Oh, Castalia, your mother?" I was beginning when she reached for
the mustard pot.
"No, no, no," she said, shaking her head. "If you'd been a chaste
woman yourself you would have screamed at the sight of me? instead of
which you rushed across the room and took me in your arms. No,
Cassandra. We are neither of us chaste." So we went on talking.
Meanwhile the room was filling up, for it was the day appointed to
discuss the results of our observations. Everyone, I thought, felt as I
did about Castalia. They kissed her and said how glad they were to see
her again. At length, when we were all assembled, Jane rose and said
that it was time to begin. She began by saying that we had now asked
questions for over five years, and that though the results were bound
to be inconclusive? here Castalia nudged me and whispered that she was
not so sure about that. Then she got up, and interrupting Jane in the
middle of a sentence, said:
"Before you say any more, I want to know? am I to stay in the room?
Because," she added, "I have to confess that I am an impure woman."
Everyone looked at her in astonishment.
"You are going to have a baby?" asked Jane.
She nodded her head.
It was extraordinary to see the different expressions on their
faces. A sort of hum went through the room in which I could catch the
words "impure," and "baby," "Castalia," and so on. Jane, who was
herself considerably moved, put it to us:
"Shall she go? Is she impure?"
Such a roar filled the room as might have been heard in the street
"No! No! No! Let her stay! Impure? Fiddlesticks!" Yet I fancied
that some of the youngest, girls of nineteen or twenty, held back as if
overcome with shyness. Then we all came about her and began asking
questions, and at last I saw one of the youngest, who had kept in the
background, approach shyly and say to her:
"What is chastity then? I mean is it good, or is it bad, or is it
nothing at all?" She replied so low that I could not catch what she
"You know I was shocked," said another, "for at least ten minutes."
"In my opinion," said Poll, who was growing crusty from always
reading in the London Library, "chastity is nothing but ignorance? a
most discreditable state of mind. We should admit only the unchaste to
our society. I vote that Castalia shall be our President."
This was violently disputed.
"It is as unfair to brand women with chastity as with unchastity,"
said Poll. "Some of us haven't the opportunity either. Moreover, I
don't believe Cassy herself maintains that she acted as she did from a
pure love of knowledge."
"He is only twenty-one and divinely beautiful," said Cassy, with a
"I move," said Helen, "that no one be allowed to talk of chastity
or unchastity save those who are in love."
"Oh, bother," said Judith, who had been enquiring into scientific
matters, "I'm not in love and I'm longing to explain my measures for
dispensing with prostitutes and fertilizing virgins by Act of
She went on to tell us of an invention of hers to be erected at
Tube stations and other public resorts, which, upon payment of a small
fee, would safeguard the nation's health, accommodate its sons, and
relieve its daughters. Then she had contrived a method of preserving in
sealed tubes the germs of future Lord Chancellors "or poets or painters
or musicians," she went on, "supposing, that is to say, that these
breeds are not extinct, and that women still wish to bear children?"
"Of course we wish to bear children!" cried Castalia, impatiently.
Jane rapped the table.
"That is the very point we are met to consider," she said. "For
five years we have been trying to find out whether we are justified in
continuing the human race. Castalia has anticipated our decision. But
it remains for the rest of us to make up our minds."
Here one after another of our messengers rose and delivered their
reports. The marvels of civilisation far exceeded our expectations,
and, as we learnt for the first time how man flies in the air, talks
across space, penetrates to the heart of an atom, and embraces the
universe in his speculations, a murmur of admiration burst from our
"We are proud," we cried, "that our mothers sacrificed their youth
in such a cause as this!" Castalia, who had been listening intently,
looked prouder than all the rest. Then Jane reminded us that we had
still much to learn, and Castalia begged us to make haste. On we went
through a vast tangle of statistics. We learnt that England has a
population of so many millions, and that such and such a proportion of
them is constantly hungry and in prison; that the average size of a
working man's family is such, and that so great a percentage of women
die from maladies incident to childbirth. Reports were read of visits
to factories, shops, slums, and dockyards. Descriptions were given of
the Stock Exchange, of a gigantic house of business in the City, and of
a Government Office. The British Colonies were now discussed, and some
account was given to our rule in India, Africa and Ireland. I was
sitting by Castalia and I noticed her uneasiness.
"We shall never come by any conclusion at all at this rate," she
said. "As it appears that civilisation is so much more complex than we
had any notion, would it not be better to confine ourselves to our
original enquiry? We agreed that it was the object of life to produce
good people and good books. All this time we have been talking of
aeroplanes, factories, and money. Let us talk about men themselves and
their arts, for that is the heart of the matter."
So the diners out stepped forward with long slips of paper
containing answers to their questions. These had been framed after much
consideration. A good man, we had agreed, must at any rate be honest,
passionate, and unworldly. But whether or not a particular man
possessed those qualities could only be discovered by asking questions,
often beginning at a remote distance from the centre. Is Kensington a
nice place to live in? Where is your son being educated? and your
daughter? Now please tell me, what do you pay for your cigars? By the
way, is Sir Joseph a baronet or only a knight? Often it seemed that we
learnt more from trivial questions of this kind than from more direct
ones. "I accepted my peerage," said Lord Bunkum, "because my wife
wished it." I forget how many titles were accepted for the same reason.
"Working fifteen hours out of the twenty-four, as I do?" ten thousand
professional men began.
"No, no, of course you can neither read nor write. But why do you
work so hard?" "My dear lady, with a growing family?" "But why does
your family grow?" Their wives wished that too, or perhaps it was the
British Empire. But more significant than the answers were the refusals
to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and
religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as
to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside,
or pressed at extreme risk to the asker. "I'm sure," said Jill, "that
if Sir Harley Tightboots hadn't been carving the mutton when I asked
him about the capitalist system he would have cut my throat. The only
reason why we escaped with our lives over and over again is that men
are at once so hungry and so chivalrous. They despise us too much to
mind what we say."
"Of course they despise us," said Eleanor. "As the same time how do
you account for this? I made enquiries among the artists. Now, no woman
has ever been an artist, has she, Poll?"
"Jane-Austen-Charlotte-Bront‘-George-Eliot," cried Poll, like a man
crying muffins in a back street.
"Damn the woman!" someone exclaimed. "What a bore she is!"
"Since Sappho there has been no female of first rate?" Eleanor
began, quoting from a weekly newspaper.
"It's now well known that Sappho was the somewhat lewd invention of
Professor Hobkin," Ruth interrupted.
"Anyhow, there is no reason to suppose that any woman ever has been
able to write or ever will be able to write," Eleanor continued. "And
yet, whenever I go among authors they never cease to talk to me about
their books. Masterly! I say, or Shakespeare himself! (for one must say
something) and I assure you, they believe me."
"That proves nothing," said Jane. "They all do it. Only," she
signed, "it doesn't seem to help us much. Perhaps we had better examine
modern literature next. Liz, it's your turn."
Elizabeth rose and said that in order to prosecute her enquiry she
had dressed as a man and been taken for a reviewer.
"I have read new books pretty steadily for the past five years,"
said she. "Mr. Wells is the most popular living writer; then comes Mr.
Arnold Bennett; then Mr. Compton Mackenzie; Mr. McKenna and Mr. Walpole
may be bracketed together." She sat down.
"But you've told us nothing!" we expostulated. "Or do you mean that
these gentlemen have greatly surpassed Jane-Eliot and that English
fiction is? where's that review of yours? Oh, yes, 'safe in their
"Safe, quite safe," she said, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.
"And I'm sure that they give away even more than they receive."
We were all sure of that. "But," we pressed her, "do they write
"Good books?" she said, looking at the ceiling. "You must
remember," she began, speaking with extreme rapidity, "that fiction is
the mirror of life. And you can't deny that education is of the highest
importance, and that it would be extremely annoying, if you found
yourself alone at Brighton late at night, not to know which was the
best boarding house to stay at, and suppose it was a dripping Sunday
evening? wouldn't it be nice to go to the Movies?"
"But what has that got to do with it?" we asked.
"Nothing? nothing? nothing whatever," she replied.
"Well, tell us the truth," we bade her.
"The truth? But isn't it wonderful," she broke off?"Mr. Chitter
has written a weekly article for the past thirty years upon love or hot
buttered toast and has sent all his sons to Eton?"
"The truth!" we demanded.
"Oh, the truth," she stammered, "the truth has nothing to do with
literature," and sitting down she refused to say another word.
It all seemed to us very inconclusive.
"Ladies, we must try to sum up the results," Jane was beginning,
when a hum, which had been heard for some time through the open window,
drowned her voice.
"War! War! War! Declaration of War!" men were shouting in the
We looked at each other in horror.
"What war?" we cried. "What war?" We remembered, too late, that we
had never thought of sending anyone to the House of Commons. We had
forgotten all about it. We turned to Poll, who had reached the history
shelves in the London Library, and asked her to enlighten us.
"Why," we cried, "do men go to war?"
"Sometimes for one reason, sometimes for another," she replied
calmly. "In 1760, for example?" The shouts outside drowned her words.
"Again in 1797? in 1804? It was the Austrians in 1866? 1870 was the
Franco-Prussian? In 1900 on the other hand?"
"But it's now 1914!" we cut her short.
"Ah, I don't know what they're going to war for now," she admitted.
* * * * *
The war was over and peace was in process of being signed, when I
once more found myself with Castalia in the room where our meetings
used to be held. We began idly turning over the pages of our old minute
books. "Queer," I mused, "to see what we were thinking five years ago."
"We are agreed," Castalia quoted, reading over my shoulder, "that it is
the object of life to produce good people and good books." We made no
comment upon that. "A good man is at any rate honest, passionate and
unworldly." "What a woman's language!" I observed. "Oh, dear," cried
Castalia, pushing the book away from her, "what fools we were! It was
all Poll's father's fault," she went on. "I believe he did it on
purpose? that ridiculous will, I mean, forcing Poll to read all the
books in the London Library. If we hadn't learnt to read," she said
bitterly, "we might still have been bearing children in ignorance and
that I believe was the happiest life after all. I know what you're
going to say about war," she checked me, "and the horror of bearing
children to see them killed, but our mothers did it, and their mothers,
and their mothers before them. And they didn't complain. They couldn't
read. I've done my best," she sighed, "to prevent my little girl from
learning to read, but what's the use? I caught Ann only yesterday with
a newspaper in her hand and she was beginning to ask me if it was
'true.' Next she'll ask me whether Mr. Lloyd George is a good man, then
whether Mr. Arnold Bennett is a good novelist, and finally whether I
believe in God. How can I bring my daughter up to believe in nothing?"
"Surely you could teach her to believe that a man's intellect is,
and always will be, fundamentally superior to a woman's?" I suggested.
She brightened at this and began to turn over our old minutes again.
"Yes," she said, "think of their discoveries, their mathematics, their
science, their philosophy, their scholarship?" and then she began to
laugh, "I shall never forget old Hobkin and the hairpin," she said, and
went on reading and laughing and I thought she was quite happy, when
suddenly she drew the book from her and burst out, "Oh, Cassandra, why
do you torment me? Don't you know that our belief in man's intellect
is the greatest fallacy of them all?" "What?" I exclaimed. "Ask any
journalist, schoolmaster, politician or public house keeper in the land
and they will all tell you that men are much cleverer than women." "As
if I doubted it," she said scornfully. "How could they help it?
Haven't we bred them and fed and kept them in comfort since the
beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they're nothing
else? It's all our doing!" she cried. "We insisted upon having
intellect and now we've got it. And it's intellect," she continued,
"that's at the bottom of it. What could be more charming than a boy
before he has begun to cultivate his intellect? He is beautiful to
look at; he gives himself no airs; he understand the meaning of art and
literature instinctively; he goes about enjoying his life and making
other people enjoy theirs. Then they teach him to cultivate his
intellect. He becomes a barrister, a civil servant, a general, an
author, a professor. Every day he goes to an office. Every year he
produces a book. He maintains a whole family by the products of his
brain? poor devil! Soon he cannot come into a room without making us
all feel uncomfortable; he condescends to every woman he meets, and
dares not tell the truth even to his own wife; instead of rejoicing our
eyes we have to shut them if we are to take him in our arms. True, they
console themselves with stars of all shapes, ribbons of all shades, and
incomes of all sizes? but what is to console us? That we shall be able
in ten years' time to spend a week-end at Lahore? Or that the least
insect in Japan has a name twice the length of its body? Oh,
Cassandra, for Heaven's sake let us devise a method by which men may
bear children! It is our only chance. For unless we provide them with
some innocent occupation we shall get neither good people nor good
books; we shall perish beneath the fruits of their unbridled activity;
and not a human being will survive to know that there once was
"It is too late," I replied. "We cannot provide even for the
children that we have."
"And then you ask me to believe in intellect," she said.
While we spoke, men were crying hoarsely and wearily in the street,
and, listening, we heard that the Treaty of Peace had just been signed.
The voices died away. The rain was falling and interfered no doubt with
the proper explosion of the fireworks.
"My cook will have bought the Evening News," said Castalia, "and
Ann will be spelling it out over her tea. I must go home."
"It's no good? not a bit of good," I said. "Once she knows how to
read there's only one thing you can teach her to believe in? and that
"Well, that would be a change," sighed Castalia.
So we swept up the papers of our Society, and, though Ann was
playing with her doll very happily, we solemnly made her a present of
the lot and told her we had chosen her to be President of the Society
of the future? upon which she burst into tears, poor little girl.