Three Guineas is a book-length essay by Virginia Woolf, published in June 1938.
Although Three Guineas is a work of non-fiction, it was initially conceived as a “novel–essay” which would tie up the loose ends left in her earlier work, A Room of One’s Own. The book was to alternate between fictive narrative chapters and non-fiction essay chapters, demonstrating Woolf’s views on war and women in both types of writing at once. This unfinished manuscript was published in 1977 as The Pargiters.
When Woolf realised the idea of a “novel–essay” wasn’t working, she separated the two parts. The non-fiction portion became Three Guineas. The fiction portion became Woolf’s most popular novel during her lifetime, The Years, which charts social change from 1880 to the time of publication through the lives of the Pargiter family. It was so popular, in fact, that pocket-sized editions of the novel were published for soldiers as leisure reading during World War II.
The entire essay is structured as a response to an educated gentleman who has written a letter asking Woolf to join his efforts to help prevent war. War was looming in 1936–7 and the question was particularly pressing to Woolf, a committed pacifist. In the gentleman’s letter (he is never named), he asks Woolf her opinion about how best to prevent war and offers some practical steps. Woolf opens her response by stating first, and with some slight hyperbole, that this is “a remarkable letter—a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented.”: 3 Despite the remarkable nature of the letter, Woolf has left it unanswered because as the daughter of an educated man, without access or place in the public world of professions, universities, societies, and government, she fears that there are fundamental differences that will make her “impossible for [educated men] to understand.”: 3 This sets up the fundamental tension of the work between, on the one hand, the desire to leave behind the stifling private home so as to help prevent war, an aim that Woolf certainly shares with her interlocutor, and, on the other, an unwillingness to simply ally with the public world of men. “Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”: 74
In the course of responding to the educated man’s questions and practical suggestions, Woolf turns to two other letters: a request for funds to help rebuild a woman’s college and a request for support for an organisation to help women enter the professions (professional life). Both allow Woolf to articulate her criticisms of the structure of education and the professions, which mostly involves showing how they encourage the very attitudes that lead to Fascism both at home and abroad.: 81 Woolf does not refuse the values of education and public service outright but suggests conditions which the daughters of educated men will need to heed if they are to prevent being corrupted by the public order. She imagines, for example, a new kind of college that avoids teaching the tools of domination and pugnacity, “an experimental college, an adventurous college…. It should teach… the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds…. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers.”: 34
In the final section, Woolf returns from the topics of education and the professions to the larger questions of preventing war and the practical measure suggested for doing so. In it she argues that although she agrees with her interlocutor that war is evil, they must attempt to eradicate it in different ways. “And since we are different,” Woolf concludes, “our help must be different.”: 143 Thus, the value of Woolf’s opinion (and help) on how to prevent war lies in its radical difference from the ways of men. Its impossibility of being completely understood is, then, the condition of its usefulness.