Small acts of disdain

Readers of Our Culture, What’s Left of It know that Dalrymple does not exactly reserve a warm place in his heart for Virginia Woolf. In his 2002 essay “The Rage of Virginia Woolf“, he described her as “shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal”, and from the evidence he presented it was hard to dispute that judgment. Now, in an article for the new edition of the New Criterion, he discusses Alison Light’s book Mrs. Woolf & the Servants: An Intimate History of Bloomsbury, which documents the disdain in which she held her domestic servants.

In the essay, Dalrymple preempts some inevitable criticism, and I’d like to throw my two cents in. I don’t think he delights in heaping condemnation on the personal behavior of a woman who died 67 years ago. True, Virginia Woolf was no ordinary woman. The Bloomsbury Group, which also included John Maynard Keynes, Mary McCarthy, E.M Forster and others, greatly influenced, or at least reflected, much of the social and economic thought of the twentieth century. Woolf was an early champion of a certain philosophy that is now thoroughly common in the Western world: the one that fills an existential void by finding injustice and oppression everywhere and which blames society’s laws and attitudes for ruining one’s life, which would otherwise be perfect. In the earlier essay from 2002, Dalrymple exposes the undesirability of this attitude, which is so destructive of civilized behavior. But here, he is merely claiming that Woolf was not “a moral exemplar”. I don’t think he is claiming that her personal behavior necessarily invalidates her work or her opinions. In short, her ideas fail on their own account, not because she was imperfect in living by them.

Read the full article here
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