Throughout 1940, Virginia Woolf struggled with the terrors and mysteries of war. Neither of the Woolfs knew that their names were on the “black list” of Britons set to be arrested—and presumably killed—in the event of a successful Nazi invasion, but since Leonard was Jewish, the couple prepared for the worst. They hoarded gasoline in their garage so as to be able to kill themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide, and took the further precaution of acquiring a deadly dose of morphine from a friend. But none of this protected them from hearing Hitler’s voice over the radio, or the noise of German bombers flying over their London house at night, rattling its windowpanes.
“Here they are again,” wrote Virginia in a famous essay published five months before her suicide. “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Earlier, she had written of how different all this was from British experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Both Jane Austen and Walter Scott lived through those conflicts, she noted, yet neither had mentioned it in their novels. This, she thought, demonstrated “that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves…. Wars were then remote; wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private people.”
In some respects, these claims reveal more about Woolf and the extent of her vulnerability at the outset of World War II than about the Napoleonic Wars, or about Austen and Scott, both of whom in fact wrote frequently on these conflicts, albeit in different ways. Scott composed a rousing song for a volunteer regiment and hoped that his poems and novels on medieval themes would help transform the “whole of the nation into soldiers.” After the wars, he also published a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
As for Austen, she was always sensitive to how wars “carried on by soldiers and sailors” could nonetheless have an impact on “private people” at home, not least women. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family is turned upside down and Lydia is ruined because of the movements of a militia regiment charged with guarding the country against a French invasion; while in Persuasion Anne Elliot is finally able to wed Captain Wentworth, an officer in the Royal Navy (as were two of Austen’s own brothers), because of the money he has made capturing French ships, and therefore of course killing Frenchmen.
Yet the fact that Wentworth’s sea battles are only alluded to indirectly in the novel, and take place outside its pages and out of sight of its civilian characters, points to the way in which Virginia Woolf’s remarks in 1940 possess some validity. With only an…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.