I have been reading and thinking a lot about Virginia Woolf lately, and so reading this letter this afternoon brought to mind the various ways in which Woolf describes women helping other women – help without which any individual female achievement would be impossible. The help Woolf describes ranges from the practical (the £500/year left her by her aunt) to the intellectual; she imagines the great feminist, suffragette and composer, Ethel Smyth, as a “pioneer”, clearing the way for woman after her:
She is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground; went first; drew the enemy’s fire; and left a pathway for those who came after her. I never knew whether to be angry that such heroic pertinacity was called for, or glad that it had the chance of showing itself.
The help offered to Elizabeth by her “Aunt Teedee” (her father’s sister, I think) in June 1937, falls firmly into the practical category, however it is no less touching for that. Having left Oxford the previous summer, Elizabeth still had no set career – although clearly she wanted one – and had no immediate plans (or desire?) to marry. She had been active in politics at Oxford, and when she moved to London at the end of her degree she seems to have become involved with the N.U.W.M. (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – I will post something about this soon). By June 1937 (when she received this letter), it seems that she was working for the League of Nations Union – an internationalist organisation, committed to the principles of the League of Nations (ie international co-operation with the aim of avoiding another world war) – in what must have been an unpaid capacity (I seem to remember my grandmother telling me that she had worked for the League of Nations itself, so it may have been this, rather than the Union that she was working for – hopefully future letters will bring clarity!). Presumably, like many recent graduates, she didn’t know quite what to do with herself – especially, as someone who cared so much about politics, in the context of fast-moving domestic and international events. Or perhaps she knew exactly what she wanted to do, and was going about it the best way she could.
This was almost a year after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, but it seems like going there wasn’t yet on Elizabeth’s horizon at this point – however, it would nevertheless have been becoming increasingly clear that (nationalist) fascism and (internationalist) socialism were competing for the future of Europe. Meanwhile, Britain was blighted by high levels of unemployment – and by the consequences of this in a pre-welfare state – and so the work Elizabeth did, both to agitate for the cause of the unemployed (with the N.U.W.M.), and to support an internationalist organisation like the League of Nations, reflects some of the decade’s key issues.
However, the family narrative (from Elizabeth’s side of the family) was always that she was headstrong and a bit flighty, and that her politics were driven primarily by a desire to spite her mother. It is wonderful, therefore, to come across this letter – to realise that she had (female!) relatives who took her seriously, and who, furthermore, supported her in concrete terms – such as with this birthday present of two weeks’ wages to continue her work at the League of Nations (/Union). It isn’t quite in quite the same league as the legacy left to Woolf by her aunt (which allowed her “a room of her own”) – but for Aunt Teedee, a middle-aged, middle-class, single woman, with only a small income of her own, it is a hugely generous gesture, and one that speaks of belief in Elizabeth’s capacity to do great, useful things (“a future strenuous life”), as well as tacit solidarity with her ambitions. Thank you Aunt Teedee!