Religion Around Virginia Woolf

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Stephanie Paulsell
Religion Around
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , September
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephanie Paulsell is a theologian based at the Harvard Divinity School who, like many scholars emerging from third-wave feminism, was introduced to the writing of Virginia Woolf by a parent. The dedication to Religion around Virginia Woolf reads: “To my father, who gave me the mystics, and to my mother, who gave me Woolf.” In this study of Woolf’s work through the lens of spirituality, Paulsell analyzes the variety of religious cultures impacting Woolf’s worldview. Paulsell does not shy away from acknowledging Woolf’s ultimately agnostic perspective; it was an agnosticism at times pointedly satirical towards organized religion. Paulsell also provides invaluable glimpses, however, into Woolf’s connections to, and at times guarded admiration for, various forms of Christian spirituality: from Catholic piety witnessed via continental travels to the Quaker contemplative practices embraced by Woolf’s aunt. Paulsell’s monograph is an engaging and thoughtful contribution to the larger “Religion Around” series produced by series editor Peter Kaufman, which also includes titles such as Religion around Shakespeare and, fascinatingly, Religion around Billie Holiday. Concise and informative, Paulsell’s work suggests the other books in the series are worth investigating.        

The first chapter of Religion around Virginia Woolf lays a detailed and rich foundation by considering the familial religious influences in Woolf’s early life. Paulsell examines the religious roots of Woolf’s highly literate family, including her father Leslie Stephen. Woolf’s paternal great-grandfather James Stephen was an active member of the evangelical Clapham Sect, which also included anti-slavery activist and parliamentarian William Wilberforce. The political activism of Wilberforce was an influence on the Stephen family. James Stephen the younger, Woolf’s grandfather, wrote the Slavery Abolition Act that sought to end slavery throughout the British empire. The roots of Woolf’s own political concern for the marginalized can clearly be traced back to these activist evangelical Anglican ancestors. Paulsell misses an opportunity, however, to point out the example set by another Clapham Sect member: Hannah More. An early novelist and anti-slavery activist, More was a literary foremother about whom Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen wrote within his Dictionary of National Biography (Smith, Elder, and Co.,1885-1900). Woolf must have known her work.

The middle three chapters of this elegantly concise study consider the spiritual undercurrents of Woolf’s prose, both in the juvenilia, letters and in seven novels: The Voyage Out (Duckworth and Co., 1915), Mrs. Dalloway (Hogarth Press, 1925), To the Lighthouse (Hogarth, 1927), Orlando: A Biography (Hogarth, 1928), The Waves (Hogarth, 1931), The Years (Hogarth, 1936), and Between the Acts (Hogarth, 1941). For the reader familiar with Woolf’s later work, one of the most interesting aspects of Paulsell’s study is its attention to Woolf’s juvenilia. The young Woolf’s holiday reading focused on “Shakespeare and the Bible, Dante and Burke” (57). Woolf’s holiday writing, composed while travelling through Greece and Turkey at the age of 24, included an extended story about “a medieval historian, Rosamond Merridew, who discovers a diary kept in the fifteenth century by a teenager named Joan Martyn” (69). The name Joan carries strong associative resonances with the historical 15th-century teenager Joan of Arc, but Paulsell does not suggest this connection.

Nevertheless, the way Paulsell explores Woolf’s attention to Marian devotion via the fictional character Joan is intriguing. Paulsell also considers the influence of Italian painter Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia (1462) and Madonna del Parto (1460) not only on the paintings of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, but also on the dignified maternal figures in Woolf’s fiction, such as Mrs. Ramsay in the novel To the Lighthouse. This influence of Roman Catholic Mariology on Woolf’s imagining of protective and nurturing maternal figures has yet to be fully explored. Paulsell could have further bolstered the connection by including visual images of Piero’s Marian paintings alongside the photographic work of Woolf’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, who repeatedly depicted the Madonna and Child trope.   

As the study proceeds, Paulsell continues to draw on historical expressions of Christianity, comparing Woolf’s own meditative reading practices to lectio divina (a prayerful analysis of scripture via repetitive readings) and remarking on the monastic character of Woolf’s early Bloomsbury gatherings in London. Paulsell suggests Woolf’s indeterminate spirituality had more in common with apophatic mysticism, acknowledging the ultimate unknowability of God, than it had with her father Leslie Stephen’s later position as a hard-headed agnostic. In a bold move, Paulsell suggests Woolf’s sympathies with Roman Catholicism were a form of daughterly resistance against her father’s clear rejection of Christianity. Paulsell posits Woolf’s fictional character Miss Kilman—a single, educated tutor, in the novel Mrs. Dalloway—as Woolf’s sympathetic representation of a Christian and a feminist. Diving strategically into the imagery of Woolf’s novels, Paulsell finds gleaming sparks of a divinity which eludes definition. It is as if Paulsell is drawing out Woolf’s curiosity about God’s possible existence, though Woolf, admittedly, remained outside of any confessional faith her entire life.

In Paulsell’s final chapter, “Overflowing Boundaries: Sacred Community and the Common Life,” she attends more carefully to Woolf’s nonfiction prose. The focus on aspects of A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth, 1929) and Three Guineas (Hogarth, 1938) through a theological lens sheds new light on these key texts of first-wave feminism. Paulsell’s attention to the silent figure at the opening of Room, who sits on a riverbank and meditates, places this solitary gazer in the context of religious solitude and contemplative practices of prayer. Paulsell suggests Woolf’s own apophatic approach to mystery, and openness to external sources of revelation, had a mystical aspect.

When turning to Three Guineas, Paulsell highlights Woolf’s attraction to the Christ who “chose his disciples from the working class from which he sprang himself. The prime qualification was some rare gift which in those early days was bestowed capriciously on carpenters and fishermen, and upon women also” (Woolf quoted by Paulsell, 176). It is poignant to reconsider this articulation of a beautiful hope in Christ, who affirmed the spiritual gifts of “women also,” just three years before Woolf’s suicide. Paulsell’s monograph redemptively unearths Woolf’s implicit, open-ended, questions about faith. We hear Woolf’s voice asking, “What if God exists?” “What if Christ can see my ‘rare gift’?” “What if it is something of great value to community?”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natasha Duquette is professor of literature and academic dean at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
College in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada.

Date of Review: 
July 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School.