Whilst answering a letter received from a (unidentified) gentleman asking for her opinion on how war might be prevented, in her essay, Three Guineas, Woolf launches into a historically rich vindictive questioning not only the sense of asking her such a question, for unlike the gentleman she had been denied access the education that would have allowed her to answer him, but also how such inequality had come about.
Whilst in full flow in answering the latter point, she quotes from Gray’s Ode : ‘what is grandeur, what is power? – what the bright reward we gain?’
Gain indeed; power is what people want and in her writings Woolf not only demonstrates this but she also deals with some of the ways and reasons it occurs.
For example, in her memoirs, Moments of Being, Woolf recalls how when just eighteen years of age and after a long evening of being dragged about London to a series of gala parties and strategically important social events, her step-brother had crept into her bedroom and ‘flung’ himself on her bed, taking her ‘in his arms’ as a ‘lover’. If by power we mean that one person possesses a sense of dominion over another, then certainly with such behaviour her step-brother (older and presumably wiser) had abused his power although what he had wished to gain through it, Woolf does not conjecture. That she thought it an abuse of power is clear enough however for the next few sentences note that his behaviour would not have been acceptable to the ‘old ladies’ of ‘Kensington and Belgravia’.
In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf investigates the power struggle between a married couple, Mr and Mrs Ramsay – which through those memoirs Moments of Being, we learn are created in the likeness of her own parents. Whilst Mr Ramsay wanders about pondering great things like the philosopher David Hume ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his wife sat charitably knitting stockings for needy children. In conjunction with reading Woolf’s memoirs, we can conclude that she believed that in essence Mrs Ramsay had died young feeding her husband’s constantly flagging vanity. Is this an abuse of power in the sense of exercising dominion over another? Perhaps not – but we do know that at least Mrs Ramsay took pleasure in her ‘bright reward’ when exercising her power by refusing to tell Mr Ramsay that he had been right that it would rain tomorrow, she knew she had ‘triumphed again’.
In that same novel, Woolf also touches on wider social issues of use/abuse of power when Mr Ramsay ponders on whether the progress of civilisation depends on ‘great men’. He concludes it does not because the ‘greater good’ does depend on the existence of a ‘slave class’ (like the liftman in the Tube). Even whilst he himself finds this idea distasteful, he decides the best way to avoid dealing with it an upcoming lecture he is to present, is to ‘snub’ the ‘predominance’ of the arts – which only decorates human life and does not represent it. The reader cannot help but think such contemplation rather rich given the privilege Mr Ramsay himself enjoys with his summer house in the isles of Scotland complete with a bevy of servants and maids.
Unlike with her essays, in her fiction Woolf oddly refrains from abuse/abuse of narratorial/authorial power by pushing one view at the expense of another (as do many writers). Instead she maintains a gentle neutrality – presenting a story and letting it speak for itself – and at least in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway the narratorial/authorial voice never intrudes has it does in, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End. And even where we do hear the narratorial/authorial voice as for example in her novel, Orlando, both sides of the power struggles are evenly presented – not only does Orlando’s lover ‘Sasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ jilt him when he is a man (instead of the other way around), but as a woman Orlando sees both plusses and minuses of her new gender-based situation – although her new skirts are ‘plaguey’ around her heels, the stuff of which they are made is the ‘loveliest in the world’ as it shows off her skin to such ‘advantage’.
In summary, in both her essays and fiction Woolf demonstrates that she is more than aware that power is what people want – Three Guineas deals extensively with this point in regards to how for so many generations men and the church have used the power of their money to deny women equal access to education. She deals with the sexual abuse perpetrated by step-brother in her memoirs and also the inevitable power battles inherent in a marriage. Interestingly unlike in her essays, in her fiction Woolf does not use her authorial voice to push an agenda, instead simply letting the story speak for itself.