World War I
Before World War II, the First World War was simply known as the Great War. As the twentieth century began, Germany, France, England, Russia, and Austria-Hungary intensely guarded their international territorial and economic interests, even to the point of threatening war. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 sparked a shooting war between the major power alliances (the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente) of Europe. After four years of war, approximately ten million people were killed and over twenty million were wounded.
Death of Queen Victoria
In 1901, Queen Victoria died. She had become queen in 1837, succeeding William IV, and had enjoyed the longest reign of any British monarch. In her old age she was very popular. Throughout her reign, she fought hard to maintain England’s colonial control throughout the world. She also was opposed to granting women the legal right to vote.
The beginning of the twentieth century seemed both a time of immense promise and a chilling reminder of the cost of “progress.” Cities were places of international commerce and culture where artists and writers lived and associated. Cities were also the space of factories; and in a time before governmental standards that regulated workplace safety, the age of workers, and the length of the working day, trade unions fought for humane conditions. Gardens and parks had long provided a space for people to mingle, now they took on an added role of providing a space of natural beauty in an industrial environment.
As the world headed for the political domino reactions that triggered world war, the industrial age seemed less of a promise and more of a deadly mechanism with an uncontrollable force. Factories produced immense amounts of artillery and other implements of war, and people questioned the value of an industrial capability that could so easily be harnessed and directed for the destruction of other human beings.
Impressionism and Narrative Perspective
As the legacy of nineteenth-century imperialism laid the groundwork for the economic state of affairs in the twentieth century, traditional ideas of what was literature and how to tell a story also changed. Painters like Seurat, Monet, Picasso, and Chirico challenged traditional notions of perspective in the visual arts; instead of assuming that art would present a cohesive vision of the world, artists proposed exploring the ways in which all perspective was partial, fractured, and even violently dissonant.
Woolf’s story presents at least three types of women. First, there is the dutiful wife walking a step behind her husband with an eye on her children. Second are the lower middle-class women who seem lost and lonely. Third and finally is the curious young woman who stifles her inquisitive enthusiasm to follow her boyfriend to tea. In these slight pictures are different visions of women’s roles in the aftermath of a Victorian era in which conventional morality scripted women to be self-sacrificing domestic angels, lonely old spinsters, and virginal, innocent young girls in need of male direction. As devastating as World War I had been to young men of her generation, Woolf considered the institution of marriage a similar devastation as young girls were disciplined to march into the role of a good wife.
At the turn of the century, participants in the women’s movement became more and more militant in their demand for political enfranchisement. ”Kew Gardens” was published in the year after the fourth Reform Bill was finally passed in 1918. The Reform Bill gave all women over the age of thirty the right to vote. Not until 1928 were voting rights in England the same for men and women.
Throughout her career, Woolf addressed the stereotypes that limited and oppressed women, not only by denying them the same opportunities as men, but also by limiting their sphere of influence to a stifling and small domestic space. She would urge women to kill the “angel in the house,” that is to self-reflect and combat the unreasonable and stagnant expectations placed on women regarding their intellectual, sexual, and public lives. Killing the angel required not only facing the public force of sexism but examining the ways sexism was internalized by women themselves.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.