Professor Paulsell's New Book Focuses on the Religious Influences of Agnostic Author Virginia Woolf

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Post-Victorian British writer Virginia Woolf was raised in an agnostic family and became an outspoken critic of Christian institutions. But her novels, essays and other writings reflect a life-long engagement with religious ideas and practices and explore new forms of sacred community.

In a new book about Woolf, Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Susan Shallcross Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, explores the religious influences on the life and work of one of the most important modernist writers of her time.

Paulsell sat down with the Memorial Church Communications staff to talk about her book, Religion Around Virginia Woolf, and her long fascination with the complex author.

New book "Religion Around Virginia Woolf" by Stephanie PaulsellNew book "Religion Around Virginia Woolf" by Stephanie Paulsell. Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/MemorialChurch Communications 

Blackwell: What is the back story of your new book?

Paulsell: I've always wanted to write a book about Virginia Woolf. I actually came to graduate school in the 1980s thinking I would study Virginia Woolf and write about her, and instead, I got all caught up in the history of Christian women's mysticism. I even tried to write my dissertation on Woolf and a 13th century mystical writer, because I think they both saw writing as a kind of mystical practice. In the end, my advisor wouldn't let me because he said it was too many centuries to cross, too complicated a comparison.

But, I always had in my mind that I'd like to write about her one day. And a friend of mine, Peter Kaufman, who teaches at the University of Richmond, provided the opportunity. He developed this new book series with Penn State University Press called Religion Around, and it's about religion around various cultural figures and how the religion around them might have impacted their work. Peter wrote a volume on Shakespeare. Clark Gilpin wrote a volume on Emily Dickinson. Tracy Fessenden wrote a volume on religion around the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday. I got to write about Woolf and I felt very lucky to get to do it.

Blackwell: What is the focus of this look into Woolf’s life and work?

Paulsell: Virginia Woolf is agnostic, she's atheist, really — ‘certainly and emphatically there is no God,’ she writes in her memoir — yet she's certainly trying to develop some sort of religious practice, and you can see her characters engaging with reading as a religious practice for sure.

In the book, I take a look at Woolf’s thinking about what we might call God, or the divine, or some sort of presence in the world that she is trying to find language for. She's thinking about community in the absence of churches, communities that allow one to go more deeply into life itself. Her work has a really strong religious valence, but it sometimes gets obscured because of her own feelings about the Church of England or the religion most proximate to her.

Woolf traveled a lot as a young person. She went to Istanbul, saw the mosques, and really thought about the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism that she grew up around, and between Islam and the Protestant Christianity she was familiar with.

Woolf also followed debates on women's ordination very closely. She was very immersed in questions about religion and reading about religion. She read the Bible, she read the letters of ministers, she read old collections of sermons. She was a voracious reader and she was interested in what she called lives of the obscure by which she meant, the people who make history, but whom the history books don't remember.

Blackwell: In the book, you go into great detail about the people in her life, her family and friends, as well as the societal climate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How important were the influences of her personal circle and the times on her writing?

Paulsell: Woolf’s parents were Victorians who lost their faith. They were growing up at the time of the historical-critical study of the Bible and Darwin's discoveries and insights into the development of humanity. All of that was such an earthquake for so many of the generation before her, and the generation of her parents.

Her father had been a professor at Cambridge University, where you had to be an ordained priest to be on the faculty, and he just eventually came to realize he didn't believe it anymore. Her mother lost her faith when her first husband died young. She was very much in love with him. Her heart was broken. She couldn't believe in a God after that.

But Woolf’s parents were very interested in what would replace religion. And Woolf was really trying to figure out new forms of English literature, and how much more those new forms of writing could express to fill the void. I think you can trace her desire for new forms back to the loss of faith. If we can't rely on religious narratives to interpret the world for us, we'll have to look to something else. I think her project is in a way, part of that.

Blackwell: Does Woolf’s work still have relevance today?

Paulsell: She lived during the first World War and died at the beginning of the second World War. During this time, she was thinking about human beings, about human interiority, and about sacred community while fascism was rising in Europe. She offers us ways of thinking about these same questions in our own difficult time.

Blackwell: What would you like readers to pull from this book?

Paulsell: I've been teaching Virginia Woolf and religion for several years, and I've noticed that students who are going into ministry find reading her very useful because it gives them other ways of talking about human religious experience.

Those students have found it helpful to have language that's a little bit outside the tradition when speaking to the religious needs and desires of our time. But the language still speaks to some of these religious questions. I'm hoping it'll be useful to people like that. I hope it will be useful to scholars of Virginia Woolf, who want to understand her or become better readers of her work. I hope it will find these readers.

I also hope this book will lead people to Virginia Woolf. That would make me happy, but I hope it will contribute to the scholarly conversation about Virginia Woolf and religion. More than that, I hope people who love to read her will find their experience of her deepened even further by my book.

Stephanie PaulsellStephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard Univerity, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School. 

Blackwell: Have you ever considered what Virginia Woolf would think about your analysis of her work and life?

Paulsell: I wonder a lot about what she would think of my work. I'm definitely not trying to say Virginia Woolf is some kind of anonymous Christian. I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying there's a religious dimension to her work that is integral to her work and that if we're going to understand her, we need to try to understand that.

I don't know if she would like the religious language. Woolf was pretty fierce in conversation. I think she could be very, very loving and attentive, and she could also be pretty fierce. She had lots of arguments with her friends, her religious friends, like T.S. Elliott and others. She picked at them about their religious faith.

So, I don't know what she would think about a minister writing about her work as having a religious dimension. But I think Woolf would be really interested in our religious context. I think she would see the potential in that and would be really curious about it and interested in it.

I think her religious practice was reading and writing, both of which she did religiously. And if she was alive today, I think she'd be writing about the religious diversity of our time in her novels.

Blackwell: If Virginia Woolf was sitting across from you at the dinner table, what question would you ask her?

Paulsell: I think I'd ask her what writing had meant to her, the practice. Yes, what it meant to her, and how it had helped her navigate her life.

Professor Paulsell will discuss Religion Around Virginia Woolf on Monday, Dec. 2 from 5:30–7pm in the Common Room at the Center for the Study of World Religions. Learn more about this event >