Who’s Afraid of (the Jewish) Tradition? Anti-Semitism, Intellectualism and the Marital Histories of Beatrice Webb and Virginia Woolf (Briefly) Compared


By Sydney Abba

What’s All This Then?

This piece looks at the marital histories of two ‘bluestockings’. Both rejected intimacy with their partners in a bid for intellectual autonomy. Yet their anti-Semitic tendencies expose the story of two minorities: the Jew and the Bluestocking with the broader question of why one (the Bluestocking) had no sympathy for the other. A simple truth is revealed: If you wish to exist, you must learn to survive.

The People

The stories are similar. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter (born 1859 and 1858 respectively) were scholarly Socialists. Leonard Woolf and Virginia Stephen (born 1880 and 1882 respectively) were equally intelligent, and writers. Both women were born into privilege, a class higher than their partners. The Webbs were married in 1892 and the Woolfs in 1912.

An Intellectual Partnership (Nothing Physical…) 

Beatrice was never attracted to Sidney. She would remind him of this, writing “it is the head only that I am marrying”, though historian Ian Britain suggests that the marriage was not sexless. She celebrated her academic successes with Sidney, though bouts of depression suggest she was unhappy. She regretted the decision to forego children.

Sexlessness (Eek!)

Virginia also was not attracted to Leonard. She was sexually frigid and Leonard eventually abandoned sexual intercourse. Virginia’s resistance was probably in protest – she wished to be taken seriously as an intellectual. For Virginia, sex (metaphorically) suppressed women whereas art completely freed them. The marriage was intellectually fulfilling, but they both desperately wanted children. She was bitter for it, because she felt “incomplete, not ‘a real woman’”.

Like Beatrice, Virginia settled for intellect. Both were unable to return their husband’s passion. Yet Virginia blamed this on something else: “I feel angry sometimes at the strength of your desire. Possibly, your being a Jew comes into it – you are so foreign.”

Wait…What? – (or The Jewish Question)

Beatrice once referred to marriage as the ‘waste-paper basket of the emotions’. Could this explain Virginia’s ethnic slurs? It certainly featured in the Woolf marriage. She would often refer to Leonard as a penniless Jew though it probably became a term of endearment – her Jew.

Yet Beatrice’s aversion towards Sidney included her distaste for his Jewish nose. But history suggests that Sidney was a Gentile (British). The term ‘Jewish’ was used to slight him, and to expose his ‘inferior’ qualities.

But why was inferiority attributed to Jewishness, and why did this negative perception exist in ‘civilised’ England? More specifically, why did Beatrice and Virginia, both intellectuals marginalised by gender, subscribe to such racism?

Tying it all Together (or The Female Question and the Jewish Problem)

Many Jews fled to England to escape the Russian Empire. By 1890 however, the English Jew was indistinguishable from the Gentile. Assimilation was essential to their survival. For the Gentile however, this was problematic. When the law stopped distinguishing between them, society was determined to find another label. The notion of a ‘Jewish’ race was thus introduced.

Jews achieved rapid social advancement due to assimilation.  The British accused Jews of greater loyalty to Talmudic (Jewish) law over English law, and of regarding themselves as superior, taking the benefits without living by the rules. This, then, emphasized the Jew’s inferiority. Jewish adaptability was framed as a racial characteristic which lent itself to the suggestion that all Jews were predisposed to ‘materialism’ and further that they were void of moral decency – something embedded in the genes.

So what of the female question? Why did women like Beatrice and Virginia subscribe to such racism? Such women saw themselves as marginalized. Beatrice was first a social reformer; she was happy to characterize Jewish achievement as destructive to social harmony. Beatrice remained true to her socialist spirit. If obtaining social reform meant criticising the Jew, then so be it.

Virginia’s anti-Semitism reveals a similar story. Virginia struggled to make sense of the world and ultimately used her art to examine it. Her writing offers an exploration of a personal fear: that her creativity might one day be lost. She framed it through the social lens of the Jewish problem (using stereotypical Jewish characters). It was a successful recipe. Virginia would ultimately sacrifice justice for the Jew, if it meant that she could continue to use her art to explore life in an intellectually satisfying way.

So What Does it All Mean?

Neither story has a happy ending. Both Beatrice and Virginia died within two years of each other amidst the terrors of the Second World War. These ‘bluestockings’ deliberately limited aspects of their human existence in an attempt to attain the intellectual heights. It is an irony that two great minds dedicated to social justice and liberal causes were unable to reflect on their own prejudice. They had stooped to the oldest and most dangerous insult in Western civilization – ‘Jew’. The moral of the story is something that history repeatedly tries to teach us. Survival depends, not on kicking the ladder out from under you, but in extending a hand to those that society has yet to value.

Further Reading

Webb, Beatrice. Diary of Beatrice Webb. Online Edition. Available at:

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb: Apprenticeships 1873-1892, Volume 1. ed. Norman McKenzie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1 -3 ed. Nigel Nicolson. London: The Hogarth Press.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4. ed. Nigel Nicolson. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

Cohen, Deborah. ‘Who was Who?’ Race and Jews in Turn-of-the-Century Britain.’ The Journal of British Studies 41, no. 4 (2002): p. 460-483.

Dally, Peter. Virginia Woolf: the marriage of heaven and hell. London: Robson Books, 1999.

Glendinning, Victoria. Leonard Woolf. London, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

“Beatrice Webb” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. May 2008. Online Edition. Available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp?articleid=36799&back=.

“Sidney Webb” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. May 2008. Online Edition. Available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp?articleid=36799&back=.

One comment on “Who’s Afraid of (the Jewish) Tradition? Anti-Semitism, Intellectualism and the Marital Histories of Beatrice Webb and Virginia Woolf (Briefly) Compared

  1. jiashuwei says:

    The commenter effectively analyzes the attitudes of the writers related to European Jewish. The comments are convincing with coherent language and logical thinking. It is as well an important feature of the comments that the use of first-hand materials in illustrating the commenter’s assumptions. This is really logical and convincing.

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