Three Guineas is a book-length essay by Virginia Woolf, published in June 1938. Woolf wrote the essay to answer three questions, each from a different society:
The book is composed of Woolf's responses to a series of letters. The question and answer format creates a sense of dialogue and debate on the politically charged issues the essay tackles, rather than just presenting simple polemical diatribes on each topic. The principle of dialogue is one that informs much of Woolf's work, and is also seen in her novels when she gives voice to different classes and marginalized groups in society through a diversity of characterizations. For example, the sky-writing scene in Mrs. Dalloway includes characters with a variety of class-influenced dialects.
The epistolary format also gives the reader the sense of eavesdropping on a private conversation. We listen in on Woolf's suggestions to a barrister on how to prevent war, to a women's league on how to support females in the professions, and to a women's college on how to encourage female scholarship. It is interesting to note that all three sources have written to Woolf asking for financial donations. What she donates, though, is her advice and philosophy.
Woolf was eager to tie the issues of war and feminism together in what she saw as a crucial point in history. She and her husband Leonard had visited both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the early part of the decade. The ideology of fascism was an affront to Woolf's conviction in pacifism as well as feminism: Nazi philosophy, for example, supported the removal of women from public life.
Although Three Guineas is a work of non-fiction, it was initially conceived as a "novel-essay" which would tie up the loose ends left in her earlier work, A Room of One's Own. The book was to alternate between fictive narrative chapters and non-fiction essay chapters, demonstrating Woolf's views on war and women in both types of writing at once. This unfinished manuscript was published in 1937 as The Pargiters.
When Woolf realized the idea of a "novel-essay" wasn't working, she separated the two parts. The non-fiction portion became Three Guineas. The fiction portion became Woolf's most popular novel during her lifetime, The Years, which charts social change from 1880 to the time of publication through the lives of the Pargiter family. It was so popular, in fact, that pocket-sized editions of the novel were published for soldiers as leisure reading during WWII.
The views expressed in Three Guineas have been described as feminist, pacifist, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist. Guinea in the title is by itself a badge of social class, the money amount of 21 shillings (1.05 pounds sterling) for which no coin existed, but the common denomination for solely upper-class transactions (e.g., purchase of pictures or race-horses, lawyers' or medical specialists' fees, and so on.)
In 2002, City Journal published a widely circulated critique of Three Guineas by Theodore Dalrymple (later reprinted in Dalrymple's anthology, Our Culture, What's Left of It (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2005)).