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Virginia Woolf and Heritage$
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Jane deGay, Tom Breckin, and Anne Reus

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781942954422

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781942954422.001.0001

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The Malicious Gene: An Evolutionary Games Strategy? Woolf’s Hawkish Inheritance

The Malicious Gene: An Evolutionary Games Strategy? Woolf’s Hawkish Inheritance

(p.257) The Malicious Gene: An Evolutionary Games Strategy? Woolf’s Hawkish Inheritance
Virginia Woolf and Heritage

Gill Lowe

Liverpool University Press

‘There is no possibility of being witty withot a little ill-nature; the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick,’ Lady Sneerwell in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). The malicious gene: nature or nurture? On 4th May 1928 Virginia Woolf reported in her diary that she had enjoyed Elizabeth Robins’ recollection of Julia Stephen: ‘she would suddenly say something so unexpected, from that Madonna face, one thought it vicious’ (Woolf, 1980, p.183). Leslie Stephen too was renowned for his intermittent acerbic criticism. Occasionally Woolf’s apparently calm demeanour was similarly disturbed by startling sharp verbal attacks. Woolf’s mordant written statements seem calculated and controlled, carefully constructed as in a performance, often aimed at individuals and groups for which she felt a specific animus. A word that recurs to describe Woolf is ‘malicious’. Contemporaries, critics and Woolf herself recognised her judgemental predisposition. Leonard Woolf observed that ‘a monolithic humour’ was shared with family members, ‘All male Stephens—and many of the females—whom I have known have had one marked characteristic which I always think Stephenesque....It consisted in a way of thinking and even more in a way of thinking and expressing their thoughts which one associates pre-eminently with Dr Johnson’ (Sowing, 1960, p. 184). Genes may be seen to affect the social behaviour of their bearers. Analysing some specific examples of Woolf’s caustic observations, this paper will adapt the metaphor of ‘the selfish gene’ to explore her tendency to maliciousness. It will consider whether this might have been inherited behaviour; learned from family attitudes; influenced by the writers she most appreciated and/or evolved as a species-preserving survival strategy, adopted in response to her cultural environment.

Keywords:   Virginia Woolf, Julia Stephen, Cyril Connolly, Bloomsbury, games theory, hawk v. dove

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