The book’s original title was Professions for Women and it was intended to be a novel-essay with alternating fiction and nonfiction chapters. Eventually, Virginia separated the fiction and nonfiction sections. The nonfiction section became Three Guineas and the fiction section became her novel The Years.
The book is a long essay discussing fascism, war and feminism, tying them all together in a series of letters to various organizations that had requested financial donations from Virginia.
Although she began working on the book years before, Virginia confessed in her diary that the sudden death of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 became a big influence on the book: “Yes I was always thinking of Julian when I wrote.”
Virginia’s biographer and nephew, Quentin Bell, sums up the book as a “product of a very odd mind and, I think, of a very odd state of mind. It was intended as a continuation of A Room of One’s Own, but it was written in a far less persuasive, a far less playful mood. It was a protest against oppression, a genuine protest denouncing real evils and, to the converted, Virginia did not preach in vain.”
The inspiration for the book first came to Virginia while she was in the bath one winter’s day in 1931:
“Tuesday 20 January
I have this moment, while having my bath, conceived an entire new book – a sequel to A Room of One’s Own – about the sexual life of women: to be called Professions of Women perhaps – Lord how exciting! This sprang out of my paper to be read on Wednesday to Pippa’s society. Now for The Waves. Thank God – but I’m very much excited!”
Virginia was trying to finish up the last few chapters of her novel The Waves when this inspiration struck, making it hard for her to concentrate on finishing the long novel.
A few days after she recorded her initial inspiration, she changed the book’s working title to “Open Door” and complained that it was a major distraction:
“Friday 23 January
Too much excited, alas, to get on with The Waves. One goes on making up The Open Door, or whatever it is to be called. The didactive demonstrative style conflicts with the dramatic: I find it hard to get back inside Bernard again….Naturally I am rather used up – can’t make the effort this morning of going on with The Waves. And am 99: & get headaches very easily – Lord, how often this drains my last chapters of their strength! And now Open Door is sucking at my brain too. Such accidents can’t be avoided.”
Although excited by her new found inspiration, Virginia put the book on the back burner for many years while she worked on different projects, such as The Waves and The Years.
During this time, she changed the book’s working title numerous times, noting each new title in her diary.
In May of 1931, she renamed the book A Knock On The Door but then changed it again in September to A Tap At The Door before switching back to A Knock On The Door the following February, writing to herself “What’s it’s name?” in parenthesis next to the title.
About a week later she renamed it Men Are Like That? but then dismissed the title for being to “patently feminist.” A week after that, it was retitled A Knock On The Door again and then A Tap At The Door again in March.
In January of 1935, Virginia renamed it On Being Despised but then changed it in October to The Next War and then to Answers to Correspondents the following January in 1936 and then to Two Guineas in April.
The book didn’t receive it’s official name of Three Guineas until November of 1936 when she first began writing it. Once Virginia finally started on the book, she wrote it quickly over the course of a year and a few months, finally announcing in her diary in January of 1938 that she had just written the last chapter.
Although Virginia often summed up her thoughts on each of her books in her diary after she finished them, she was hesitant to do so for Three Guineas, instead writing on December 19, 1938:
“The reception of 3 Gs has been interesting, unexpected – only I’m note sure what I expected. 8,000 sold. Not one of my friends has mentioned it. My wide circle has widened – but I’m altogether in the dark as to the true merits of the book. Is it…? No, I won’t even formulate qualities; for, its true, no one has yet summed it up. Much less unanimity than about Room Of One’s Own.”
Three Guineas sold very well and was generally well received by the public but highly criticized by literary critics and Virginia’s friends.
Nonetheless, unlike with her other books, Virginia didn’t mind the criticism and barely made note of it, continuing on instead with writing Roger Fry’s biography, which became the last book she saw to publication before her suicide in March of 1941.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Five: 1936-1941. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.