Tom Slater Tom Slater

Virginia Woolf doesn’t need a trigger warning

A statue of Virginia Woolf in London (Credit: Getty images)

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Americans, apparently. Or at least that’s the conclusion Vintage US seems to have drawn. The publishing house has slapped a new edition of Woolf’s 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, with a trigger warning, alerting US readers to its potentially upsetting content. (Vintage UK hasn’t followed suit.)

The warning, reported in the Daily Telegraph, doesn’t mention anything specific, probably because you’d have to strain yourself to find anything particularly offensive about this philosophical, semi-autobiographical novel about a well-to-do family’s holidays on the Isle of Skye. Instead, it just warns hypothetical, easily offended readers about how old – and thus potentially terrifying – the novel is:

‘This book was published in 1927 and reflects the attitudes of its time. The publisher’s decision to present it as it was originally published is not intended as an endorsement of cultural representations or language contained herein.’

Apparently, Vintage US put an almost identical warning on its recent edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It seems that any novel of a certain, er, vintage is now deemed perilous to today’s readers, who are all apparently unaware that writers in previous eras held somewhat different views to people today, or that fictional characters can sometimes be a bit nasty.

Trigger warnings, like most bad things in this world, began life on elite American university campuses

It isn’t just Vintage, either. Penguin recently put a trigger warning on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, warning us that the novel contains ‘prejudices that were commonplace in British society’ when it was first published in 1945. Remarkably, Penguin also felt the need to pronounce that those views were ‘wrong then’ and ‘wrong today’. That these prejudices were articulated in the novel by Uncle Matthew – a cartoonish, intentionally unpleasant xenophobe, wont to bang on about ‘bloody foreigners’ – made the trigger warning look even more ridiculous.

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