Radio Warfare: Sound Technology and the Experience of the Home Front in Virginia Woolf and E. B. White

As I write, this is the third day of the war. That is, for most of us it is. There’s one lady I know who has it worked out that we have been at war for some years now. She is an inveterate radio listener, and whenever she hears static she thinks it’s Germans, communicating with their local spies. Life has been a vivid thing to her, and war a reality for a long while.

                                                           —E. B. White, Intimations, December 1941¹

Between 1850 and the outbreak of World War II, the soundscape of the world changed dramatically. Technology allowed voices to separate from bodies, to be kept on grooved discs, to be sent across continents, across oceans, to be preserved after death. And when the war began brewing—and when it finally burst out—it did so in people’s homes, all thanks to sound. Sound made a “home front” possible, as people gathered around wirelesses in living rooms and kitchens, waiting to hear news from overseas, from the latest battle, from the nations’ leaders—as the war entered their homes. Even before America or Britain had ever entered the war, Hitler had invaded the homes of thousands of citizens through the wireless. Sound technology, in bringing the world closer together, in improving communication, had also brought the war closer to home. Sound completely changed how the war—and the lead-up to it—were experienced, while at the same time creating, as if by extension of is democratizing powers of connection, mass reproduction, and access, a strangely homogeneous sonic experience of the war on the home front. There are the air raid sirens, the strange, still, silent summer afternoons, the “voice of the nation,” but, above all, there is the radio. E. B. White, in his essay “Compost,” refers to the experience of war over the radio (even a war America had not yet joined) as “radio warfare,” and admits that it makes him “edgy” in a way he does not believe direct engagement would. “I am not able to write on a single harmonious theme while jumping up frequently to hear whether freedom is still alive” (White 189), he writes introducing two key elements of the home front’s experience of “radio warfare”: harmony and constant, anxious tension. The passage with which I opened this essay comes from another of White’s essays, written just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. It describes—not without a hint of irony—a woman in his town in Maine who, because of her attachment to the radio, had, unlike the rest of America, “worked out that we have been at war some years now.” White pokes fun at the woman’s fear of spies in the static, but his last observation—that war has been “a reality” to her “a long while” taps into another thread of the experience of the home front: things are not real until the radio has made them so. 

The anxiety and desire for harmony White identifies in the new experience of “radio warfare” are examined and explored—albeit obliquely—in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, the posthumously published Between the Acts (1941). Woolf’s novel reads as if someone has set up a series of microphones around the manor house at which it is set and left them recording “on a June day in 1939” and then transcribed it, only bothering to put in speaker tags half the time.² The book, more than any of her others, registers and records a complete soundworld: a layered multiplicity of sounds and voices, fragments and noises, harmonies and discords, which overlap and supersede, duet and disintegrate. The text is littered with scraps of poetry and prose, old songs and nursery rhymes, anthems and musical notes, interspersed by the voices of its many characters, the lowing of cows, the whirring of swallows through the air, the rustle of wind, and the mechanical “chuff” and “tick” of a gramophone. This last, which is present through the greater part of the novel and is itself responsible for many of “scraps, orts, and fragments” (189) of sound heard in it, becomes the figure not simply for sound or voice, but sound and voice disembodied and autonomous. It is partly through this figure of the gramophone with its autonomous sounds that Woolf captures and explores the particularly tense last moments of the interwar years as World War II looms on the horizon—an inevitability by June 1939, but not yet upon England, which persisted in “behaving as if the moment [of interwar peace] were eternal.”³

Between the Acts takes place within the dramatic unity of a single summer day in 1939, at the country manor Pointz Hall, following the various friends, servants, and members of the Oliver family as the village’s annual summer pageant (which parodically reenacts the literary history of England) is prepared, performed, and discussed. In her plan for the novel, Woolf intended to capture a “summer’s night, a complete whole,” with “‘I’ rejected: ‘we’ substituted”—a desire, in the lead up to the war, in which we feel White’s harmony resonating. The result is a pluralistic portrait told through ever-shifting individual voices in combination with the sounds (and silences) of the place itself: “we” becomes not a community of people, but the symphony of sounds that is the place: Pointz Hall: the village: England. For Pointz Hall is England, and the “Acts” it is between are not only the acts of the village pageant, but the two world wars. Fascism, encroaching violence, the approaching war lurk at the edges of the text, never fully acknowledged, but never fully forgotten as planes “zoom” overhead accompanied by the almost absent thought “and what’s the channel, come to think of it, if they mean to invade us?” (Acts 199) That line, like so many others in the novel, is unattributed. It arrives in a flow of comments, contradicting and varied, which come in a single block of text after the pageant is finished and could have been spoken by anyone. In this anonymity, voices become disembodied, separated from their owners, joining a chorus of autonomous sounds—part of the one harmony that Mrs. Swithin imagines—where they are valued equally with the low of a cow or the recorded “London street cries ‘A Pot Pourri’” that Miss La Trobe plays on the gramophone during the pageant’s Victorian scene (Acts 157).

In order to understand this disembodiment—and the proliferation of sounds throughout the novel and Woolf’s writing about the oncoming war—we must first examine the shifting statuses of the eye and ear in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the gradually growing admiration for the aural. At the opening of the nineteenth century, it was the Enlightenment’s faith in the authority of experience that ruled the day. Naturally, the eye, as the primary arbiter and recorder of our own experience, attained a celebrated position, which only served to cement the status it had long enjoyed as ideal organ—perfect proof of the argument for God’s intelligent design.◊ However, as technological advancements improved the telescope and microscope by leaps and bounds in the early years of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards sight were transformed by the discovery that a whole universe lay beyond the reach of the naked eye. Notions of vision and sight expanded dramatically as did the realm of the possibly visible—and with them, reality. No longer could the experience of the eye be relied upon for accurate analysis of the world; the eye had limits—its vision was arbitrary and inexact.♠

At the same time, the German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz began to study the purely physiological mechanism of perception.♣ Focusing on the perception of sound, he soon developed a belief in the ear as a “much finer and more competent organ than the eye,” leading to the ear becoming “the chosen arbiter of refined discrimination” (Beer 91). Helmholtz’s work on acoustics, hearing, and tone brought ideas which has been at the scientific periphery into connection with one another and into the mainstream. Synthesizing the work that had come before him, Helmholtz rendered the wave theory of sound accessible to the interested amateur (of which Victorian England had plenty), profoundly affecting the way in which sound and hearing were understood. Acoustics ballooned as a field and, before the century was out, Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph, the stethoscope had come into wide use, the possibilities of sound transmission and reproduction were being explored, and Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell had patented the phonograph and the telephone.

This rapid technological innovation and the new emphasis on the ear that accompanied it changed the way Victorians understood their world. Steven Connor, in “The Victorian Ear,” traces the impact of technological innovations on the Victorian understanding of sound, arguing that the “autonomisation of speech and hearing [in the invention of the telephone and the phonograph] brought about a curious revival of a very ancient conception of the expressiveness of the material world, a sense that the world could speak, and a vitalist sense that the life of the world consisted in its auditory powers.”♥ The mute world was mute no longer. Life lay in sound—and it was for us to listen to it. Indeed, it was Helmholtz’s emphasis on the effects of focused attention (an offshoot of his work on partial tones) in listening that had the most impact on psychologists and literary circles.♦ James Sully, writing in an 1872 summary of recent experiments in sensory perception, wrote that Helmholtz’s work with tone demonstrated that “a purposed act of attention will frequently extend the borders of conscious life by discovering impressions heretofore obscure and unknown.”∴ The ear was our connection to a broader consciousness, the symbol for our receptive powers. Already we feel the seeds of what will become Woolf’s “gigantic ear attached to a gigantic head” that will hear the “sheep, cows, grass, trees, ourselves” in harmony (“if discordant” harmony) (Acts 175).

It is partly this “vitalist sense” that the life of things lies in their sound that animates the spirit of modernist literature. While the visual is by no means left by the wayside, Woolf and her compatriots relinquish the reliance on visual detail and record so highly prized by nineteenth-century realism in favor of an increasing emphasis on voices and sounds. Sound, in its diffusion, its non-directionality, its simultaneity, achieves something closer to Woolf’s idea of “the complete whole,” than the linearity of vision. But this effect of the “complete whole,” also relies upon the sense that insensate things have life in their sounds—even if that sound is silence. The key moment for Woolf’s aural system occurs in the final act of the pageant, the “ten mins. of present time,” in which Miss La Trobe forces the audience to listen to the sounds that compose silence—the “forbidden music” of “swallows, cows, etc.,” of “horns on the high road” and “the swish of the trees,” of the “tick, tick, tick” of the needle clicking at the center of the record which has been left spinning, and, above all, of  themselves (Acts 179, 178). Miss La Trobe’s ten minutes do for the sounds of Pointz Hall much what the invention of the gramophone, the telephone, the radio did for sound. The sounds—whether of nature, of machine, or of whispering audience or laughing actors—are allowed to speak for themselves and as themselves. Silence frees the sounds, in their many-varied forms, not to posit unity, but to ask that we listen to them, disembodied, each on their own merit and as they are. For a moment they exist in suspension together: united, yet apart. It is for this reason that the audience, already uncomfortable with Miss La Trobe’s inflicted silence, finds it “cruel” when she turns fragmented mirrors on them, restoring their bodies to their voices, and tying the life that is in their voices back to the material body (Acts 184). The audience is indignant at her “snap[ping] us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume. . .”—presumably the curated selves that the silence had freed them from. The audience collapses back together, their individual sounds reuniting in a cacophony which culminates in the garbled, unordered recitation of single lines from the pageant. Chaos prevails, though Mrs. Swithin insists—perhaps with Helmholtz—that “all is harmony, could we hear it” (Acts 175).

The vision of sound—and particularly disembodied sound—in Between the Acts, is not exactly that of Woolf’s earlier work. In Orlando, written in 1928, only six years after the founding of the BBC (1922, coincidentally, the annus mirabilis of modernist literature, seeing the publications of The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Woolf’s own Jacob’s Room), the disembodied sound of voices over the phone or the radio is still novel. Orlando, as she walks into Marshall & Snellgrove in the “present moment,” contemplates the miracles of modernity—listening to “voices in America”; men flying; the smooth, swift ascent of the elevator—and marvels at the mystery of it all. “In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done,” she thinks, but now, in the twentieth, “the very fabric of life […] is magic.”• The shift from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the visual to the modern preference for the eye has allowed some of the old magic of the pre-Enlightenment days to seep back in. It is only under the looming shadow of World War II that the magic of voices speaking, disembodied, across water, is lost.

And no wonder. Woolf’s diary entries of the late ’30’s, like Between the Acts, proliferate with sounds and, as in the novel, here too there is a constantly returning refrain, like the underlying “chuff, chuff, chuff” and “tick, tick, tick” of the gramophone, but in her diaries it is a voice and its status is unambiguous. The voice is Hitler’s and, beginning in 1938, as England waits with bated breath for war to break out, it becomes the dominant voice in her diary. Describing hearing Hitler broadcast over the radio in September of 1938, Woolf emphasizes the shape and quality of his voice’s sound:

“[he] boasted and boomed but shot no solid bolt. Mere violent rant, & then broke off […] A savage howl like a person excruciated; then howls from the audience; then a more spaced and measured sentence. Then another bark. […] Frightening to think of the faces. & the voice was frightening” (Diary 169, 232).

His voice, disembodied already, is dehumanized. It is savage, a howl, a bark. War may have been postponed another day, but the invasion has already begun. The voice, violent and savage, is already in the Woolfs’ living room. Here, it is particularly the disembodiment of the voice that disturbs Woolf: the gap between voices and faces, the aural and the visual. Here, the gap does not provide the potential for freedom, nor for harmony. Divorced from the body, the voice has the power to traverse distances in a moment, to invade living rooms and parlors, to enflame the imagination, to conflate private and public. The voice alone is frightening, but it is also “frightening to think of the faces,” invisible to the rapt listeners before their radios. It is not clear whether Woolf is thinking more of the faces of Hitler’s audience—and the horror of the enthusiasm she presumes those faces to display—or of Hitler’s own face (and those of the other orators she mentions) and the visual that must accompany that savage voice. The power of both the visual and the aural is increased by their separation. The experience of disembodied voice is no longer magical, as it had been for Orlando; it is frightening—a threat. In this light, it feels only natural that Sir Arthur Eddington (whom Isa looks to for comfort early on in the novel [Acts, 20]), would, in 1935, posit “the end of the physical world as—one stupendous broadcast.”

Nearly every entry from September of both 1938 and 1939 (as well as the majority of entries in the surrounding months) makes mention of the wireless. For of course, by the late 1930’s, radio had become the dominant medium for news—and for much else. The wireless (whose very name emphasizes its autonomy, bringing home the disembodiment of its sounds and voices), the very vehicle for Hitler’s invasion into English living rooms, also brings music, news, the composed voices of the BBC. Even as the wireless, proud of its autonomy, disintegrates connection, it provides it, locking Woolf into reality of events, connecting her to the rest of England, also glued to the wireless, all locked in a perpetual state of tension, as they wait for news together.°

It is this waiting that Between the Acts dramatizes. The suspension of a moment—attempting to stretch it to eternity—even as one yearns for it to break, for the waiting to be over, for the dreaded event to arrive. “Between” proves the key word for the whole text: not only are we between acts, between wars, but we are perpetually between characters, between ideas, between states. The book is unstable: just as Isa vacillates between “yes” and “no” (“‘Yes,’ Isa answered. ‘No,’ she added. It was Yes, No. Yes, yes, yes, the tide rushed out embracing. No, no, no, it contracted” [Acts 215]), the book remains in suspension: caught half-way between war and no war, unity and dispersion, self and collective. The gramophone itself, with its refrain of “dispersed are we,” cannot make up its mind as to whether the phrase should be “triumphed” or “lamented” (Acts 198). When the gramophone gurgles to a stop at last, we hear that it “gurgled UnityDispersity […] Un. . . dis. . . And ceased” (Acts 201). Neither word was finished; are both held in suspension at the end? Do we take their roots “un-” (“not”) and “dis-” (“apart”) and read it as “not apart,” therefore a unity? Are we meant to read, as Gillian Beer does, “un. . . dis. . . ceased”  as an affirmation of life, despite unity or “dispersity”? These questions—like the many instances of “or” in the novel (“swallows—or martins were they?” [Acts 182])—remain unresolved.

For a few of the characters—Mrs. Swithin, most notably—there is a hope of harmony to be found in repetition, in the extension of the eternal moment. For others, particularly for Isa’s husband Giles, the waiting, the uncertainty, the inaction is too much. Recalling White’s theoretical preference for “direct engagement” over “radio warfare,” Giles cannot abide with sitting still and concentrating on the pageant as it unfolds. At the first interval he strides off and, coming upon a snake “choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die,” he recognizes a physical symbol of his trapped suspension, England’s and Europe’s frozen wait, and stamps on them, crushing them, and coating his tennis shoes with blood. “But it was action. Action relieved him”—and Giles is able to return to the pageant, to put up with “marking time” a little longer (Acts 99). White, in an essay written two months before America entered the war (just as Giles, in June 1939, has two months until Britain enters the war), “Fall,” recounts a shockingly similar method (in similar language) of dealing with the anxiety and frustration of “radio warfare.” “It is a source of relief,” he writes, “after listening to a radio broadcast, to take my .22 and go out to the barn and shoot a rat” (White 205). The radio, for both Giles and White, multiplies the anxiety and frustration of inaction—particularly in the moments of strange calm before the wars.

Of course, it is even worse without the wireless. In her diary, Woolf notes that when the war begins and London descends into blackout every night, she feels “the darkness thick as Hell. One seemed cut off. No wireless” (Diary 242). London, in the dark and without the connecting device of the wireless, becomes “a medieval city of darkness & brigandage” (Diary 236), where time slips and man becomes primitive once more, much as both Isa and Mrs. Swithin have vision of Pointz Hall in pre-historic times, when England was still joined to Europe, and “pre-historic man […] half-human, half-ape, roused himself from his semi-crouching position and raised great stones” (Acts 218). In Between the Acts, there is no wireless mentioned. Pointz Hall, in its single summer day, stretching toward eternity, slips down after the pageant, after all the guests have departed, into its hollow, alone, dark, halfway between “present time” and “pre-history.” The pageant, with its gramophone and its proliferation of voices, its repackaged English history identity, its moments of connection, has been the novel’s wireless: maintaining the characters in that dreaded suspension, between unity and “dispersity,” between individual and collective, war and peace, past and present. It, like the radio, has brought connection and harmony closer, while holding it out of reach. It has, perhaps, made reality felt too strongly, but it has also staved off the dangerous dream of not feeling it at all.


  1. White, E. B. One Man’s Meat. Thomaston: Tilbury, 1997. 220.
  2. Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt:1969. 179.
  3. Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 5. 1936-1941. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell. New York: Harcourt, 1984. 168.
  4. ◊ Beer, Gillian. “‘Authentic Tidings of Invisible Things.’” Vision in Context. Ed. Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay. New York: Routledge, 1996. 90.
  5. ♠ Garratt, Peter. Victorian Empiricism. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010. p. 115.
  6. ♣ Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the Victorian Age. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. p. 105.
  7. ♥ Connor, Steven. “The Victorian Ear.” Transactions and Encounters, edited by Roger Luckhurst and Josephine McDonagh, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002.  p. 21.
  8. ♦ von Helmholtz, Hermann. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Translated by Alexander J. Ellis, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1875.
  9. ∴ Sully, James. “Recent Experiments with the Senses.” Westminster Review. London, 1872, vol. 41. Jan.-Apr. p. 190.
  10. • Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, 1973. 300.
  11. ° Woolf’s diary from the summer and fall of 1938 is studded with references to Hitler’s “mad voice vociferating” on the radio, but this is not the only sound that pervades the entries of the long September in which every action felt to Woolf like “marking time” until war broke out (in Between the Acts, Mr. Oliver hears the “tick, tick, tick” of the gramophone needle and thinks, “marking time”). She conceives of the looming war as “the uproar” which “any accident may suddenly bring out,” while, in the meantime, it “merely grumbles, in an inarticulate way, behind reality.” Every day she waits to hear the next broadcast, while “growls go on overhead” and “everyone asks everyone: Any news?” Trips to London are characterized by repeated warnings to carry a gas mask from “a sober loud speaker” and a man driving with a megaphone. When war finally breaks out the next September, it is even more aurally registered: the “raging voices beg[i]n again” and the Woolfs have their first air raid warning, “a warbling that gradually insinuates itself.” But it is not long before the war becomes a “monotonous boom.”



Beer, Gillian. “‘Authentic Tidings of Invisible Things.’” Vision in Context. Ed. Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Connor, Steven. “The Victorian Ear.” Transactions and Encounters, edited by Roger Luckhurst and Josephine McDonagh, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002.

Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the Victorian Age. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. p. 105.

Eddington, Arthur. Gaither’s Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Ed. Carl C. Gaither. New York: Springer, 2012. 1929.

Garratt, Peter. Victorian Empiricism. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010.

von Helmholtz, Hermann. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Translated by Alexander J. Ellis, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1875.

Sully, James. “Recent Experiments with the Senses.” Westminster Review. London, 1872, vol. 41. Jan.-Apr. p. 190.

White, E. B. One Man’s Meat. Thomaston: Tilbury, 1997.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 5. 1936-1941. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell. New York: Harcourt, 1984.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. New York: Harcourt, 1973.


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