What a wonderful book, a classic to read again and again for the precision of Virginia Woolf's language, the inimitable way she mixes gentle humor and fiction with a serious social critique, and for the unassuming, patient research and analysis of its subject.
It is a long and delicate essay about Women and Fiction (in England) cast as a fictional autobiographical epistle. Woolf's alter-ego/narrator here drolly sets her essay in the form of what English Composition 1-A used to call the "I-Search" paper. Here, however, the "I" is a pretend-character who is articulate, bemused, insightful and not afraid to say simple truths. She composes a meandering story of how she came to conclude that a woman's need for 500 pounds a year and a room of her own (then) was the most important thing to say about a topic she's been invited to "give a talk on." The topic is Women and Fiction.
Woolf acknowledges that she's writing fiction, and that it doesn't matter what you call the narrator, call her any of the "Marys" from an English folksong about Mary Hamilton's death: "There was Mary Beton, and Mary Seaton, and Mary Carmichael and me." This allusion accomplishes several things. First, because the Mary Hamilton of the song was executed for gender-related reasons, seduced or used by the queen's husband/consort and consequently a perpetrator of abortion or infanticide, the fictional Woolf identifies with being a powerless woman, punished for what a man did to her. Second, Woolf finds a form for her essay that allows her to present results of research without the crushing apparatus of a work claiming to be "true" scholarship. "Lies will flow from my lips," she says, "it is for you to seek out [the] truth." Third, this "fiction" guise allows her to cite contemporary abuses and scandals, books by contemporary women that drew the wrath of powerful men.
For instance, she writes about reading a new work of modern women's fiction in which closeness between women could be acknowledged: "Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!"
How subtly she has introduced the idea that in men's books women do not like each other, and that perhaps in reality they do, or will, more often, and thus perhaps in new fiction by independent thinking women, they will. Writing in 1928, Woolf is less theoretical although no less radical than Simone de Beauvoir would be in The Second Sex (1949). Her ultimate focus is the need of a woman writer for at the very least some private space of her own from which to think, and a minimal independent income. Although far from being an existentialist philosopher, Woolf is certainly not an essentialist claiming that women's writing would bring to literature a needed "womanliness," in any sense, but especially as that was commonly understood: tender or sweet, emotion-based, interested in home and appearance and babies. She thinks women who are free to write without excessive insecurity will write "differently" than what literature has been in the past. Perhaps such women, free to perceive independently of men's ideas about women, will have new perspectives, ones that she herself cannot foresee.
She does not claim that women's literature will be "other" than men's literature on some essential level, but that women free from the image and influence of "the male sentence" can create something unpredictable and new. She envisions a day when occupational gender-limits are abandoned and then things will be so changed that, well, let me quote her:
The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine.
All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the
protected sex will have disappeared. . . .Anything may happen when
womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.
But until then, patronizing and prejudicial opinions would and do dominate. Mr. Oscar Browning, for instance, is cited by his biographer as complaining, after reviewing student examination papers from Girton and Newnham, the two Cambridge women's colleges, that "the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man." And Mr. Greg: the "essentials of a woman's being are that they are supported by, and they minister to, men." Woolf asks specifically that the psychologists of Newnham and Girton should try to determine what not just the material difficulties, but also the psychological difficulties of men's attitudes-- "not indifference but hostility"—had on women's ability to write with any confidence or hope.
The book begins its history of how she came to think as she does with a day when "Mary" has been invited to lunch at "Oxbridge" (Oxford/Cambridge). Before lunch she's contemplating her talk but at one point she is frantically warned off of the grass which a woman is not allowed to walk on, and the interruption makes her lose her train of thought, which especially irks her. Remembering as she passes a famous Oxbridge library that her favorite essayist, Charles Lamb, had seen a manuscript of Milton there, she recalls his reaction to seeing Milton's changes: "it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it was." She wonders whether the emendments were for style or sense, but then, she thinks, "one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door." And "instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction."
She continues, in the next paragraph: "That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library."
It is a frustrating day, and that evening she compares the meager and rather ascetic supper at "Fernham" (a fictional name combining the two women's colleges at Cambridge, Girton and Newnham) with the sumptuous delights of the Oxbridge kitchen lunch, all of which leads her to wonder why women are and have been so poor, and what effect it has had on their development in literature, and it prompts her to a public library where her question becomes one of how sex (not sexuality, but gender ) affects writing. She finds that many men have written extensively on females, especially their inferiority and their incapacity for education.
Women writers, she notes, have frequently been confronted with men's scorn. First there was Nick Greene's remark that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Dr. Johnson repeated the phrase two hundred years later about a woman preaching. And in 1928, a Mr. Cecil Gray reproduced the famous simile about a woman composer: "Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Woolf convincingly and charmingly surveys the library's entries about "woman.". But she notices they are all by men, and they all treat women as a curious anthropological phenomenon. Woolf ponders this attitude from a number of viewpoints. Instead of instantly starting to fulminate, she patiently watches herself and her thoughts, and a growing proclivity to doodle on her paper at this point, making, in fact, rather uncomplimentary doodles of "the professor," as she calls her personification of all those opinion-writers.
And she discovers that she is angry. Why, she asks, should all this make her angry? Well, of course, she admits, it's never pleasant being told that you are inferior. But she traces her deep anger to a different source: from encountering a sense of anger, indignation, righteousness, in "the Professor's" writing. But that raises the question of why the estimable Professor should be angry. Here she deftly articulates the psychologically salient proposal that men's overreaction to women being their equals or independent in thought or livelihood or education is related to how hard it must be to feel superior enough to everyone else that it is possible to dictate, direct, lead, manage, conquer and subdue others, which seems to be the male prerogative.
To maintain their secure superiority is, it seems, the role of woman: dependent, deferring, admiring,
reassuring, comforting, but above all looking up to them. At the slightest hint that their women might cease to fulfill this magnifying mirror duty, the men—the professors and the pontificators—are edgy. And angry. "Mary" gives gentle specific examples. It is interesting that Woolf writes here about the importance of Mirrors in creating and sustaining a sense of superiority; it calls to mind the later Lacanian theories involving mirrors as being the primary wedge which divides a person from authentic whole existence into an observer and a gendered role, teaching us that you Are, only as you Are a Male or a Female, and from that early point in the journey toward maturation one is thus living a divided and inauthentic life. (I paraphrase and oversimplify Lacanian mirror theory wildly, of course.)
Here she examines the effect on women's writing. First of all, she looks at how much men control not only law, institutions of learning, business, government and the like but the very sources of information and influence. She hypothesizes that a visitor to the planet taking one look at a single edition of a London newspaper could not fail to understand that the society was a patriarchy. In that paper are stories of important men, and a few graphics about unimportant women—like an actress being suspended in mid-air over Hollywood; moreover, the writers of these articles, the editors, the very owners of the papers are also men. Like Simone de Beauvoir in the fifties, she notes that one effect is that women are convinced either that they may be inferior to male writers or that at least the male appraisers who bestow such important opinions on writing will think so. Consequently they sometimes try too hard to disguise their gender by writing overmuch like they think men write. She notes that George Eliot to some extent fell prey to this temptation of the male sentence, committing "atrocities with it that beggar description." Unfortunately, she does not give us an example.
Or, of course, women "dare not" write at all, or at least not publish. Again and again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women asseverated that "no woman has any business to meddle with that or any other serious business." And yet she calls attention to the poetry of Lady Winchilsea, born about 1661, lamenting indignantly the position of women. Traces of writing by Margaret of Newcastle, or Margaret Cavendish, also noble and discontent, and in rage: "Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms." Dorothy Osborne, then, a contemporary who wrote expressive and sensitive letters, regretting the Duchess's writing: "Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never bee soe ridiculous else as to venture at writeing book's and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that." And yet, Woolf points out, "what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene. . . .One could have sworn that she had the makings of a writer in her."
And then Virginia Woolf turns to "a very important corner on the road": Mrs. Aphra Behn, "a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. . . . She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote. . . for here begins the freedom of the mind." Woolf suggests that this historical moment might be a fit subject for a student at Girton or Newnham, perhaps, especially how shocking Mrs. Behn's life seems to have been, bring into question "the value that men set upon women's chastity and its effect upon their education."
She notes: "Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write."
[Actually, I place Aphra Behn at the end of the seventeenth century, during the period generally called the Restoration, when women, including Mrs. Behn, also began to act on the English stage for the first time. Women had long appeared in French theatre, and it will be remembered that the English monarchy took refuge in France during the period of the Puritan-dominated Commonwealth. When James II returned in triumph to the English throne he brought with him a thoroughly Francophone culture. ed.])
In The Rise of the Novel (1955) Ian Watt observes that the very inception of the English novel coincides with this amazing development in England: women of the middle class were beginning to have more leisure time generally and they provided England with its most voracious class of readers and coincidentally women of the middle class were also beginning to turn to writing. Not just the intrepid Fanny Burney, but hundreds of women wrote novels in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. In fact, perhaps the majority of novels written in the 1700s were written by women.
In Woolf's perceptive examination of Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot, the four main British women writers of the nineteenth century, she selects a passage from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The passage describes Jane Eyre's suppressed feelings of being caged, limited, denied scope, as she stands on the roof looking longingly out over the horizon of countryside. Or perhaps, Woolf notes, these are not the feelings of Jane Eyre imagined, but the feelings of Charlotte Bronte recorded. For the passage sticks out uncomfortably from the surrounding fiction. Its bitter complaining tone ends abruptly, too abruptly, with Jane noticing the "laughter of Grace Poole." (The original Madwoman In the Attic; see Gilbert and Gubar.) Woolf's conclusion is that Charlotte Bronte's work was marred by the discontent she herself felt which intruded into and marred the writing. Jane Austen, she says, and even Emily Bronte perhaps were able to find a placid acceptance of their circumstances, but such complacency is rare.
Woolf, or rather, "Mary" retails how bitter and insecure and harassed she herself had been before an
aunt left her a bequest that freed her from the exhaustion and the worry of finding work to support herself. Even worse was the grief at how her time and energy thus were diverted from exercise of the gift that she felt within herself. She quotes Milton's plaint about the wasting of "that gift which it is death to hide." After the bequest, "Mary" makes the discovery that with a bare survival subsidy she begins to recover the dignity which allows her to think for herself, without fear or bitterness or anger, and which may in time let her write freely.
The great beauty of Woolf's book is its research into the actual circumstances surrounding women, especially in English history, tracing the tragic obstruction of women's ability to know, to study, to find out anything about their "mothers" in history, and/or to communicate freely. ." She comments on the ironic dysjunction between the heroic and empassioned characters of women in drama and women's actual lives---noting that for instance in the seventeenth century, in reality, as a "Professor Trevelyan points out, she [woman] was locked up, beaten, and thrown about the room."
It is here that Woolf writes her famous remarks on what would have been the fate of Shakespeare's gifted sister, had he had one: "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?" She observes that history teaches us that "genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people." And, she continues, "It is not born today among the working classes." But, she demurs: "Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes." But what a fate it would have been in Shakespeare's era: "Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination."
In the latter twentieth century, to U.S. feminists, and to "womanists" specifically, Woolf's view of women here, however, revealed itself as limited to the middle and upper classes, the "genteel" classes. And that criticism is certainly warranted. Virginia Woolf was the daughter of respected scholar Leslie Stephens, in a relatively privileged and narrow social circle. She is not alone in being an artist with a blind spot when it comes to class and ethnic hierarchies. Sojourner Truth at a (U.S. Women's Suffrage meeting in 1849 (or 1851) proudly defied the same exclusive preoccupation with women needing male protection: "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?" The protected sex, indeed!
In a 1983 publication, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker commented on the impossibility of Woolf's solutions for many, especially underprivileged women of color. What, Walker asks, then of poets like Phyllis Wheatley, a black slave, not even owning herself let alone a bequest and a room "with lock and key"?
Moreover, post-colonial awareness highlights the source of the great equalizer in Woolf's book: her bequest comes from, -- but here's the passage: "My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay." In Bombay. On her horse in Bombay. Out in one of the Colonies, out where England was engaged in siphoning off the wealth of the 'brown' people of the East as well as of Africa, with which to provide young Mary Beton in London an income that would obviate the necessity of work and deprivation and insecurity.
On the other hand, Woolf backs up her position that women writers will probably come first from the middle classes, and certainly Woolf is right about the need for the "space" in which writing can be generated. It would be healthy to acknowledge how powerful has been the correlation between being independently wealthy and being a writer, whether of poetry or fiction. She herself allows that "you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things." You "may say that the mind should rise above such things." She then quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to the contrary, and I will repeat an abbreviated version here:
"What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne—we may stop there. Of these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young. . . was the only one not fairly well-to-do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those twelve were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. . . . These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these day a dog's chance. . . .Believe me – and I have spent a great part of ten years in watching some three hundred and twenty elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born."
(Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing)
And I would add, too, that when that wealth is dependent on social inequities, like the Colonial wealth that flowed into England so consistently for more than four hundred years (1500-1950 for the bald colonial empire specifically), that which is expressed will benignly overlook that injustice itself. Woolf is so thoughtful that one has to be surprised she could pose the prospect of a bequest from an aunt "out riding in Bombay" without at least an ironic comment on the relationship of the colonies to the commonwealth, but that is how material interests obscure our insight. For she is addressing her talk to young women who are already "at college," and hardly acknowledging the class privileges that got them there, let alone the relationship of "Fiction" to the women of color of England's widespread empire.
Today most well-known well-published poets are still "university" educated; moreover, most of them teach poetry in universities. Are they willing to look social inequities in the face seriously? Do their poems and essays address the great injustice that keeps many longing young people out of college, and bankrupts others who manage to get there by means of loans? No. Look at the general tenor of what is publishable today and you will find it mostly apolitical. There come periods when the energy of the lower classes, the exploited and socially devalued, pushes up hard against moribund hierarchies, and then the literature, the art, the music and theatre and dance begin to speak of, and from, the lower social strata. But usually: not.
Walker's example of a "great" poet who had none of the material or educational advantages unfortunately fails; Phyllis Wheatley was amazing for her time and place. But the impossibility then of thinking and writing rebelliously stifled what must have been an enormous innate ability. Wheatley's poetry expresses an 'approved' theme in which there is no injustice, no race, no poverty, no cruelty. Importantly, Alice Walker did also acknowledge the common ground between Woolf's vision of women writers and her own womanist search. That common ground was the acknowledgment of the need for some kind of space—-psychological, financial, educational. For Walker it was a search for the fecundity of our mothers' gardens. In our misogynistic and cruel social age, genuine matriarchal fecundity is often a psychological luxury. A Room of One's Own is a delightful semi-fictional musing about non-fictional social history which makes the reading so pleasant and palatable that one hardly knows one is being profoundly educated.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" indeed.