Almost sixty-five years have lapsed sinee Virginia Woolf spoke at Newnham and Girton colleges on the subject of women and fiction. Her remarkable words are preserved for future generations of women in A Room of One’s Own. This essay is the “first manifesto of the modern feminist movement” (Samuelson), and has been called “a notable preamble to a kind of feminine Declaration of Independence” (Muller 34). Woolf writes that her modest goal for this ground-breaking essay is to “encourage the young women–they seem to get fearfully depressed” (qtd. in Gordon xiv).
This treatise on the history of women’s writings, reasons for the scarcity of great women artists, and suggestions for future literary creators and creations accomplishes far more than simple inspiration and motivation for young writers. Woolf questions the “effect . . . poverty [has] on fiction” and the “conditions . . . necessary for the creation of works of art” (25), and she persuasively argues that economics are as important as talent and inspiration in the creative process. She emphatically states and, with brilliant fiction, supports her thesis that every woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4).
Woolf’s witty and beautifully crafted essay has a practical message for aspiring women writers: as pioneers in the virtually unexplored frontier of women’s literature, and to create timeless, powerful works of art, they must forsake the established mores of masculine creativity and forge their own traditions and styles. Woolf introduces this new literary tradition through the structure of her lecture. Rather than follow the traditional format established through centuries of male lecturing, she “transform[s] the formidable lecture form female equals” (Marcus, “Still” 79). She preserves this intimacy in the written essay as well.
Woolf’s nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, writes that “in A Room of One’s Own one hears Virginia speaking . . . . she gets very close to her conversational style” (144). Rather than submit her audience to the usual “dictation of the expert to the ignorant” (Marcus, Virginia 145), Woolf involves her audience in her quest for answers. She advises them that she plans to “make use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist,” that her fiction is “likely to contain more truth than fact,” and that they must “seek out this truth and . . . decide whether any part of it is worth keeping” (4-5).
She does not disclose “the truth as she sees it”; rather, she requires the audience to “participate in the drama of asking questions and searching for Woolf’s creative departure from established lecture style delightfully foreshadows her intent to generate entirely new feminine traditions and searching for answers” (Marcus, Virginia Woolf encourages women to personally participate and identify with her ideas.
She creates a fictitious narrator through which she chronicles her thoughts and discoveries as she researches the topic of ‘women and fiction, “‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being . . call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please–it is not a matter of any importance” (4-5). Ellen Rosenman writes that by “denying a ‘real’ existence, the narrator associates herself with anonymity,” and that “if we turn this statement around . . . [she] is Everywoman” (160-61).
By choosing these particular historical names to represent anyone and everyone who joins the quest for truth, including herself, Woolf “accounts for much of the irony of her ‘story’ and much of the force” of her essay (Jones 228). Through her clever use of fiction, Woolf shrewdly removes herself rom the position of authority, enhances audience identification with her narrator, and invites women to join her search for “the true nature of women and the true nature of fiction” (4). Woolf’s narrator, “Mary,” begins the quest for “the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth” (25) in the British Museum, the very bastions of male literary tradition. Rosenman suggests that Woolf is laying the foundation of a female tradition by allowing Mary to travel “through a series of alien rooms,” including the British Museum and ‘the common sitting room,’ “to a room of her own” (157).
Mary’s “stupefaction, wonder and bewilderment” (Woolf 26) at the plethora of contradictory, inaccurate, oven trivial volumes about women by men whose only qualification is “that they are not wmen” (27) awakens the reader to this travesty without directly revealing Woolf’s personal feelings of fury and humiliation. Alex Zwerdling notes that her “awareness of the possibly hostile audience strongly affects the tone of the essay,” and that she replaces “anger” with “irony” and “sarcasm” with “charm” (225). Woolf uses Mary’s voice to ruefully inform the reader that “one cannot find truth on the shelves of he British Museum or extract it from the biased opinions of others” (Jones 236). Woolf’s narrator concludes that in spite of their dominant position in society, men are angry and afraid of losing their positions of power. She remarks that women “have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic . . . power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (35). Woolf emphasizes that men have declared women inferior, not because women are lesser human beings, but because men lack the confidence to consider them as equals.
Maggie Humm believes that both sexes are “misrepresented by this flawed reflection” (126), and that “the continuing tradition of literary culture . . . uses male norms to exclude or undervalue female writing and scholarship” (8). John Burt describes Woolf’s “theory of the origin of the subjection of women” as the “creation of weakness searching for succor, not of strength searching for a victim” (193). This flawed system is responsible for creating a society that not only has suffered the subjugation of half its citizens, but also the inestimable absence of countless feminine literary masterpieces.
Woolf underscores the loss of Britain’s female scholarship when she addresses the “perennial puzzle [of] why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature” (41). She explains that fiction is “attached to life at all four cornersa (41), and is “the work of suffering human beings [who] are attached to grossly material things” (42). The women who inhabited Britain’s past lived in physical, mental, and social conditions that prohibited the writing of great literature. Woolf asserts that “like men, women need time, space, financial, security, education, support and validation from others, and stamina in order to rite well” (Stimpson 2).
While none of these amenities were even remotely available to the women in British history, Woolf notes that the women portrayed in literature “did not seem wanting in personality and character” (43). She emphasizes this literary paradox: Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history . . . . Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her
Woolf paints a clear portrait of society’s contradictory vision of women. By again using the word ‘insignificant,’ she recalls the image of ‘everywoman’ and reinforces reader identification with the plight of women, both past and present. By reminding them that in many ways their society differs little from that of the historical woman, she encourages the women of her generation to avoid settling for a second-class education and the right to vote. In spite of the wealth of misinformation published about women, there is only a smattering of historical facts available to aid in building a feminine tradition.
Peggy Kamuf calls this dilemma “the locked room of history” (9). Woolf is convinced that without a historical tradition, future generations of women will lack the foundation on which to build their literary culture. She writes that “masterpieces are . . . the outcome of many years of thinking in common . . . so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice” (65). Woolf’s solution to woman’s absence from recorded history is to recreate a historical tradition by “think[ing] poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment, thus keeping in touch with fact . . . but not losing sight of fiction either” (44).
Her creativity and adaptability serve as catalysts for change. As she leads women through an explanation of society’s failure to nurture women artists, Woolf models a new literary spirit that celebrates female creations. Woolf rejects the reigning supposition that it is “impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare”(46). Her belief that “the same imaginative capacity that flourished in him would have produced nothing but silence in a female member of the same line” (Zwerdling 225) results in her creation of Judith Shakespeare, the “female hero of the essay” (Schwartz 722).
Woolf powerfully recounts the tragic life of “Shakespeare’s extraordinarily gifted sister” (47) as she struggles to duplicate her brother’s successful artistic career. As Judith’s tragedy progresses from rebellion and ridicule to despair and suicide, the reader is led to “mourn and protest the loss of this woman . . . whose passion finally turned against itself” (Delany 182). Judith symbolizes countless brilliant, talented women who have been unable to express their genius because of society’s prejudice.
As Woolf recalls ancient tales of witches and possessed women, and suggests perhaps they were “lost ovelist[s],” or “suppressed Poet(s),” or “some mute and inglorious Jane Austen”(49), her calm, unruffled persona begins to fray. I n spite of her carefully crafted anonymity, Woolf’s own personal indignation is evident in her forceful assertion that “a highly gifted girl who tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity . . . ” (49).
Judith Shakespeare bears an uncanny resemblance to Virginia Woolf. Rosenman uggests that Judith “was not a lie, but a version of herself” (161), and Susan Gorsky comments that Woolf “experienced the frustrations of the intelligent woman striving for freedom in an age, a society, and a family unwilling to give it” (118). Certainly, Judith’s despairing suicide foreshadows Woolf’s own tragic demise. Woolf’s meticulous analysis of the obstacles facing female artists, past and present, is the basis of her argument for an artist’s independence, both in space and income. Her narrator poses the question: “what is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation . . . ” (51).
Woolf answers the query by tracing the meager record of women’s writings through history from Lady Winchilsea to Jane Austen, and by treating her reader to a running commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of each generation of female artists. Rosenman writes that Woolf constructs a female “tradition from the ‘lives of the obscure’ as well as the great . . . . tracing the origin of great accomplishment in ordinary activities” (146-47). Through historical evidence, Woolf proves that anger and indignation are incompatible with great works of literature, and that a disdain for writing stifles genius.
The clarity of mind evidenced in Woolf’s examples of creative genius, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, requires that the artist be insulated from the stresses and trials of an uncertain life. She describes Austen as “a woman . . . writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching,” and then she notes: “That was how Shakespeare wrote . . . ” (68). A lifestyle that produces these calm, rational emotions must be one free from irritating interruptions and financial worries.
Woolf’s reasoning strengthens her original thesis: one eeds a room and an income to write successfully. In addition to economic necessities, Woolf writes that it is essential for women writers to cultivate a distinctive literary form. She notes that Jane Austen and Emily Bront “wrote as women write, not as men write” (74-75). She distinguishes between a Oman’s sentence” (76) and Austen’s “perfectly natural, shapely sentence” (77) stressing the need for female writers to invent a feminine style. Patrick McGee writes that “with this thought, Woolf anticipates the current interest erutire feminime” (234), and Maggie cites linguistics studies affirming
Woolf’s theory: “men and women do use language in different ways, [and] they have different vocabularies in different kinds of sentences”(7). The literary form proposed by Woolf encompasses literature and literary criticism from a feminine prospective. Rosenman writes that “Woolf has become a literary foremother to later women writers and critics” (xi). Woolf understands that literature will be immeasurably enriched with an influx of uniquely feminine creativity and scholarship.
Woolf wisely realizes that literature comprised solely of feminine forms and creations would be as unnatural as he male-dominated writings of past generations. She speaks strongly for the creation of woman’s tradition, yet acknowledges that masculine traditions must continue to be incorporated into the arts. The “ordinary sight of two people [a male and a femalel getting into a cab” (Woolf 96) is “raised to symbolic significance to suggest the restored unity of the sexes” (Zwerdling 260). Woolf’s ideal writer has an androgynous mind that she likens to Shakespeare’s and describes as “resonant and porous . . . transmit[ting] without impediment . . . naturally creative, incandescent and undivided” (98).
Jones writes that “such a mind comprehends and transcends the feelings of both sexes” (233). Woolf’s description of the “two powers [which] preside” in the soul (96) has found “some support in recent neuropsychological work on right-left brain hemisphericity” (Delany 195). Jones also emphasizes the fact “that men and women perceive the world differently, pursue knowledge differently, and create art differently is central to Woolf’s vision” (233). A truly great writer will be comfortable with her own femininity, and will write without the consciousness that she is writing as a woman.
She will understand and celebrate both the differences and the similarities between the sexes. Woolf uses her own creativity to model women’s right to demand equality in the artistic world. She believes that if women’s education, freedom, and equality continue to improve, and if women are able to secure private space and income, it may only take another century for women writers to take their place in the history of genius (113). Janis Paul comments that Woolf “saw with perfect clarity into the future of literature, yet she never ceased to look over her shoulder at the ghosts of the past” (47).
Woolf would be pleased to discover that less that one hundred years after her “elegy . . . in a college courtyard for all our female dead, the reformers, the pioneers, the artists, buried like Shakespeare’s sister, in unmarked graves” (Marcus, Virginia 86), Judith Shakespeare is indeed alive and well. She is experiencing life outside the confines of her home and family; she is educated and independent. She has a room of her own, and she is creating masterpieces in the great feminine literary tradition established by the origional Judith Shakespeare–Virginia Woolf.