Woolf has been asked to speak on the topic of Women and Fiction. Her thesis is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." This thesis has a limited scope, she admits—one that "leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved." Yet she extends the hope that her reflections may shed at least some light on those questions as well. The essay is designed as an explanation of how Woolf arrived at her thesis. To present this argument, she says, she must take a detour through fiction: "I propose making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here—how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life." With this introduction, the narrative portion of the essay begins.
The narrator sits on the banks of a river at "Oxbridge" (a fictional university meant to suggest
and Oxford ) pondering the question of women and fiction. She represents her musings metaphorically in terms of fishing: "thought... had let its line down into the stream" of the mind, where it drifts in the current and waits for the tug of an idea. As soon as she gets a bite, however, she is interrupted by the approach of the Beadle, a university security guard who enforces the rule by which women are not allowed to walk onto the grass. She scurries back to her proper place on the gravel path, remarking that while "no very great harm" had been done, she had lost her "little fish" of an idea. Cambridge
As she revels in the tranquility and beauty of her surroundings, the narrator remembers an essay by Charles Lamb about revisiting Oxbridge. She is inspired to view the manuscript in the library, only to be told that "ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction." The library is fortress-like—impermeable and indifferent—in stark contrast to the narrator's own vulnerability. "Never will I ask for that hospitality again," she vows in anger. Distracted by the sound of organ music, the she watches as a cross-section of the university population assembles for a service in the chapel. She is struck by the insularity of the academic setting, seeing the university as a kind of laboratory or museum and its inhabitants as odd specimens who have no place in regular life. Soon they have all gone inside, however, and she remains outside, weighed down with the feeling her own exclusion.
The narrator then reflects on the history of the university, thinking in particular of the materials, labor, and money upon which it was founded and maintained. The clock strikes, interrupting this train of thought. She describes the elaborate lunch that was served at the college, where the flood of wine and the dessert and the wealth of good company create an overwhelming sense of abundance and optimism. "And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, ...the profound, subtle, and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational conversation."
Her attention is then distracted by the sight of "a cat without a tail," which looks odd and out of place in these opulent surroundings. The sight of "that abrupt and truncated animal" prompts her to as sense that something is lacking in the lunchtime atmosphere and conversation. To answer the question of that lack, the narrator shifts the scene to a similar luncheon party, before the war, in similar rooms—"but different." She speculates about the change in the kind of conversations people had before World War I, and the kind of poetry they wrote, and observes that a drastic change has taken place. The romantic views of a Tennyson or a Rosetti no longer seem possible in the post-war era; the difference being that that earlier poetry "celebrates some feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war perhaps)." The new poetry, however, expresses thoughts and emotions so gut- wrenchingly new that readers cannot respond to them with the same familiarity or comfortable recognition. "Hence the difficulty of modern poetry," which comes as a kind of disillusionment. While thinking through this problem, the narrator misses her turn to "Fernham," which represents the relatively new institution of the women's college.
The narrator describes a meal at Fernham, which compares but poorly with the grand luncheon earlier in the day. "The lamp in the spine," she writes, "does not light on beef and prunes." Everything looks slightly less hopeful from this perspective, and we see that with reduced privilege comes a corresponding atrophy of one's sense of power and possibility—"that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day's work breed between them." Conversation is gossipy rather than profound, and the narrator retires to the room of her friend Mary Seton with a vague feeling of discontent. They discuss the founding of the women's college, which involved a arduous and often discouraging effort to raise sufficient financial and political support. The picture contrasts sharply with the history of male universities, which have been continually and generously supported for centuries.
Why have women have always been so poor, the narrator wonders, thinking about how different things would have been "if only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money" for the education of their daughters. She is forced to concede, however, that a great sacrifice would have been required: "There would have been—that was the snag in the argument—no Mary." Plus, law and custom conspired to prevent those women from having any legal property rights at all; they were themselves considered property. The chapter's closing reflections are on "the urbanity, the geniality, and the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space," the effect of poverty on the mind, and particularly "the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer."
The scene changes from Oxbridge to
, where the narrator sits in a room attempting to write about Women and Fiction. She reviews the questions raised during the previous day at Oxbridge ("Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?") and then resolves upon a trip to the London in order to "strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth." She looks in the catalogue in the British Library for books about women and marvels at how many have been written, and under the rubrics of how many different disciplines. Checking the "M" listings, she finds that no such archive exists on the topic of males. British Museum
Arbitrarily selecting a few of these books, she finds a great array of opinions and topics and finally pauses resentfully with one professor's statement of "the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of women." She decides that these studies, whatever their differences, had all "been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth." They betray an underlying anger that prevents them from approaching their subject objectively. "Why are they angry?" the narrator asks herself as she breaks for lunch. She concludes that if the author of the study on the inferiority of women had argued dispassionately, she would not have become incensed herself: "I had been angry because he was angry." The narrator intuits a depth of motivation and response underlying this issue, and she decides that male scholars have been less interested in the inferiority of women than in preserving and authenticating their sense of male superiority. Women have served as mirrors to men, in this sense, for centuries.
Here, the narrator is interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. She takes the opportunity, while on the subject of her own finances, to inform us that she was left a legacy of five hundred pounds a year by her aunt, Mary Beton. She remembers getting the letter at the same time that women were granted the vote, and observes that the inheritance was more important in securing her freedom. It relieved her not only of the obligation to work for a living, but also of hatred and bitterness of temperament. It allowed her to forgive men for their collective injustices toward women, and to see males too as victims in some ways of their education and culture. Ultimately, the financial freedom gave her the "freedom to think of things in themselves."
Returning home, the narrator finds herself entering into a strikingly domestic setting. She thinks to herself that it is nearly impossible to say whether the kinds of labor that have traditionally been performed by women are more or less valuable than the (usually more quantifiable) work done by men. The question is unanswerable: not only does domestic labor fall outside of any economic indexes of value, but its cultural value also changes "from decade to decade." She envisions a future in which there will be no gender-based division of labor. "But what bearing has all this upon the subject of my paper, Women and Fiction?" she wonders as she enters the house.
The narrator returns home disappointed at not having rounded up some useful tidbit of truth from her researches at the British Library. She turns at this point to history, which, she conjectures, "records not opinions but facts." As her starting point, she chooses to look into the lives of English women during the Elizabethan period—an era of surpassing literary accomplishment, but only among men. It is a virtue of Shakespeare's plays, she observes, that they seem, like enchanted spider-webs, "to hang there complete by themselves." In reality, however, even his works "are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the real work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in."
History turns up little except a few terse statements about the legal rights of women in the early modern period (which were virtually non-existent). This reticence on the topic of women, and the fact of her utter powerlessness, strikes discordantly with the prevalence in literature of complex and strong female characters from ancient times to the present. "A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. ...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 husband." In light of this paradox, the solution to the problem of trying to conceptualize the Elizabethan woman seems to be to pool the resources of history and fiction.
"It would have been impossible," the narrator concludes from this thought-experiment, "completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare." To illustrate this conclusion, she conjures the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare. Judith is as gifted perhaps as her brother, but receives no education except that which she can create for herself in what free time she has. Although she is "the apple of her father's eye," her family expects her to conform to a social role that leaves no room for the development of her talent. She writes some, in secret, but hides or burns her work for fear of reprisal. She becomes engaged at a young age. When she begs to be allowed not to marry, she is chastised and beaten by her father. After this she runs away, driven by "the force of her own gift alone." She wants to go into acting, but meets with rejection and ridicule. She is finally taken up by a theater-manager, becomes pregnant by him, and commits suicide.
This is how the life of a woman with Shakespeare's genius might have looked at that time, the narrator argues. But she goes on to assert that "it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's day should have had Shakespeare's genius"- -or no more than the first germ of genius, and certainly not the kind that would ever have translated itself into brilliant writing. "For genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people," except with the rarest exceptions—and even then, that social condition glares through as a limitation of the art. In that age, genius engendered witches and lunatics among women, and "Anonymous," she argues, was most likely a woman as well.
Having explored the deep inner conflicts that a gifted woman must have felt during the Renaissance, the narrator goes on to ask, "What is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation?" She marvels at the "prodigious difficulty" of producing a work of genius, and observes that circumstances generally conspire against it. She cites as obstacles the indifference of most of the world, the profusion of distractions, and the heaping up of various forms of discouragement. This is true for all artists, but how much more so for women! A woman would not even have a room of her own, unless her parents were exceptionally wealthy, and in her spending money and discretionary time she would be totally at the mercy of others. Being regularly told of female ineptitude, women would surely have internalized that belief; the absence of any tradition of female intellectuals would have made such arguments all the more viable. Though we like to think of genius as transcendent, the narrator holds that the mind of the artist is actually particularly susceptible to discouragement and vulnerable to the opinion of others. The mind of the artist, she says, "must be incandescent. ...There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed."
Incandescence, the narrator reiterates, is a state of mind that simply would have been impossible for a woman in the sixteenth century. She continues her history by tracing the gradual emergence of women writers out of that blank past. The first would have been aristocrats, women of "comparative freedom and comfort" who had the resources not only to spend their time writing, but also to brave public disapproval. This is how the narrator accounts for the poetry of Lady Winchilsea around the turn of the eighteenth century. Her work, however, is far from incandescent: "one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women." She then turns to the writings of Margaret of Newcastle, who might have been a poet or a scientist but instead "frittered her time away scribbling nonsense." Like Lady Winchilsea, she was an aristocrat, had no children, and was married to the right kind of man. The letters of Dorothy Osborne, next off the shelf, indicate a disdain for women who write, and at the same time betray a remarkable verbal gift in their own right. With Aphra Behn, the narrator identifies a turning point: a middle class woman making a living by her writing, in defiance of conventions of chastity. The later eighteenth century saw droves of women following her example, and these paved the way for the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn ...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
Why were all these women writers novelists? The major nineteenth-century figures, except for the fact that all were childless, seem to have had very little in common. The narrator offers several reasons why they all might have been attracted to the novel form. For one thing, these women wrote in the shared space of the sitting-room; perhaps the novel proved a hardier form than poetry in this climate of distraction. Secondly, without any formal literary training, the education nineteenth century women received in reading character and behavior would have been their main literary asset—one most applicable to the novel. Emily Bronte might have made a better dramatic poet; Eliot was by disposition a historian or biographer. Yet these women wrote novels (though Bronte also wrote lyric poems), and the novels were good ones. Jane Austen was known to hide her work when someone entered the room, yet her novels are written "without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching." Like Shakespeare, the narrator thinks, Austen wrote in such a way that her art "consumed all impediments." Charlotte Bronte does not write with that same incandescence; Bronte may have had more genius than Austen, but her writing bears the scars of her personal wounds.
Integrity, in the novelist, "is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth." It is what holds novels together and makes them exciting to read. This is a simple principle, but how difficult to achieve! "For the most part," we are told, "novels do come to grief somewhere." The narrators wonders how the sex of the novelist affects the possibility of achieving this artistic integrity. For Bronte it certainly did: "She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. ...Her imagination swerved from indignation and we felt it swerve." Not only anger, but ignorance, fear, and pain are the residue of gender in Bronte's case, nor is Bronte alone in this: "One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. ...She was thinking of something other than the thing itself." Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte manage to eradicate that central flaw, to maintain integrity in the face of criticism, opposition, and misunderstanding. Their achievement, under the circumstances, is miraculous.
The lack of an existing literary tradition is, in the narrator's opinion, the greatest obstacle for these heroic nineteenth-century writers. The writings of the greatest literary men were no help to the female author against the problem "that there was no common sentence ready for her use." The masculine sentence of a Johnson, say, would not do, and these motherless women had a great work before them. This may be another explanation for the turn to the novel, which form "alone was young enough to be soft in her hands." But women may not always choose to write novels, the narrator predicts. They have poetry in them still unexpressed. This does not necessarily mean that they will write poems, however, but that they may channel that poetry into some new form, as yet unconceived.
Moving on to "the shelves which hold books by the living," the narrator finds that women are currently writing nearly as many books as men, and that they are not only novels. "There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched." In assessing the change has occurred in women's writing in her own generation, the narrator pulls down a novel called Life's Adventure by Mary Carmichael. It is her first novel. Looking to see what this young writer has inherited from women of the past—both writers and non-writers, both "their characteristics and restrictions"—she first decides that the prose is not as good as Jane Austen's. "The smooth gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore, something scratched." She soon revises her opinion, however, noting that Miss Carmichael's writing actually has nothing in common with Austen's; it is attempting something completely different. "First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence. Very well, she has every right to do both these things if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating."
The decisive moment in Mary Carmichael's innovation comes with the words, "Chloe liked Olivia." The narrator stands slackjawed. How rarely, she realizes, has literature presented real, amicable relationships between women! Women were always, at least until the nineteenth century, considered in their relationship to men, and this has resulted in a huge and grave omission from literary history, and all history. "Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity—for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy." Women also, in
Carmichael's book, have interests and pursuits outside the home. Chloe and Olivia work together in a laboratory, a fact which greatly changes the kind of friends they can be. The narrator begins to think that an importance transition has occurred, "for if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been." The real, unrecorded experience of women in solitude has been so little handled that its expression will stretch the existing resources of the English language.
Mary Carmichael will have her work cut out for her, the narrator fondly acknowledges. She does not represent the culmination of the literary development Woolf has in mind, "for she will still be encumbered with that self-consciousness" that keeps her in the realm of "the nature-novelist" rather than the contemplative artist. She will have to learn not only to tell the truth about women, but also to tell, gently and without rancor, that bit of truth about men that has gone untold because it is what they cannot see in themselves. But if Miss Carmichael does not have the genius of Austen or Eliot, the narrator observes, she has certain advantages—not just as a person but also as a writer—unknown to them. Her writing shows no rancor against men, and no resentment against her situation in life. "Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom." In another hundred years, the author concludes, and with five hundred pounds and a room of her own, this Mary Carmichael will be a poet.
The next morning, the narrator awakes and looks out over a
utterly indifferent to "the future of fiction, the death of poetry, or the development by the average woman of a prose style completely expressive of her mind." The sight of two people meeting, getting in a cab, and being swept off into the flow of the city gives her an intuition of unity and rhythm that had been absent from her strained thinking over the last two days. There are certain states of mind that "seem, even if adopted spontaneously, to be less comfortable than others. In order to keep oneself continuing in them one is unconsciously holding something back, and gradually the repression becomes an effort." Emerging from her unnatural essayistic mode, the narrator begins to toy with a theory of the unification of the sexes—one, akin to Coleridge's theory of the androgynous mind, in which each mind has male and female elements. The harmonious balance of these elements in the hallmark of genius. This theory refers to no special sympathy with or the opposite sex, she clarifies, but with the nature of the mind's very working. Such a mind, she imagines, would be "naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided"—like Shakespeare's. London
In contrast to this ideal, she sees her own age as more explicitly sex-conscious than any other in history. This fact has, she speculates, "roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion," as exemplified in the novel of Mr. A. "Virility has become self- conscious," she notes, in part as a result of the burgeoning (and threatening) self- consciousness of women. This is the dominant characteristic of fascism as well, yet neither sex is to blame. The narrator returns to her writing-table and looks at the page titled "Women and Fiction. "It is fatal," she concludes, "for anyone who writes to think of their sex."
Virginia Woolf takes over for her narrator at this point, and begins to anticipate the objections her audience may raise to the character's "failings and foibles." She has not, for one thing, offered any comments about the relative merits of the two sexes as writers. This jostling for status, she explains, is precisely what the artist must avoid. One might object, she also admits, "that I have made too much of the importance of material things," when we expect great minds and great art to rise above their circumstances. Yet the facts, she asserts, show incontrovertibly that the odds are against any would-be poet who has not money or education. She sums up her argument: "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. . . . Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own." Good writing is good for society, Woolf asserts. She urges her audience to write—not only fiction, but books of all kinds, "for books have a way of influencing each other." She urges them to remember their current advantages as well as the contours of their unwritten history, and to see their own work not only as worthwhile in itself, but as part of the crucial preparation for women writers to come.
Dr. D. B. Gavani, Co- Ordinator, Post Graduate Department of English, K. S. S. College, GADAG email@example.com or +919880332030