Finally got around to reading the classic essay. I was familiar with Virginia Woolf’s basic assertion that to write, a woman requires her own income and, well, a room of one’s own–the privilege of leisure, the space to think independently and freely–but the essay is really about so much more than that. It is, among other things, also about (white, mid-to-upper class, western) women’s socioeconomic allotment throughout history and how this affects their presence in literature, and relative absence as authors until fairly recently.
Adapted from two speeches on the subject of “Women and Fiction”, Woolf begins her investigation by asking:
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?
What is most interesting about this essay are not Virginia Woolf’s answers to these questions, but the meandering ways in which she thinks about the problem she sees. For at the time of her writing it, let’s not forget, this kind of broad based sex-and-gender philosophizing was still lots of uncharted territory. This is obvious when reading, as her focus consistently alternates between observations of concrete conditions and more abstract, almost existential thought about the relationship between the sexes. There really is a lot to untangle here and there so many different parts of this essay I could talk about. I’m going to try and pick just a few. Even a few seems hard to write about, so if it seems muddled, stick with me! (Woolf might have said the same of her essay)!
Firstly, Woolf attributes the feminization of poverty to the roles women play as wives and mothers in a patriarchal household and society for which they are rewarded no economic or property incentive. The vote was great and all, she says, but it’s not enough: women’s oppression is vastly more complicated than that. Women must be economically independent if they are to achieve the independence of thought and influence that is necessary to the art of creation.
Natural genius must be nurtured if it is to be properly communicated through art–I believe that this is what she means in stating that genius has always been (and always will be?) borne of the wealthy and the educated. Hence her (fictional) tale of Shakespeare’s sister, who shares equally his poetic talents and ambitions, yet is doomed to a life of non-productivity and misery. Where Shakespeare found encouragement and support, his sister found only barriers and admonitions. Her genius is squandered, her creativity scorned. She is not taught the same things he is, and is not offered the same opportunities.
In thinking about the general ways in which she believes men think about women, she begins to examine fictional women in literature created by men and finds that contrary to women’s limited options in real life, literary women have been allowed all sorts of multi-dimensional roles and personalities from the start. Interestingly, she proposes that men are not interested in the inferiority of women–on the contrary, they are simply interested in maintaining their own superiority, for therein lies their means to self-confidence, the most prized of humanity’s jewels. For that reason, the inferiority of women is constructed as a societal mirror of sorts, in which the image of woman is meant to reflect and enlarge the doings of man.
Which is super interesting. So far, so good. But it’s when she begins her discussion of women novelists that she begins to lose me. She loves Jane Austen, and though Austen actually did not have her own work room, she believes that Austen is able to exemplify writing that is uniquely female both in style and subject, and that she is able to do this by not looking at herself in relation to men, but simply as a woman in relationship to herself. Somehow, she is able to subvert typical male values as they appear in literature (by focusing on and valuing domestic issues as opposed to those of war, for example) while remaining “unconscious” of her sex–writing as herself, not as a woman, which she just happens to be. This is what she admires most in Austen.
In comparison, she finds fault with Charlotte Bronte. The flow of prose in Jane Eyre is disrupted, she seems to think, because Bronte is aware of the limitations imposed upon her as a woman, she’s unhappy with this, and it affects her work. Woolf suggests that because she is not able to transcend this aspect of her identity and just write as a person unawares of sex, that her book and story suffer. This is completely ridiculous. To be fair, I was also totally confused by this part and so I’m not sure I understand it quite as Woolf meant me to. In any case, my reactions are:
I know that The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir had not been written yet, but the idea that men have historically been considered the default human and women are considered only in relationship to men (which Woolf does acknowledge), popularized by that book, lead me to conclude the opposite of Woolf: writing unawares of ones sex, and therefore unaware of the privileges, limitations, and questions that may apply to ones’ writing because of it, is something that men have been doing in their writing since the beginning of time. It is a typical male value that is not necessarily subverted by a woman who does the same.
And anyway, I don’t believe that Jane Austen WAS unconscious of her sex to begin with. At all. Jane Austen was a biting social critic, who clearly understood the specific spheres and gender roles assigned to men and women and the way this plays out in the lives of the individuals of her class and society. That’s what she writes about. That’s her whole thing! Just because Woolf didn’t sense that Austen was angry about this by reading her novels doesn’t mean that she was unconscious of being a woman while writing.
But what OF anger in women’s writing? Why does the anger that Woolf senses in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and attributes to consciousness of her sex in relation to men make her writing any less womanly? Why is this considered an adaptation of male literary values? Why should she be expected to start from scratch, as though she and her work are not already located somewhere on the map of sexist oppression? Why does Woolf seem to value sex-transcendence over all else?
My brain hurts. Am I misunderstanding something? Missing something completely?
And the stuff that followed, about everyone’s minds containing elements of maleness and femaleness that must be united to produce balanced writing? Well, I’m not really going to get into all that. It would only lead to a total sex-and-gender meltdown for me, I think. Suffice it to say, my reaction was one big WHAAAT?!
I realize this all sounds pretty negative, but I actually really enjoyed this essay. Really, I did! It moved swiftly along at a nice place, and has maintained an impressive freshness over many decades. I am a huge fan of Virginia Woolf’s airy, windy, spiraling style and I had quite a pleasant time reading it. And it’s obviously given me a lot to think about! It’s just in typing all this out that I’m having a hard time making sense of what I didn’t like about it. Which, sorry for this disorganization, brings me back to the beginning, the bit about Shakespeare’s sister.
By this imaginary anecdote, it is clear that Woolf believes there is genius even where it goes unrecognized; that wealth and privilege merely nurture it. Which, true enough. However, it’s not really enough, in my mind, to offset the general classicism of the premise that women must have their own rooms and incomes to create. I mean, that excludes the vast majority of the world’s women, who create beautiful/awesome/shocking/inspiring/terrible things every day without those things. Whether or not we recognize their expressions of creativity–or why we might not–is really a different question than any Woolf asks, and I think it’s ultimately a more productive one.
Of course, I agree that economic and social oppression of women shouldn’t exist and that all women should have access to the means to have their own rooms and incomes, and agree that these privileges make it vastly easier and more practical to do one’s work. But let’s not ignore all the women who have done, and continue to do, without.
Ahh! What do you all think? Did you share any of these reactions?
Read more Emily Oppenheimer at her blog http://bookedallweek.wordpress.com