Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing

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Michèle Barrett selected and introduces these essays by Virginia Woolf on women and writing. Paired with A Room of One’s Own, you have a hearty mix of thoughts on women writers and the challenges they faced/face. She points out that throughout history, ‘Almost without exception women are shown in their relation to men,’ e.g. they don’t exist except as Other. In this collection of essays Woolf dives deep into Austen, the Brontës, Aphra Behn, etc. She also touches on (to my interest:) Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Olive Schriener. Not to mention: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mrs Humphry Ward, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Elizabeth Browning, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Haywood.

In Women and Fiction, published 1929 in The Forum, she asks why there was no continuous writing done by women before the 18th century:

Thus it is clear that the extraordinary outburst of fiction in the beginning of the nineteenth century in England was heralded by innumerable slight changes in law and customs and manners. And women of the nineteenth century had some leisure; they had some education. It was no longer the exception for women of the middle and upper classes to choose their own husbands. And it is significant that of the four great women novelists—Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot—not one had a child, and two were unmarried.

Later, she also calls out the fact that women were not exposed to the adventures and sights and travel that male authors were:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience. That experience has a great influence upon fiction is indisputable. The best part of Conrad’s novels, for instance, would be destroyed if it had been impossible for him to be a sailor. Take away all that Tolstoi knew of war as a soldier, or life and society as a rich young man whose education admitted him to all sorts of experience, and War and Peace would be incredibly impoverished.

Beyond this, novels by women were sometimes affected by the rage that boiled beneath the maltreatment.

The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly two-fold instead of single…. The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations and to hold on their way unperturbed by scorn or censure. But it needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger. The ridicule, the censure, the assurance of inferiority in one form or another which were lavished upon women who practiced an art, provoked such reactions naturally enough.

In 1920’s Men and Women, Woolf touches on the root of it all: “From her [Helen Pendennis] we learn also that when one sex is dependent upon the other it will endeavour for safety’s sake to simulate what the dominant sex finds desirable.” Thus you have women reluctant to embrace their strength, pretending delicateness and muddle-headed-ness.

In 1918’s Women Novelists, she mentions one of the core causes for why there has been so much terrible writing by women: imposed purity of thought. “The effect of these repressions is still clearly to be traced in women’s work, and the effect is wholly to the bad. The problem of art is sufficiently difficult in itself without having to respect the ignorance of young women’s minds or to consider whether the public will think that the standard of moral purity displayed in your work is such as they have a right to expect from your sex. The attempt to conciliate, or more naturally to outrage, public opinion is equally a waste of energy and a sin against art.” (Emphasis mine).

In Indiscretions (1924), Woolf writes one of the most brutal takedowns of Byron that I’ve ever read:

But no woman ever loved Byron; they bowed to convention; did what they were told to do; ran mad to order. Intolerably condescending, ineffably vain, a barber’s block to look at, compound of bully and lap-dog, now hectoring, now swimming in vapours of sentimental twaddle, tedious, egotistical, melodramatic, the character of Byron is the least attractive in the history of letters. But no wonder that every man was in love with him. In their company he must have been irresistible; brilliant and courageous; dashing and satirical; downright and tremendous; the conqueror of women and companion of heroes–everything that strong men believe themselves to be and weak men envy them for being. But to fall in love with Byron, to enjoy Don Juan and the letters to the full, obviously one must be a man; or, if of the other sex, disguise it.

Aphra Behn’s section from A Room of One’s Own was pulled out for separate inspection in this collection, giving credit to one of the trail blazers. “Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance… The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women–the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays of Shakespeare, the translating of the classics–was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (My emphasis)

In her review of Mary Wollstonecraft, she mentions Godwin’s belief that “if two people of the opposite sex like each other, they should live together without any ceremony, or, for living together is apt to blunt love, twenty doors off, say, in the same street.”