Gearing up for a summer class on Women’s Studies, I dusted off this classic for a re-read. Part of the pain of owning a book for a long time is having to suffer through the annotations left by your younger self, what resemble the markings of a maniac. My prior reading was during a time when I felt it acceptable to underline phrases I liked, instead of drawing a line in the margin to indicate something worth diving deeper into. I shamefully admit that my former self drew a smiley face and made other odd call-outs in the margins (but at least I was never a highlighter). Once I got past the frailty and foibles of my youth, I was knocked out by VW’s powerful, reasoned, calm dismantling of the problem of patriarchy.
Asked to give a lecture on Women and Fiction, she’s weighted down with the dilemma of having only an hour to discuss these enormous unsolved problems, she sits on the banks of a river and a thought comes to her, darting and sinking like a fish, setting up “such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.” So up she goes, walking across the grass, only to be frantically waved off by a professor– only Scholars are allowed on the grass, she must get back on the gravel. By that time, whatever grand thought she’d been chasing had fled. Now she decides to head to the library to check out Milton’s Lycidas, but is fluttered and chased off because she’s not accompanied by a Fellow of the College. She wanders the college grounds until lunch, going into great detail about the soles, partridges with sharp or sweet sauces, salads, potatoes, roast, pudding and wines of both hues.
And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company- in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as, lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.
Walking back to town, she muses that the war (WWI) has changed the undertone of conversation, removing the buzz of romantic hope that was previously. When she gets to her friend’s college, contrast lunch with what is served the women: plain gravy soup, beef and potatoes, prunes and custard. “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” Safely up in Mary Seton’s room with a post-dinner cocktail, VW details the elaborate meal, the impressive architecture of the men’s college, and Seton explains that the women found it very hard to get £2,000 together to start the college in the first place, so “amenities will have to wait.” And why was it so hard to raise the funds? Why were women poor?
VW attacks this question back in London with a visit to the British Museum and is absolutely stunned by the volume of books written about women by men. “Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” She later muses that this explosion in interest was due to the recent campaign for voting rights, “when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively.” Swirling in a sea of books about women, she doodles and finds herself most angry at the book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, and realizes that most of these men are also angry. How to explain their anger? Over lunch, she decides it’s because women are no longer functioning as “looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
There is of course, much more. Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith. The fact that women pervade poetry as subjects but are completely absent from history. The effect of active discouragement upon female artists. Bronte & Austen & Eliot. The strange absence of any females depicted as friends throughout literature (except as Woolf stumbles onto Carmichael’s “Chloe liked Olivia”).