Virginia Woolf constantly defies my expectations, always for the better.
Nothing I had read prepared me for the light and comic toucVirginia Plain Live
Virginia Woolf constantly defies my expectations, always for the better.
Nothing I had read prepared me for the light and comic touch of this short work (which is not to deny the lasting significance of its subject matter).
The essay grew out of a talk she gave to the female students at two Cambridge Colleges in 1928. She edited and added to it afterwards.
However, it still bears the traces of a live performance. It must have been inspiring to hear it in person.
The Four Marys
At a metafictional level, an author, Virginia Woolf, is physically speaking. However, her narrator is someone else, Mary Hamilton, arguably one of the four Marys from the ballad of the same name:
"‘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)."
Well, perhaps, it is of no historical importance, when it comes to kings and queens, but it is important in the historical progress of women.
The essay is partly about the ability of women to write themselves back into history and literature, whether as authors or narrators. Obviously, it's also about the ability of women to write about female (and male) characters from the different perspective that they bring to the study:
"Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them..."
Women and Fiction
Woolf offers her audience an amalgam of both fiction and non-fiction, just as she invites them to become writers of whatever subject matter:
"If you would please me — and there are thousands like me — you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science."
Ostensibly, the title of her talk was "Women and Fiction".
Her one piece of advice on that topic was:
"...a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction..."
How much money did a writer need? What could you do with it? Well, in 1928, she calculated:
"Five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine...By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream."
I haven't been able to work out whether 500 pounds is closer to $12,000 or $40,000 per annum now. However, this happened to be the amount of a legacy that she had supposedly received from her [fictional?] Aunt Mary Beton (the name of one of the "four Marys").
It's been inferred that this was Woolf's way of saying that, in order to write, you had to be independently wealthy.
This is quite the opposite of what she implied. She frequently talks about women "earning" the money that sustains them. She envisaged that writers would either have a day job or would earn the required amount from their writing.
They would transition from the "pin money" given to them by their parents to "pen money" generated from their own writing.
There were no limits. That time had already passed:
"If there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good."
Her audience was, after all, studying at Cambridge.
Don't Give Up Your Day Job?
Woolf brings a degree of optimism to the ambition to write. She wanted more women to write, so she and we could read more writing by women, and women could say what needed to be said.
However, she doesn't seem to recognise the demands that work itself places on the potential writer. How can you write at night and on the weekends, if you've already worked a full week at your day job? Perhaps she anticipated that you could kill two birds with one stone, by earning your income from writing from the outset?
This is a difficult enough task for a single woman. The challenges for a woman with a family were/are even greater:
"How many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night."
A Room of One's Own
This is part of the reason for the second limb of her advice (and the title of her book), that a woman needs a room of her own.
Women, like men, lived in the family home. There was relatively little privacy. Few, except the patriarch of a wealthy family, could enjoy the luxury of a study. A drawing room or sitting room had to be shared with the rest of the family:
"...to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century."
There was no prospect of a "separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families."
A Solitary Woman
So far, Woolf's advice addresses practical issues, the reality of a woman writing.
Her aim was to get women writing, by telling them what was required. However, to some extent, her advice applies equally to men. Anybody who wants to write, female or male, has to have some source of income, either from their own labour or that of their partner.
Besides, the solitary and private nature of writing means that they frequently have to turn their back on their family. It's OK to have a room of one's own. However, you have to be prepared to close the door on a world that arguably should be your first priority (whatever the gender of the writer parent). Men might find this easier. Women would find it difficult to achieve without a supportive partner or a considerable amount of guilt.
Woolf is concerned most of all with the reality of the life of a writer. It's this world into which she invites her audience:
"When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not."
The Androgynous Writer
This concern with reality extends to what women write about and how they write about it.
For all its intrinsic feminism, it seems that Woolf didn't think that women needed to write radically differently from men (which is not to say that all men wrote the way she thought they could or should).
Woolf advances a theory about the androgynous writer, which is analogous to the views of Coleridge.
She asks whether:
"...there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?
"And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man.
"The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her...
"It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought."
From this starting point, Woolf develops the proposition that men should write from a "man-womanly" point of view and women from a "woman-manly" point of view.
She believes that Shakespeare lived up to the former description. Then she imagines the idea of Shakespeare's sister, "Judith", who would live up to the latter.
On the other hand, she argues that women shouldn't write fiction from a polemical or political perspective:
"...it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death."
Woolf argues that writing is an internalised collaboration of the sexes:
"Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness."
What is most important is the capacity to portray both sexes credibly. Woolf is trying to achieve fiction that does justice to reality.
In effect, Woolf challenges her female audience to write like Shakespeare's sister:
"For my belief is that if we live another century or so [ed: 2028]...and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves...if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down."