‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’
Let me begin this post by saying that I could read Virginia Woolf forever. I read her work only sparingly, afraid of the day that will inevitably come that I will be unable to read one of her masterpieces for the first time. It took me years to find To The Lighthouse; I was only introduced to Woolf by college professors in my writing courses. Reading To The Lighthouse changed my life. It was a book that challenged everything I thought I knew about life, about myself, about the ground I stood on. And ever since that discovery, I’ve been starved for her writing, her lengthy and breathless ruminations about death and any action that could speed up its delivery. But despite how badly I want to read her entire collection in one sitting, I wait, unearthing one of her novels in a time of desperate need or ecstatic happiness. I read Mrs. Dalloway a few year ago and felt the same insane love, shock, and hunger that I did after finishing To The Lighthouse. I decided to let myself feed on something of hers I hadn’t read before, a small book only dipping slightly into Woolf’s talent: A Room of One’s Own.
Somehow I didn’t know that this was not a work of fiction but one of her incredible nonfiction works, a speech/lecture given to colleges that have since been turned into essays. Although her stream of consciousness isn’t as alert or colorful in her nonfiction, this essay made me feel so so powerful. I finished and felt as if I could conquer the world via my writing, via the women’s writing who have come before me. In 1928 Woolf was writing of the challenges facing women writers that I think in ways we are still facing today; women writers should read this essay, if for no other reason than to super-charge their inspiration. Here she is, a literary genius and visionary, telling the future women that the talents of our sex are not yet found, are still to be exposed. Woolf has confidence in you- you better fucking sit down and write.
The reluctance of men at an unnamed college to let Woolf in to their dinners, chapels, and libraries, infuriates her, infuriates us. She mocks the university’s fear of women, mocks them for their belief in women being a curse or a temptation, laughs at them for giving women so much power. But there’s a deep loss inside of Woolf for being unable to enter into the university library: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” In retaliation of the men who have wronged her, who have cast her and other women with a passion and talent on fire aside, Woolf asserts herself in the thoughtfulness of things. She makes it apparent that she will be heard, that women will be heard.
Woolf’s ultimate thesis is that it would have been impossible for women to equal men in the talents of writing because for all of history women have been shut out of libraries, of university, of a life in general that supports the devotion and time it takes to write. Her thesis is that men have (attempted to) subdue women in such a way so that they are unable to ever rival them in the realm of writing. But, Woolf points out, look what women have done in their small lives; Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in a small room full of her family and guests, in between decorum and obligation. Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in the same small room, hiding the pages wherever she could, both women taking years to ever finish a thing. How many other women wrote in silence in between feeding the children or cleaning the house or submitting to her husband? How many works were discarded once the husband of the house found them? How much genius have we lost because of the threat of womanhood? A lot. And yet, women have prevailed, have written (already in 1928) powerful works that scare man. Woolf points out that women as a sex are strong, determined, and imaginary, creating what they can with what little they have. And as long as women desire to write and push themselves to do so, their sex will rival men despite the calamity of power men throw at them. Woolf writes: ‘women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,’ writing what I and hopefully all of womanhood knows to be true: women are used to reassure men that they are powerful. Men need women to prop them up, but not to show their own genius.
Woolf’s thoughts about the writing of Emily and Charlotte Bronte along with Jane Austen are very interesting to me, especially because Jane Eyre is in constant battle with To The Lighthouse for my #1 favorite book. Woolf cites a passage in Jane Eyre and remarks of Charlotte Bronte: ‘One might say that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. SHe will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.’ These are such fascinating thoughts to me! That Bronte felt unable to give herself entirely to her sex and her sex’s limitations or rages astounds me, especially knowing that I consider Jane Eyre to be a triumphant success for what being a woman means. Woolf writes: ‘anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation,’ meaning that women have always been capable and destined for more, but their identity has been placed onto them and is strangling them in its solidarity.
Woolf does an amazing job, as I’ve said already, of inspiring women writers to become. One tactic of hers is to introduce the readers/listeners to Shakespeare’s sister, who, although she did indeed exist, Woolf takes liberty to furnish by claiming she was a poet as talented as her brother but ignored by men. Woolf demands us to imagine a world that’s blessed by two poets as talented and graceful as Shakespeare, and mourns the loss of this with us. At the end of her speech, she admits the truth about Shakespeare’s sister: ‘I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—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 look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; 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. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”
Is there a better way to end this speech/essay? It is beautiful and triumphant and a battle cry, inspiring women to exercise that which has been taken from them for centuries. Woolf inspires us to give life to the women that have forfeited their lives for the sake of being a conventional woman (for the lives they led were not true lives at all if they indeed wanted and needed to write but were not doing so) by creating. By sitting in a room and writing. By being a diligent and committed writer, despite the discriminations that come with being a woman despite which century you live in. Woolf turns womanhood and women writers into one strong being who transcends all of the writing that has occurred thus far by either man or woman, and revitalizes us by explaining that we too, us and our genius and our talent, will one day fall into the chaotic symphony that is womanhood and women’s writing, and it will indeed be a force that could knock any gate on any library down.