Among the many things about this book that continue to blow my mind, there’s the fact that Virginia Woolf manages to fit more information and beautiful writing into 114 pages than most writers can get in 500. This is such a small book, but it’s so much more substantial than it appears.
The book is a combination of papers Virgina Woolf wrote when she was asked to speak on “Women and Fiction.” She starts out by telling us about this assignment and what she thinks it means. Woolf muses on the subject of women and fiction, and then she remembers that the college she’s currently visiting has a manuscript of Thackeray’s Esmond. She goes to the college library to see this manuscript, but is stopped at the door. Woolf is told “that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction”, presumably because they’re afraid she’s going to menstruate on the books.
Virginia Woolf was not allowed into a library because she wasn’t a man. Welcome to Women and Fiction, bitches.
With this starting point in mind, Woolf traces the history of women and literature, beginning with Elizabethan England. It’s at this point that I started marking pages for later quotation, and I wish I could have quoted the whole book. I can’t, but I can certainly quote a lot of it.
Here’s Woolf comparing women as presented in fiction versus women in real life: “Professor Trevelyan is speaking with no more than the truth when he remarks that Shakespeare’s women do not seem wanting in personality and character. Not being a historian, one might even go further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time…Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; so great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction.”
Then later, once we’re in the 19th century and women are less afraid to write, she talks about male writing versus female writing: “The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: ‘The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generation of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.’ That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Bronte, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.”
You’ll notice that Woolf took some shots at Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot up there – it’s important to note that although the book discusses women and writing, Woolf is never like “Women write better than men, so pppbbbttthh!” She’s not afraid to criticize female writers, as in this passage where she picks up a modern novel written by Mary Carmichael:
“I am going to get the hang of her sentences first, I said…So I tried a sentence or two upon my tongue. Soon it was obvious that something was not quite in order. The smooth gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore, something scratched; a single word here and there flashed its torch in my eyes. She was ‘unhanding’ herself as they say in the old plays. She is like a person striking a match that will not light, I thought.”
(reviewer confession: I mostly quoted that passage because I love the way Woolf starts a novel the way someone would taste a new food or wine.)
Mary Carmichael ultimately received a judgment of Not Awful from Woolf, who reminds us that, at least, Carmichael is writing, and it hasn’t ruined her life.
“She was no ‘genius – that was evident. …indeed she was no more than a clever girl whose books will no doubt be pulped by the publishers in ten years’ time. But, nevertheless, she has certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked even half a century ago. Men were no longer to her ‘the opposing faction’; she need not waste her time railing against them; she need not climb on to the roof and ruin her peace of mind longing for travel, experience and a knowledge of the world and character that were denied her. Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to the caustic and satirical, rather than to the romantic, in her treatment of the opposite sex. …she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were only full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”
Woolf believes that to write well, an author has to be able to write with both masculine and feminine qualities – she says that Shakespeare wrote androgynously.
“…it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or a woman plain and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. …Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act 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. There must be freedom and there must be peace.”
(last quote, I swear. But it’s a long one, so brace yourself.)
I’m thinking of photocopying the last paragraph of Woolf’s book and keeping it with me at all times. She spends all of this time showing us how much women have had to struggle and suffer for the privilege to create art, and then she shows us how far we’ve come. You have no excuses, she’s telling us. There is no reason each and every one of you can’t create something of your own. The right to have our own money and our own rooms with locked doors so we can write is something we’ve had to fight for, so you bitches better use it and be grateful.
“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister…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 crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, 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, is now coming within your power to give her. For it is my belief 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 from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality…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.”
Verdict: five out of five stars