Writing on Women Writers

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Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

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Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

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A Room of One’s Own was written by Woolf in 1929. It is a book long essay which addresses gender roles. As well as the statement of “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  One way the book addresses these gender roles is by the questioning why there were no women writers during the Elizabethan period.  “

“That one would find any woman in that state of mind in the sixteenth century was obviously impossible. One has only to think of the Elizabethan tombstones with all those children kneeling with clasped hands; and their early deaths; and to see their houses with their dark, cramped rooms, to realize that no woman could have written poetry then. What one would expect to find would be that rather later perhaps some great lady would take advantage of her comparative freedom and comfort to publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster.”

Woolf then goes on to talking about aristocratic women writers starting with Lady Winchilsea.

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“Here is Lady Winchilsea, for example, I thought, taking down her poems. She was born in the year 1661; she was noble both by birth and by marriage; she was childless; she wrote poetry, and one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women:

How we are fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,

And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;

Debarred from all improvements of the mind,

And to be dull, expected and designed;

And if someone would soar above the rest,

With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,

So strong the opposing faction still appears,

The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears.

Clearly her mind has by no means ‘consumed all impediments and become incandescent’. On the contrary, it is harassed and distracted with hates and grievances. The human race is split up for her into two parties. Men are the ‘opposing faction’; men are hated and feared, because they have the power to bar her way to what she wants to do — which is to write.”

She then moves onto Margaret of New Castle.

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“And so, putting, her back on the shelf, I turned to the other great lady, the Duchess whom Lamb loved, harebrained, fantastical Margaret of Newcastle, her elder, but her contemporary. They were very different, but alike in this that both were noble and both childless, and both were married to the best of husbands. In both burnt the same passion for poetry and both are disfigured and deformed by the same causes. Open the Duchess and one finds the same outburst of rage. ‘Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms. . . . ’ Margaret too might have been a poet; in our day all that activity would have turned a wheel of some sort. As it was, what could bind, tame or civilize for human use that wild, generous, untutored intelligence? It poured itself out, higgledy-piggledy, in torrents of rhyme and prose, poetry and philosophy which stand congealed in quartos and folios that nobody ever reads. She should have had a microscope put in her hand. She should have been taught to look at the stars and reason scientifically. Her wits were turned with solitude and freedom. No one checked her. No one taught her. The professors fawned on her. At Court they jeered at her. Sir Egerton Brydges complained of her coarseness —’as flowing from a female of high rank brought up in the Courts’. She shut herself up at Welbeck alone.

What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death. What a waste that the woman who wrote ‘the best bred women are those whose minds are civilest’ should have frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly till the people crowded round her coach when she issued out.”

Dorothy Osborne was next.

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“Here, I remembered, putting away the Duchess and opening Dorothy Osborne’s letters, is Dorothy writing to Temple about the Duchess’s new book. ‘Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never bee soe rediculous else as to venture at writeing book’s and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that.’

And so, since no woman of sense and modesty could write books, Dorothy, who was sensitive and melancholy, the very opposite of the Duchess in temper, wrote nothing. Letters did not count. A woman might write letters while she was sitting by her father’s sick-bed. She could write them by the fire whilst the men talked without disturbing them. The strange thing is, I thought, turning over the pages of Dorothy’s letters, what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene. Listen to her running on:

‘After dinner wee sitt and talk till Mr B. com’s in question and then I am gon. the heat of the day is spent in reading or working and about sixe or seven a Clock, I walke out into a Common that lyes hard by the house where a great many young wenches keep Sheep and Cow’s and sitt in the shades singing of Ballads; I goe to them and compare their voyces and Beauty’s to some Ancient Shepherdesses that I have read of and finde a vaste difference there, but trust mee I think these are as innocent as those could bee. I talke to them, and finde they want nothing to make them the happiest People in the world, but the knoledge that they are soe. most commonly when we are in the middest of our discourse one looks aboute her and spyes her Cow’s goeing into the Corne and then away they all run, as if they had wing’s at theire heels. I that am not soe nimble stay behinde, and when I see them driveing home theire Cattle I think tis time for mee to retyre too. when I have supped I goe into the Garden and soe to the syde of a small River that runs by it where I sitt downe and wish you with mee. . . . ’

One could have sworn that she had the makings of a writer in her. But ‘if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that’— one can measure the opposition that was in the air to a woman writing when one finds that even a woman with a great turn for writing has brought herself to believe that to write a book was to be ridiculous, even to show oneself distracted. And so we come, I continued, replacing the single short volume of Dorothy Osborne’s letters upon the shelf, to Mrs Behn.”

Then there was Aphra Behn.

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“And with Mrs Behn we turn a very important corner on the road. We leave behind, shut up in their parks among their folios, those solitary great ladies who wrote without audience or criticism, for their own delight alone. We come to town and rub shoulders with ordinary people in the streets. Mrs Behn was a middle-class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humour, vitality and courage; a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote, even the splendid ‘A Thousand Martyrs I have made’, or ‘Love in Fantastic Triumph sat’, for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen. Of course the answer for many years to come was, Yes, by living the life of Aphra Behn! Death would be better! and the door was slammed faster than ever. That profoundly interesting subject, the value that men set upon women’s chastity and its effect upon their education, here suggests itself for discussion, and might provide an interesting book if any student at Girton or Newnham cared to go into the matter. Lady Dudley, sitting in diamonds among the midges of a Scottish moor, might serve for frontispiece. Lord Dudley, THE TIMES said when Lady Dudley died the other day, ‘a man of cultivated taste and many accomplishments, was benevolent and bountiful, but whimsically despotic. He insisted upon his wife’s wearing full dress, even at the remotest shooting-lodge in the Highlands; he loaded her with gorgeous jewels’, and so on, ‘he gave her everything — always excepting any measure of responsibility’. Then Lord Dudley had a stroke and she nursed him and ruled his estates with supreme competence for ever after. That whimsical despotism was in the nineteenth century too.

But to return. 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. A husband might die, or some disaster overtake the family. Hundreds of women began as the eighteenth century drew on to add to their pin money, or to come to the rescue of their families by making translations or writing the innumerable had novels which have ceased to be recorded even in text-books, but are to be picked up in the four penny boxes in the Charing Cross Road. The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women — the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on 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. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling’, but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses.”

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn …for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

Gender roles are one of the biggest things in this book. It took the writing of these four ladies to help pave the way for other women writers.  Woolf herself  used her pen to address these gender role issues throughout the entire book. She described how a man and woman’s world are different. The men walk on the grass while the women are forced to walk on the gravel. A luncheon for a men’s college is a feast while a luncheon for a women’s college is just food. It took women awhile but thanks to great writers like Lady Winchilsea, Margaret of New Castle, Dorothy Osborne, and Aphra Behn women today now have a voice.

In today’s world, women have a voice. They have been able to bring out the Judith Shakespeare in themselves. There are women like Jodi Picoult who have touched our hearts with books like My Sister’s Keeper. Women like J.K Rowling  who have brought us into the world of Harry Potter. Stephanie Meyers who has shown us through Twilight that love can be between more than just two human beings. Also there are other writers like Danielle SteelToni Morrison, Mary Higgins Clark, Maya Angelou, and Joyce Carol Oates. Along with the hundreds of other amazing women writers of today who have touched us with their books in one way or another.

However, one question that still remains is how correct is the statement “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”?  For Lady Winchilsea, she was wealthy from birth and marriage, had no children, and was able to write her poetry. So for her, it is possible that she had a room of her own making the statement true. Margaret of Newcastle, was able to shut herself up at Welbeck alone. Also, she had money, so it is true for her as well. Then, there is Dorothy Osborne who although wealthy only wrote letters. So, it is not as true for her. Finally, there is Aphra Behn who made her own fortune through hard work and her wits, and did not necessarily need a room of her own.  So does one need money and a room of one’s own to write fiction that is up for you to decide. Virginia Woolf had a voice, money, and most likely a room of her own. Today we now have her knowledge, wisdom, and novels.

 

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“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own

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