During the week of International Women’s Day, anyone who really wants to reflect on a woman telling something significant about women and their position in society in an extremely eloquent way should read the booklet. a room of your own have to assume. This witty text was written nearly a hundred years ago by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and delivered by her in 1928 to students at various women’s colleges in Cambridge. The transcribed version of that lecture, entitled women and fictionpublished a year later. This extremely peculiar feminist pamphlet, which was also previously published in translation, has now been republished with the title your own room†
Before writing it, Woolf asked herself two questions. Looking back in history, why were there so few women who wrote fiction? And what can be done about it? Woolf’s solution is simple. To write fiction, she argues, a woman needs two things: money and a room of her own. Remarkably simple, yet accurate advice that, in fact, still applies to many poor writers who can’t live independently and have money—well, who doesn’t dream of being able to work undisturbed for months at a time with no money worries?
In the essay, narrated by a fictional writer (“Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or whatever you want”), Woolf explains why women have achieved so little in history. She describes how the first person wanders through a (fictional) library looking for books written by women. She pokes around in a historical work, entitled the history of england, hoping to find something about the position of women, and then reads how women, around 1470, are married off and, if they refuse, “dragged around the room and beaten.” He also reads about the time of the Stuarts, years later, when women didn’t have many options either. But if women had so little to say, why weren’t Shakespeare’s ladies lacking in personality and character? And why, Woolf argues, have women always been beacons of light for all the work of all poets? She mentions Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Phaedra, and Desdemona and also refers to female characters from novels such as Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Madame de Guermantes. “If women existed only in the fiction that men wrote about them, surely you would imagine them as extremely important, very special, heroic and petty, beautiful and disgusting, indescribably beautiful and extremely ugly, as tall as men, according to some even . larger.’ In literature, therefore, women are of paramount importance, says Woolf, but in reality they are non-existent. ‘She fills collections of poetry from the first page to the last, but she is virtually absent from the story.’
It’s a startling observation, and Woolf wonders why women in Elizabeth’s day didn’t write poetry and if they were really educated. Which brings her to the next thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had an extremely talented sister? Could this Judith Shakespeare, with the same talent as her brother, have achieved the same? In a few pages she sketches, slightly jokingly, Judith’s sad existence. She wouldn’t have a chance to learn grammar or logic, much less read Horace and Virgil. Living independently in the city would not be possible and for knocking on the door of the theater, as her brother had done, asking to act, they would make fun of her. No, Woolf fantasizes, she would eventually become pregnant with the theater manager and be tormented by her caged poet’s heart. The end result: suicide on a winter afternoon.
Yes, Woolf dejectedly concludes, no one can, of course, match Shakespeare’s exceptional talent, but “what is certain (…) is that every woman of innate talent in the 16th century would surely have gone mad, shot herself head or he would have spent his days. .in a remote hut outside of town, half witch, half sorceress, feared and laughed at.
Finding a woman who could shine with her mind like Shakespeare was out of the question in the 16th century. “You only have to look at her houses with those dark, stuffy rooms to realize that no woman could have written poetry there then.”
But even in the later period, Woolf continues, it was a tragedy for women to have literary ambitions. She mentions a number of aristocratic ladies who indulged in the luxury of being shut up in a country house, such as Lady Winchilsea (1661-1720) who wrote indignant poems such as:
Unfortunately! If you touch the pen as a woman, you immediately made your bad reputation.
They mocked Winchilsea’s literary ambitions and dubbed her “bluestocking with a scratching itch”. And so there were more well-to-do ladies, without children, who had a talent that was covered “with weeds and thorns”, such as Margaret of Newcastle (1623-1673) who wrote in a fit of rage: “Women live like bats or owls, they toil like beasts and die like worms…” This mockery and contempt, writes Woolf, only ceased at the end of the eighteenth century when there was enormous intellectual activity among women. The classics were translated, essays on Shakespeare were written, and celebrations were celebrated. literary gatherings. Suddenly there was money to be made writing, and then the middle-class woman took up the pen. “A change to which,” writes Woolf, “I would give more importance than the Crusades.” For without this fact, no writer would have risen up like Jane Austen and the Brontës. And here Woolf gets to the heart of her argument. Because, once they reached the 19th century, these talented writers also had to write their works in an ordinary living room, where they were co Constantly interrupted and with so few resources that “they could barely buy a few paper notebooks at a time.”
It is these observations and reflections that lead Woolf to conclude that, in effect, there are two things that women need in order to write. Yes, indeed, money and Your own bedroom. Anyone reading this fervent plea can now only conclude that Woolf wanted to give women more space, literally and figuratively. And that the content of this booklet is still current for many women around the world. It is therefore moving that she, in a call for solidarity, at the end of her lecture asks her audience to imagine that Shakespeare’s sister is still alive. “It is in your power to give him that opportunity. Because I am convinced that if we live another century or so (…) and we all earn five hundred pounds a year and have our own room; if we are used to freedom and have the courage to write exactly what we think (…) then we are connected to the world of reality.’
Then, says Woolf, ‘the dead poetess who was Shakespeare’s sister will measure herself to the body she has so often cast aside’. And so literature becomes the business of all women who write, because ‘masterpieces are not born in isolation and solitude; they are the result of many years of common thought, of the thought of the soul of the people, which makes the experience of the masses stand behind the voice of the individual.’
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 11, 2022.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 11, 2022.