Virginia Woolf and Feminist Aesthetics – English Literature undergraduate taster lecture


For this taster lecture I’m going to give
you a preview of a lecture that I give in the first year, on the Prose module, on Virginia
Woolf’s long feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. [also the frame text for second year
optional module on the history of women’s writing – Shakespeare’s Sisters] Woolf herself was the pioneer of feminist
literary criticism in the twentieth century. She was hugely preoccupied throughout her
writing life with the role of women in history and with the relationship of women and fiction,
and writing continuously about the practice and the difficulties of women’s writing
and of writing as a woman – in her diaries, in letters, and in numerous reviews and essays,
all of which have been published and are readily available to us. Woolf is a gift, basically,
to any undergraduate or scholar, because she tells us so much about the genesis and processes
of her writing, all of which can be drawn into our understanding of her work. A Room of One’s Own was published in 1929,
and makes a number of key arguments, in particular: About the social and economic conditions necessary
for writing, and the fact that women have been denied these for much of literary history;
About the consequent lack of a tradition of women’s writing for those women beginning
to write in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to draw upon;
About the concept of a ‘female sentence’, or in other words a style and subject matter
that Woolf regards as articulating women’s voice and values, and that is identifiably
different to that of male writers [and this is something that I will talk more about in
the last part of this mini lecture]; And finally about the ideal, and it is only
an ideal, that she has for an androgynous aesthetic, in which an author would be able
to write free from an awareness of their sex as male or female. What I want to do today is to introduce you
to the style and approach of the essay, and then to look particularly at what Woolf says
about the possibilities for women’s fiction in the twentieth century and implicitly perhaps,
her own aims as a novelist. A Room of One’s Own grew out of two lectures
that Woolf was invited to give on ‘Women and Fiction’ to the two women’s colleges
at Cambridge – Newnham and Girton – in 1928. Woolf was by now the author of six novels,
and the colleges could be forgiven for thinking that this was a subject that she would feel
confident talking about – and of course she is, but not perhaps in the conventional
way that she imagines they expect. And she begins by refusing quite bluntly to offer
what she recognizes is generally assumed to be the object of a university lecture – to
impart a series of ‘facts’ for students to scribble down and take away. This is Woolf: When you asked me to speak about women and
fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant.
They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen;
a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms
if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs
Gaskell and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The
title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what
they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean
women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three
are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when
I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I
soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion.
I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer
to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the
pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. Of course it is soon clear that not only is
Woolf suspicious of so-called ‘nuggets of truth’, but also that she wants the students
listening to her to do more than simply note down a few facts to regurgitate in an essay
or exam. Women and fiction, she says ‘remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems’
– and she invites her audience to join her, to engage with her, in exploring those problems,
to follow her train of thought as she researches, muses and ponders over the history of women’s
writing. To do so she divests herself of the authoritative
identity ‘Virginia Woolf, woman writer’, and takes on the voice of a persona called
‘Mary’, who has been invited to give a similar lecture to a thinly fictionalized
women’s college ‘Fernham’, at a thinly fictionalized university ‘Oxbridge’, and
who actually spends the whole of the rest of the essay researching and worrying about
what she is going to say. So the essay reopens, as it were, in the voice
of Mary, as she is sat by a river that runs along the edge of a male college, where she
has been invited for lunch. She is trying to plan her lecture and suddenly she senses/glimpses
the beginnings of a thought (thoughts, and characters, are always very ephemeral in Woolf’s
writing – always trying to slip away from her, difficult to catch). As she
is sort of metaphorically chasing it, still not fully formed in her mind, she walks unconsciously
across the college grass, to be immediately stopped by a college official rushing towards
her – only male scholars can walk on the grass, women visitors must keep to the path.
The thought, in the meantime, has escaped. She then decides to go to the library, to
look up a manuscript, but she is stopped at the door: ‘instantly there issued, like
a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating,
silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies
are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with
a letter of introduction’. Mary is angry – but as she says: ‘That a famous library
has been cursed by a woman, is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library’
… Now Woolf is a very skilful essayist and A
Room of One’s Own continues in exactly this way – accessible, very conversational in
tone, very funny, very impassioned, very enticing to read, deeply engaging. It comments on real
women writers, such as Aphra Benn, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but it is also full
of anecdotes, dramatized stories, satiric and tragic characters. It is part criticism,
part fiction, part history, part biography, part autobiography – and in this way Woolf
is able to introduce quite complex theoretical ideas in a way that is never alienating, and
polemical feminist ones in a manner that seems self-deprecating. Nevertheless she expected
a negative response amongst the largely male critical institution, and awaited reviews
with considerable nervousness: ‘I shall be attacked for a feminist’, she noted in
her diary, ‘I am afraid it will not be taken seriously’ Woolf is very wary of making any definitive
assertions about women’s writing, or at least in terms of its style or form. Indeed
much of the essay is taken up with her reflections on the lack of women’s writing over the
history of English literature, and the fact that there are so few women writers. The reason
for this, she argues very overtly, is because fiction is not just the result of genius,
but of material circumstance. Prior to the nineteenth century, she argues,
the demands of the domestic household, the laws that denied married women ownership of
funds or property, a lack of educational opportunity, made it almost impossible for a woman to take
up writing as a profession. The creative voice of even the most gifted
women would have remained mute, through want of support, education and opportunity. Women’s economic, social and political powerlessness,
she declares, has then also resulted in centuries of cultural representation that privilege
things regarded important by men, and that have conversely marginalised female experience.
As Mary browses the shelves of the British Library, she looks for the ways in which women
are represented, or not, in the books collected there. History books, she finds, concentrate
on the ‘great movements’ of government, empire or scientific revolution, and are dominated
by the actions and values of men. Fiction by contrast seems to mythologise female characters
in a manner that bears little relation to reality. This is Mary [Woolf]: ‘Some of
the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from
her lips’, she is talking of women characters in the plays of Shakespeare, but ‘in real
life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband’ Woolf’s conclusion, is that women need time
and independence and freedom of thought if they are to be able to write – and that
these things depend on a certain degree of financial security and of private space – in
Woolf’s shorthand £500 a year and a room of one’s own. For Woolf this material basis is only the
start however – and here the focus of her argument shifts – from the material inequalities
that limited women’s opportunity to write, to the aesthetic problems of forging what
Woolf imagines as a more truly female mode of writing. This is what I want to focus on
for the remainder of the lecture. Even once a women has the money and a room
of her own to be able to write, Woolf thinks (and she writes about this in various essays
and reviews) the problem of ‘writing as a woman’, of actually creating fiction remains.
And here she seems to be suggesting that to write as a women has different problems and
different qualities, to writing as a man. In A Room of One’s Own, for example, Mary
thinks about women novelists of the nineteenth-century, such as the Brontes or George Eliot, and the
struggle they faced in writing, knowing that their work would be assessed according to
the cultural expectations of their gender, and pronounced sentimental or monstrous accordingly.
A woman writer might adopt a male pseudonym, for example, or wrote, so Mary/Woolf argues,
with a mixture of fear and anger, ‘admitting that she was “only a woman”, or protesting
that she was “as good as a man”’. It was only in the twentieth century, Woolf thought,
that the woman writer has begun to mould what she describes as ‘a prose style completely
expressive of her mind’. Now, to explore what she means by this, I
have given you a number of quotations on the handout. Previously, Woolf argues, women writers have
only had available to them the language of men, and this is very different, in its values,
experience and interests, to that of women: ‘it is obvious that the values of women
differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this
is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport
are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these
values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the
critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals
with the feelings of women in a drawing- room. A scene in a battle-field is more important
than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists’. The challenge then becomes the writing of
a new kind of sentence – something Woolf had already been interested in for a long
time. In a review from 1920 we see her quoting the words of Bathsheba Everdene from Hardy’s
Far From the Madding Crowd: ‘I have the feelings of a woman, but I have
only the language of men’. From that dilemma [Woolf notes] arise infinite confusions and
complications. Energy has been liberated [she is referring here to women over the age of
30 having been granted the vote in 1918], but into what forms is it to flow? To try
the accepted forms, to discard the unfit, to create others which are more fitting, is
a task that must be accomplished before there is freedom or achievement’. This is Woolf’s feminist manifesto really
– once women have achieved independence, and a right to property, education and their own
money, how do they fashion a life, and a voice, that is true to their own sex and isn’t
just modeled on a status quo that has been developed over centuries in accordance to
the lives and voices of men. It is a task that we might think Woolf sets herself. In
her very first novel The Voyage Out, one of the male characters, Terrence Hewett, a writer,
imagines writing a novel about the private lives of women: ‘I’ve often walked about the streets where
people live all in a row and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what
on earth the women were doing inside,’ he said. ‘Just consider: it’s the beginning
of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself
and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all these thousands
of years, this curious silent unrepresented life. Of course we’re always writing about
women – abusing them, or jeering at them, or worshipping them; but it’s never come
from women themselves. I believe we still don’t know in the least how they live, or
what they feel, or what they do precisely’. Mrs Dalloway is a novel that in many ways
does exactly that, moving in and out of the streams of consciousness of various female
characters of the course of one ordinary day. In A Room of One’s Own, when ‘Mary’
picks up a first novel by an imaginary twentieth-century writer Mary Carmichael, she is struck to find
that it is predominantly about relationships between women, and about the minutiae of their
daily lives: ‘It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously,
amongst almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that
perhaps they were not so small after all. It brought buried things to light and made
one wonder what need there had been to bury them.’
She continues reading: ‘I wanted to see [she says] how Mary Carmichael
set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form
themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone,
unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex’.
Thinking about the everyday life of London around her, she imagines herself in conversation
with Mary, encouraging her to write the lives of women as they really are: ‘All these infinitely obscure lives remain
to be recorded, I said, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were present; and went on in thought
through the streets of London feeling in imagination the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation
of unrecorded life, whether from the women at street corners with their arms akimbo,
and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like
the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old
crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud,
signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows. All that
you will have to explore, I said to Mary Carmichael, holding your torch firm in your hand’. Giving voice to the accumulation of unrecorded
life. This is perhaps the closest Woolf’s comes to offering a manifesto for women’s
writing – it is what Terrence Hewet imagines in The Voyage Out, what Woolf in part attempted
to do in Mrs Dalloway, and what she urges her listeners and readers to go
on to do in A Room of One’s Own.

2 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf and Feminist Aesthetics – English Literature undergraduate taster lecture

  1. K now I definitely need to read this book. At the Art Academy I often felt this way, even though I'm a guy, and it gave inspiration to create images that represent this paradox of being a man yet being perceived by other men as something they would consider female, or nowadays more often, a homosexual.

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