Books / Culture & Art / Feminism

Writing Beyond the “Feminine Note”: Virginia Woolf on Women and Fiction

Virginia Woolf’s take on “Women and the fiction they write” in A Room of One’s Own

by Marion Bouvier

a room of one's own penguin books

A Room of One’s Own. ©Penguin Books

Addressing the topic “women and fiction” in her essay entitled A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf often seems to go off on a tangent, using different writing styles and delaying her point into her ‘stream of consciousness’. In a sense, one could say that she tries to fathom the subject through a writing experience that reaches beyond the intellectual grasp of the issue.

The same way that “women and what they are like”, “women and the fiction they write” and “women and the fiction that is written about them” are “inextricably mixed together”[1], the different aspects of Woolf’s writing –the feminist pamphlet, the literary evocation of nature, the narration of the day as it unfolded- mingle together. They thus come to constitute a web reflecting Woolf’s own ambiguous and complex unscrambling of the “feminine note” in her own writing, alongside with her attempts to reach the “undimmed and pure” skies of timeless writing.

A Room of One’s Own originated as a series of lectures delivered in 1928 by Virginia Woolf to two women’s colleges at Cambridge University. In these speeches –which were to be rewritten as an essay published in 1929-, Virginia Woolf tells her (female) audience that women still have many obstacles to face to free themselves from the social and material hindrances that prevent them from writing what they deeply want to write.

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”[2]

In Virginia Woolf’s view, Art is precisely the most intimate urge to express –to press out of oneself- the essence of one’s being. Thus there is an insistent need to free oneself from the influences that seem to colour the ink of women’s pens, so that writing can be done in a kind of translucent –transcendent- ink: an ink able to convey the infinite possibilities of humanity.

And indeed, Virginia Woolf’s writing through the first chapter of the essay betrays a passionate –yet contained- ode to words and sentences as universal and gender-crossing tools, capable of embodying the speechless aspects of our lives. However, Woolf also uses the framework of the political essay to allow herself to tell explicitly how gender-stained, or more generally, condition-stained, writing is; a talented novelist, she also handles words skillfully to seduce and therefore persuade her audience. As Michèle Barrett noted in her introduction to the 2000 edition of the essay:

« The conversational seductiveness of A Room of one’s own can be likened to the style of Orlando, and the relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, with the heightening of private emotion and public awareness that the publication of Orlando caused, is an important part of the backdrop to the text.”[3]

virginia woolf vita sackville west

One of the only known pictures of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West together, here at Monk’s House in 1933. Image via virginiawoolfblog.com

In fact, the architecture of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own largely mirrors the twisted pondering of the main topic at hand –women and writing. Chapter one opens with Virginia Woolf anticipating the audience’s skeptical question “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction -what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” and ensues a both self- and audience-addressed ‘stream of wondering’ answering this underlying question. Although this both familiar and flirtatious approach may be interpreted as echoing Woolf’s symptomatic dreading of public audience and commentaries related to her art, above all it discloses her will to appear as one of the crowd, while being able to tell about experiences that go beyond individual story-telling.

She hints that she can be a human being characterized by some distinguishing features, womanhood being one among others, and at the same time an author whose qualities are exclusively writing-related.

And indeed Woolf’s identification as a novelist, not just a lecturer, shines through the text. As early as the third page, the reader is invited to enter the lyrical evocation of the author’s day through her description of a radiant nature: “To the right and the left, bushes of some sort, golden and crimson, glowed with the colour, even it seemed burnt with the heat, on fire”. As one can easily notice this passage is no neutral depiction: not only do the bushes seem “on fire”, but the willows also seem to “[weep] in perpetual lamentation”. These poetic parts give a glimpse of the “androgynous” writing Woolf is seeking as an artist[4].

The words she uses are contingent expressions of the infinite, insofar as they articulate the inarticulate emotions of humanity throughout time and places; yet the individuality of their author cannot be denied. Woolf did believe in the freedom of thinking, yet she was convinced that historical and social determinisms had an impact on our way of thinking –and writing[5].

Then one question remained: could she free herself from her being a woman when she writes? And could she do that without altering her self-perception as a woman within the social reality of which Virginia Woolf was always very aware? It seems that this is what Woolf cannot help pondering throughout the first pages of her essay, as one can feel the tension between the socially-constructed, gendered identity of the author and her appeal to the transcendental moment of being that only writing seems to allow. This is notably reflected when the fleeting and incandescent portrayal of nature happens to be disrupted by the ubiquitous figure of the Beadle, who closes the doors of Knowledge, at odds with the unbounded horizon stretched by Art.

This is where the socio-political facet of Virginia Woolf’s “women and fiction” discourse really comes to light. The quietness of the “venerable and calm” Oxbridge buildings (which is part of her description of her day arriving in Cambridge to deliver her lectures) reverberates the protagonist’s and Woolf’s own anger towards a history designed by and for men:

“Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger”.

The touch of irony here shows how reluctant Woolf was to include to her writing what she often saw as the biased expressions of feminist resentment and sourness. This very bitterness had led, according to her, talented female writers to spoil their artistic potential with the semi-conscious eagerness to complain about their conditions:

« She [Charlotte Brontë] 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. How could she help but die young, cramped, thwarted ?” [6]

Consequently, Woolf’s own writing is essentially conceived as a factual one when it comes to its feminist content: she limits herself to a barely commented narration of her being repelled by the Beadles, and to a historical account of the creation of Oxbridge –a history in which women had no part at all.

virginia woolf monk's house

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House. ©Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain

Nevertheless, Virginia Woolf successfully builds an intricate text in which the feminist content weaves through her words in subtle manner. A Room of One’s Own also partly succeeds in reconciling the multifaceted voice of Virginia Woolf, as an author, a woman, and as a reluctant feminist. Yet according to Woolf these two ‘worldly’ identities, the woman and the feminist, should not encroach on the idealized being, the writer.

Woolf lamented the meager education she had received -just because she was born a woman- and the constraint it engendered, yet she refused to acknowledge any kind of predetermination with regards to the content of what she wrote or the way she devised her writing. Her most brilliant and inspired overcoming of this paradox can be found in her novels in which she managed to create her own rhythms, phrases, and overall structure to seize the flow of life.

Notes:

[1] Woolf, Virginia, 2000, A Room of One’s Own, Penguin Classics, London, Chapter I

[2] Woolf, Virginia, “Women and fiction” in Selected Essays, Oxford University Press, New York, 2008

[3] Barrett, Michèle, Introduction to A Room of One’s Own, Penguin Classics, 2000

[4] “It must be said that here, in the manifesto that A Room of one’s own has become, Woolf’s model is the nearest she came to the ‘equality’ position and it is no doubt because she pitched art at the level of general truth – more abstract than sexual difference”. Ibid.

[5] “For Virginia Woolf, who studied in depth the topic of women and fiction both from the polemical and feminist perspectives, this issue takes place within the general theory of literature. According to Woolf, every writer is a product of historical and specific historical conditions, and of material conditions of utmost magnitude. Besides, she argues that material conditions probably have an influence on the psychological aspects of literary creation and could be shaping the essence of creative work.”

Freely translated from Durastanti, Sylvie, in “Postface”, Les fruits étranges et brillants de l’art, Virginia Woolf, Editions des Femmes, 1983

[6] A Room of one’s own, p. 63

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