Thursday, 14 June 2012

Virginia Woolf: A Room of Ones Own .....

One of the things I really enjoy about Virginia Woolf's writing is her ability to use language in the way that people actually think and act.  Not in the sense of dialectal realism like Welsh or to some extent even George Eliot but in the way the actual mind works.  So in this seminal essay which is actually an amalgamation of two lectures on women and fiction she goes for a walk in Cambridge, sees a cat, has lunch, goes to the British Library takes a few books of the shelf but in between (and indeed during) she dissects not only the history of women and literature but also more correctly the role of women in patriarchal society.

Written in 1929 the year after all women got equal voting status with men in Britain and hardly ancient history and the year after she wrote Orlando - another historical examination of the position of women but in a fantastical fiction form.  The title itself comes from the thought that for women to write they need a space (or room) and independent finance.  Both for huge swathes of human history would have been impossible for a woman even from the upper classes  - and still is for many if not most women across the world.

This exposition starts as she walks around Oxbridge the heart of the educational establishment in 20s England and considers the hundreds of years that women were not allowed to be part of it.  Indeed she even finds that as she attempts to get into a library she cannot get in because of her sex.  This beginning allows her to consider the nature of literature and she makes her famous discussion of Shakespeare's Sister - as lifted by old Moz in the Smiths and Siobhan Fahey post Bananarama!  This passage is really excellent as she outlines the historical impossibility of a woman being able to do this in the 16th and 17th Century - a point explored in her gender shifiting hero Orlando and his/her journey through history.
This is not only because women were literally chattels with no status (lower than an Athenian slave she says at one point)  but also the talent of an artist would be vilified and attacked - literally she quotes a fairly reactionary historian who spoke of the perpetual violence women faced in these times.  She speculates that witch hunts and women losing their minds or committing suicide could have been because of their skills being thwarted.  This would also be true of the poor man (a point she makes) but the entire female population even from a background like Shakespeares would have been excluded.

The other point she makes is  a more artistic one that a woman at that time would not have had the "unblemished" mind that Shakespeare had  - to view things in such a universal and poetic way - mainly because of the social stigma they would have to deal with in their mind by attempting to write which in one sense would paralyse her and dominate her work.  She explores the 17th Century poet and aristocrat Lady Winchelsea and explores how her poetry is "bursting out in indignation against the position of women" which means her poems are more limited in their scope and vision than Shakespeare's.

One of the historical ironies though which she points out and is never fully explained is that female characters totally dominate fiction in all historical periods - including in the slave state of classical civilisation.

She also considers the nineteenth century and the growth of the novel as a form of artistic expression and indeed female novelists.  Initially this was seen as an acceptable outlet as initially the novel was viewed as a lesser form compared to poetry.  Woolf speaks of how talented women were pushed at that time into that outlet rather than any other - science, history etc  But she speaks of Jane Austen and the Brontes  - whilst also pointing out that even at that time George Eliot and George Sand had to adopt a male persona and indeed (she argues) mimicked a male style of writing.

She believes Jane Austen to be the greater writer (I have never read her) because she transcended the gender issues that bedevilled all female artists with her fiction.  In fact she goes further and says that Charlotte Bronte "had more genius in her" than Austen but could never fully express this.  "She will write of herself where she should write of her characters".  Austen, interestingly, didn't write in a room of her own but in her living room in the midst of family hubbub. Austen then came closest to having the "unblemished" Shakesperean approach.

The artist should strive to be androgenous and above gender, again a point underlined in Orlando and in a way by Patti Smith!  Male artists have always been more able to do this because of patriarchal society.  In the most difficult passage when she reads a mythical modern novel she sees that this female writer is trying to do this (I think it is a critique of her own fiction ) "she wrote as a woman but as woman who has forgotten that she is a woman".

Ironically and in quite a funny way contemporary male writers in the 1920s had now the problem of being obsessed with their own gender but in this context of outlining their superiority - threatened by the impact of the suffrage movement and the strength of the women's campaign at this time.  Thus they now cannot have the unblemished mind of a Shakespeare or a Keats or a Coleridge.  In a brilliant passage she speaks of a shadow over the work of a male writer's work "the shadow of the letter I" .  Thus Shakespeare himself may not have existed if "the women's movement had begun in the sixteeenth century and not the nineteenth" because he would have the self doubt and problems with his ego that twentieth century male writers were having.

As a lecture/essay this is a very well structured and argued piece compared to the Myth of Sisyphus which I read earlier this year which had not developed its ideas fully.  A lot can be learned and a lot of views of life can be changed by these 100 pages.

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