6.10.2004

Virginia Woolf was a novelist and essayist.

Her novels include Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves.

Her book of essays The Common Reader is a must-read for future essayists.

When she writes in A Room of One’s Own, she is writing from a standpoint of expertise as a female fiction writer and as a critic.

Woolf and Fiction

While Woolf explores many themes in Mrs. Dalloway, one of the themes she explores is the superficiality and artificiality of an upper middle class housewife, Clarissa Dalloway.

In To the Lighthouse, the main character is a woman who is a housewife but also a “Sunday painter.” She also discusses the education of children in this work of fiction.

Female Writers in Woolf

Jane Austen, author of comedies of manners in the early 1800s: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

“The Brontes” Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights). Ann Bronte also wrote. During their lifetimes, they published under male pseudonyms.

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) wrote Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, among other novels. She wrote under a male pseudonym.

George Sand (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin) wrote in French. She wrote under a male pseudonym.

Values and Standards

Woolf mentions a great deal of fiction written by women in A Room of One’s Own. Especially in the later chapters, she is involved with discussing reasons why this writing is “bad” and possibilities she sees for a “woman’s sentence” and for “good” writing by women.

Among her standards:

Education in the craft of writing revealed on the page.

Lack of “hysteria.”

Careful, accurate observation.

Big topics. What's hysteria?

Influence

Since most female writers have read A Room of One’s Own, and certainly have read Virginia Woolf, certainly this book has influenced not only writing and the writing lives of women, but also it has contributed the terms if discourse for much women’s writing (especially that of upper middle class white women in English in the 20th Century, which is the lion’s share of women’s writing in the 20th Century).

A Room and an Income

Education / Access to Cultural Institutions

Writing as a Woman

Shakespeare’s Sister

“Recovering” Women’s Writing

A Room and an Income

When Woolf writes of a room and an income, she writes about freedom: freedom from being disturbed (a lock on the door), freedom to observe what one sees rather than respecting societal expectations for those observation, and freedom to “ruminate” or think.

Ironically, Charles Lamb, who Woolf cites, wrote his brilliant essays hurriedly, for money, to support his sister, who had killed their mother with a butchers’ knife. With her brother Charles, Mary Lamb retold Shakespeare’s tales for children ("Lamb's Tales").

How is privacy related to making personal thoughts and feelings public?

How is freedom related to narrative? How wouldn't it be?

Freedom and Narrative

What does Virigina Woold write about the sentence? Does it make sense?

How are sentences related to grammar? How are sentences related to stories?

These are not obvious questions -- how does the shape of a sentence relate to a story? How is a sentence gendered -- aside from its content, in its very structure? How is a story differ? In its "flow"? Descriptiveness? Is there no difference?

How are Virginia Woolf's lectures different from lectures or sermons my men that you have read?

Shakespeare's Sister

Just as Woolf uses narrative in the first chapter to illustrate how a woman might be continually interrupted from her thinking by rules and expectations, so Woolf makes up a story of a sister of Shakespeare’s who does not have the types of education and access that Shakespeare has.

Access

Right now, there are still onging efforts to get women access to the political process.

Where's the female president? Why are there fewer female politicians? Corproate leaders?

What are the female-dominated professions?

What are male dominated professions?

[Did you know that when my Mom started working, there were different sections in the classifieds for jobs for women and jobs for men?]

Emily’s List is a political action committee which was started to fund female candidates for political office, regardless of their positions on issues. It was founded because women, even wealthy women, tend not to donate as large a percentage of money to political campaigns as men, while campaign funding is crucial to winning elections: this represents a focus, like Woolf’s, on economic remedies to problems such as under-representation of women in government (even in first world countries).

Writing as a Woman

Writing as a woman, but not only as a woman: in other words, Woolf is looking for a sincere and authentic mode of expression which transcends gender and other aspects of identity.

"In rereading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity.” Adrienne Rich

Recovering Women's Writing

From what?

Woolf’s views have affected the terms of discourse regarding talking about women’s writing and recovering women’s writing. For example, some truly excellent women’s writing was never published during the lifetime of the author, was published obscurely and quickly went out of print, or was never adopted by male scholars as part of the literary canon. But why?

Was the lost or forgotten women’s writing bad?
Because good or bad, everyone says it is bad.

What is “female” about it?

Is what is female about it “bad”? Or just "other"?

Some recent scholarship focuses on ways the writing is not bad, i.e., ways literary standards are gendered “male.”

Women's Writing

Some women’s writing is really bad, though. For this work, scholars are beginning to consider which standards the author was measuring her work against, which standards society / publishers / critics were measuring the work against, and ways in which the work succeeds.

For example, “Genteel Poetry” was largely written by women at the time Emily Dickinson was writing her incredible (and virtually unpublished) verse.

But it wasn't very "good" -- it didn't contain any truth, and it wasn't beautiful either. Sentimental stuff about babies being like angels, etc.

"Fiction will be much better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy. Moreover, if you consider a great figure of the past, like Sappho, like the Lady Murasaki, like Emily Bronte, you will find that she is an inheritor as well as an
originator…" Virginia Woolf

Bloomsbury

Virginia Woolf lived in and around a number of very fine artists, literary critics, and writers in an area of London called Bloomsbury.

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