‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’

By | March 22, 2012

What place did feminist writing have in the modernist movement? Seeing as we are attending the Moving Modernisms conference this week, lets turn our attention to Virginia Woolf…

'Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a key feminist text that explores the relationship between women and literature and economics. It is a signal essay when considering the history of modernist studies after the Second World War, when very few female authors were admitted to the academy’s discussion of modernism, and Woolf’s reputation itself was quite low among critics. Not until the rise of second wave feminism from the late 1960s onwards did women modernists start to be published again, to be reappraised, and to be brought back into the canon of widely studied authors.

Three of Woolf’s concerns illustrate the book’s importance. The first is the idea of a ‘room’ itself and Woolf’s ‘opinion upon one minor point’ when asked to speak at Cambridge in 1928 about ‘Women and Fiction’: ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ (Woolf 1973: 6) The ‘room’ here is associated with economic independence, not just a space in which to write. A second concern is revealed in Woolf’s subsequent discussion of Judith Shakespeare. This is an imagined account of the life of a conjectured equally brilliant sister to the playwright and follows on from Woolf’s observation that for social and economic reasons ‘it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare’ (Woolf 1973: 46). A third concern is with ‘androgyny’, which is important in several of Woolf’s novels, but she most fully discusses the concept here in A Room Of One’s Own. Woolf takes the term from the writings of Coleridge, but develops it into a view that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly’ (Woolf 1973: 99).

Woolf wonders ‘whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness … in each of us two powers reside, one male , one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man.’ (Woolf 1973: 93). Woolf’s strategy appears to be to fuse all constructions of masculinity and femininity, of male or female behaviour, and to argue for a hybrid identity like Orlando’s.

In Mrs Dalloway, to take another example, on the one hand there is the description of Peter Walsh as being a womanly man, and, on the other hand we are told of Clarissa’s pleasure, which is like a man’s, when kissing Sally Seton. In Clarissa’s love for Sally and Septimus’s hero-worship of Evans, we are arguably seeing different aspects of androgynous personalities: rather than reject the labels themselves, Woolf asserts that Clarissa has a masculine side and Septimus has a feminine one. This becomes more important when discussing the positioning of Septimus as a soldier lacking ‘manly’ courage – because of his reaction to shell-shock – by the Harley street doctors in the novel, Holmes and Bradshaw. So Woolf gives us the archetype of social masculinity, a soldier, and concentrates on the side of him that Western culture perceives as both aberrant and feminine: consequently, in the novel, Septimus himself also believes that men and their institutions could become more holistic and nurturing. Also, by linking Clarissa and Septimus emotionally and symbolically, but never physically, Woolf shows two sides to a single identity, and presents to us an androgynous composite figure. In this respect, Mrs Dalloway anticipates Orlando, yet Mrs Dalloway is a less radical text than Orlando and its strategy is to redefine feminine and masculine as aspects shared by men and women, rather than to attempt to reverse or expunge the categories altogether. Thinking about this in terms of modernist experimentation, the sexual division in the mind that Woolf terms ‘androgyny’ is seemingly just one part of her wider assault on the coherence and stability of unitary consciousness.

She writes in A Room of One’s Own:

What does one mean by ‘the unity of the mind’? I pondered, for clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them. … if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside it, alien, critical. Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives. (Woolf 1973: 92–3)

To Woolf, for a woman in the 1920s to put pen to paper was a political act, because it was necessarily a feminist one. Woolf illustrates this in her 1931 essay ‘Professions for Women’. Here, she observes that a ‘phantom’ prevents most women from writing. This figure is that of ‘The Angel in the House’, a name taken from the Victorian poem by Coventry Patmore. More generally, the concept was used to show that men’s and women’s lives belonged in separate spheres: the man’s world was that of work and business, the woman’s that of the family and the home. Woolf illustrates this division in Mrs Dalloway, but a critique of the mentality behind the separation of spheres occurs more clearly in her nonfiction.'

– the above is an extract taken from Modernist Literature: A Guide for the Perplexed, currently available to buy. If you are attending the Moving Modernisms conference then pop by our stand to take a look at this book and more.

Jenny Tighe

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