[I]f woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction.
A Room of One’s Own
When asked to speak on women and fiction, Virginia Woolf replied that the topic may not be as simple as it seemed. If you speak about women and fiction, is it regarding “women and what they are like,” “women and the fiction that they write,” or is it about “women and the fiction that is written about them”? (Woolf 1) This matter, one that Woolf takes up in two talks that she gave in October 1928, becomes the basis for her book, A Room of One’s Own.
The classic work, an essay on the subject of women and writing, reads like a conversation with Woolf herself. In this chitchat, Woolf points out certain unsavory facts that may not be as obvious today as it was in her time. Why is literature written mostly by men? Why are women, who are lionized in the fiction by men, are ironically frowned upon by society when they attempt to write?
In over a hundred pages, Woolf presents insights on the lives of women in the literary sphere. She examines what they wrote about, what their concerns were, and why they were so few. Woolf observes, for example, that “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.” (49)
She contrasts this to the better lot of male writers:
At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoy lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady “cut off from what is called the world,” however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace. (70-71)
While Woolf’s focus is narrowed to the question of enabling women’s entry into the field of literary production, she occasionally touches on the general lack of women’s rights. To read her quote from Professor Trevelyan’s History of England, for instance, reminds the reader of how many things have not changed since her time:
“Wife beating,” I read, “was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low… Similarly,” the historian goes on, “the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parent’s choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock inflicted on public opinion.” (42)
In the Philippines, for example, violence and abuse against women not only takes place within the confines of domestic existence but forms a large part of women’s working environment. The domination of foreign monopoly capital in the country – and the consequent rape of our resources by foreign corporations, worsening working conditions, and dislocation of both urban and rural communities – have led to a situation where Filipina women comprise the bulk of the labor migration abroad. Women become abused domestic helpers, underpaid factory workers, purchased brides, and sex trade victims. (Gabriela)
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf cites men’s partiality against women in history – from Napoleon to Mussolini – as examples of the degraded status of women. Literary figures were not exempt from the perpetuation of this discrimination. Galsworth and Kipling, while praised by Woolf for their fine works, are castigated for celebrating and enforcing “male values.” (Woolf 102) Alexander Pope was supposed to have said that “most women have no character at all.”
The degree of condescension against women is such that while writing her novels, “Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting paper” to avoid discovery. (67) Austen’s first book, Sense and Sensibility, was described only as written ‘by a lady.” And Marian Evans hid behind the male pseudonym George Eliot in order for her works to become more acceptable to her reading public.
One even gets the impression that the literary works of women themselves functions to let readers accept these unequal hierarchical relations between men and women. The texts themselves help reproduce this reality. They either conclude in the marriage of a poor girl to this rich, dashing, handsome landlord or some tragedy frustrates this “happy ending.” After all, as Woolf observed, “those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman…” (70)
Indeed, the fact that what people back then considered as “normal” – the dependence of women to men, the restriction of the former from writing and other professions, among others – are not actually the “natural order of things.” Women are not intrinsically lesser beings than men. These commonly held views of Woolf’s time were sustained by both subtle coercion and brutal repression. The same holds true for most of our cherished beliefs and practices today.
Woman’s conception of her identity in literature – as Woolf succinctly puts it in the following quote – was made by men: “All the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex […] how small a part of a woman’s life is that”? (83)
Yet the woman writer who sets herself against this unjust condition, as Woolf puts it, either admits that she was “only a woman” or protest that she was “as good as man.” (74) For Woolf, the only way to go beyond this is for them to write not only “as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman” (93) – that is, to realize how their own position is itself grounded by the Other of a misogynistic patriarchy (or, as in today, the impersonal whims of global capital).
The only way for this to happen, in order for woman to successfully write fiction or poetry, is to give her a fixed income and a room of her own: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.” (108) ■
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.