Of women and fiction; of patriarchy and war
This book is a real treasure since it collects two of Virginia Woolf's most notable essays namely A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. They were both such insightful readings filled with memorable and philosophical passages that took me in an adventurous and stimulating journey about important issues that I damn well should care about. In fact, I was so incredibly enthralled by the essays that I ended up placing strips of sticky notes for the pages that have the most discussion-worthy quotes. I suppose this review will be littered by them as I write this because I want to take the time to explain how much Woolf's writing affected me, and the kind of lasting impressions it left. Please take note that I will be devoting more time in tackling A Room of One's Own and just briefly touch upon Three Guineas much later on. I enjoyed the first essay more than the second one.
A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN
"Literature is open for everybody. I refuse to allow you to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."
This is probably the only written feminist piece that resonated with me for all the right reasons mostly because it was written for and about women who aspire to write in literature themselves. I don't consider myself a feminist; even when I joined Gabriela Youth in the first two years of college, I simply didn't become passionate about the movement itself. It's just not a political identity I can strongly associate myself with, but I would be a negligent asshole if I don't at least acknowledge and be thankful for the benefits I'm reaping now which are mostly due to the long decades of dedication and hard work of earlier generations of women who fought for feminist values. That is why A Room of One's Own was such a meaningful reading experience to me now that I'm at this tricky point of my life where life-altering decisions depend most often on the small and seemingly inconsequential ones. I myself have always dreamed of becoming a fictionist. I want to write something publishable someday too. It's just a matter of fate for me to seek out the words of a respectable writer like Virgina Woolf, and what she could teach me.
Divided into six cohesive chapters, A Room of One's Own is where Virginia Woolf imparted a beguiling lesson on the status of women in both the real world and in fiction whilst providing very searing observations regarding their perceived inferiority, and the day-to-day oppression that they had to face throughout the centuries. Woolf also employed the 'stream of consciousness' type of narrative for this titular 1929 extended essay which was originally a series of lectures she delivered in Cambridge University about Women and Fiction.
The essay's title is derived from Woolf's assertion that a female writer needs to be financially stable and to have the space and privacy in which to write. It's also essentially a metaphor for the freedom 'needed for creativity and imagination to flourish' (Collins). The quoted passage below was taken directly from Chapter 5 of the essay where Woolf was reading the first novel of the fictitious Mary Carmichael as Woolf made notable criticisms on where she could improve and how to go about it. The commentary she provided for this part of the essay is one of my favorites. Sure, it was bizarre to read about a literary criticism on a novel that doesn't even exist, but Woolf made it work, using Carmichael as a way to further emphasize the points she wants to get across when it came to the formation of female writings. She assessed for any woman who wants to write:
"Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days."
To determine how and why women write fiction, Woolf traced how women have been represented in fiction so far as written by men. She took on the persona of Mary Beton. The first chapter gave detailed accounts explaining her experience in luncheons and tedious social gatherings she had to attend at a university, and how she seemingly feels at times misplaced in her surroundings. As Beton, Woolf distanced herself from her writing as she tried to establish the definition and constraints about women and/in fiction in general. This led her to some crucial and enlightening research about the several crises, challenges and disadvantages women have been subjected to that in turn stifled whatever creative heights they can accomplish as novice writers. Her research included and highlighted a great many essays written by men who argued that women have less intelligence than men, and therefore cannot sustain the discipline and other qualities needed to pursue a literary endeavor or anything based on an intellectual pursuit.
Quotes such as "Female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex" can be both infuriating and amusing to read, and Woolf was very glib albeit sharply critical of such ridiculous sentiments coming from well-educated men who had internalized and perfected their chauvinist points of view into a near art form. To contextualize this, Woolf called out patriarchy to attention as an enabler for such a cyclical narrow-minded view about women and their role in civilization. It's interesting because, in her next essay about the needless contraptions of wars fought in the name of masculine gain and greed, Woolf held patriarchies in contempt, citing them as dangerous social constructs that allowed the fascist movement to take root and infest Europe. But I digress. For now, Woolf shared us these gems to illustrate the oppressive function that women were unwittingly placed upon:
"Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size...Whatever may be their use in societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if [women] are not inferior, [men] will cease to enlarge...and if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks, his fitness for life is diminished."
Woolf as Mary Beton proceeded to quote certain male essayists regarding on how they view women, the paradoxical ways that they women as muses on pedestal to serve for inspiration; but also as sirens or seductresses who lure them to to their destruction and ruin once a woman ceases to agree with him or worship his every word as if it's the only sacred thing. This for me is the singular, most spot-on assertion that anyone has ever said about men's idealization of women in fictional landscapes and sexist disregard of them in real life; something that could still hold true even in modern times:
"Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if 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; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband."
Midway through the essay, Woolf as Beton then began to weave a fictitious tale about Shakespeare having a sister who is just as talented as he is but unfortunately was never allowed to study so she can learn to read and write. This sister was said to be just as creative but instead was forced into marriage which she promptly denied. Ber family disowned her and she was forced to leave in the streets, her hopes of being just as accomplished as her brother had turned into despair. In this fictitious Shakespeare sibling, Woolf merely wanted to showcase and drive home the point that the education and privilege afforded by men will always give then more opportunities and varied choices for careers, livelihoods and vocations. Meanwhile, women play the parts of a subjugated, separated species altogether in the background, only meant for homemaking and childbearing alone. In fact, Woolf cited poetry from possible women who lived in those times and the content of their poems she shared is depressing; almost all of them protest their stifling homebound lives that they consummately fixate on the unfairness of their chains, rendering them unable to write anything else. Woolf made an educated guess that if a learned woman (born in a high-class family) aspires to write, her stories and poems will always bear the tragic mark of her enslavement and would not create any kind of literary legacy. Such in the case back then for women who have creative inclinations.
"…a woman was not encouraged to be an artist. On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted. Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that. For here again we come within range of that very interesting and obscure masculine complex which has had so much influence upon the woman's movement; that deep-seated desire, not so much that she will be inferior as that he shall be superior."
In addition, Woolf also talked about how a fully-characterized woman in fiction should be depicted by her fellow woman as genuinely as possible, and that in order to be successfully understood, her value as a person should not be exclusively tied to her relation to a man at all in a story . This is still applicable today especially in male-centered narratives in certain genres like action movies where women are one-dimensionally portrayed as the men's love interests, sex objects or damsels in distress to rescue (hell, even all of the above so the story can focus on the male lead's journey and completion of goals; the worst of which is the "girl" is reduced to becoming a 'prize' he is entitled to claim). Sure, women both in fiction and real-life have a wider range of roles these days but the battle--to define ourselves without having to always contextualize male presence and perspective and how they contribute to our decisions and actions-is ongoing and is still being fought.
"All these relationships between women are too simple…almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women in fiction were not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex...indeed, literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon wome. Married against their will, kept in one room, and to one occupation, how could a dramatist give a full or interesting or truthful account of them?"
Woolf also briefly referred to lesbianism which she surmised is natural; 'sometimes women like other women' and that's that. I'm also queer myself so Woolf writing about lesbian identity was a nice touch because I've always felt more emotionally compatible with the same sex though, ironically, I intellectually identify more with the literature written by men which brings me to this intriguing philosophy Woolf offers about bisexuality in men and women:
"…it made me also ask 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...the normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating…'a great mind is androgynous'. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all of its faculties."
As Virginia Woolf nears the end of her essay, she gives us this great advice to women:
"By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction."
This essay, on the other hand, expounds on the promotion of education for women so they can hold positions in more demanding careers and even in public office. This is contextualized in the eve and aftermath of the world wars. Woolf exposes the stupidity of war according to her opinion, and lays out facts she believes are indisputable when it comes to preventing wars, and that should start with the liberation of women. For example, she talked about finances and that a woman should be allowed independent control of money she earned:
(1) The daughters of educated men are paid very little from the public funds for their public services;
(2) They are paid nothing at all from the public funds for their private services;
(3) Their share of the husband’s income is not a flesh-and-blood share but a spiritual or nominal share, which means that when both are clothed and fed the surplus fund that can be devoted to causes, pleasures or philanthropies gravitates mysteriously but indisputably towards those causes, pleasures and philanthropies which the husband enjoys, and of which the husband approves. It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary shall be spent.
Once again, Woolf emphasized the limited roles of a woman during that time, particularly on how her individuality is automatically diminished once she is taught that marriage is her only calling and must therefore subject herself to the whims and ambitions of her husband.
"It was with a view to marriage that her mind was taught. It was with a view to marriage that she tinkled on the piano, but was not allowed to join an orchestra; sketched innocent domestic scenes, but was not allowed to study from the nude; read this book, but was not allowed to read that, charmed, and talked. It was with a view to marriage that her body was educated; a maid was provided for her; that the streets were shut to her; that the fields were shut to her; that solitude was denied her—all this was enforced upon her in order that she might preserve her body intact for her husband. In short, the thought of marriage influenced what she said, wha she thought, what she did. How could it be otherwise? Marriage was the only profession open to her."
I was honestly more enticed with A Room of One's Own than Three Guineas which I might have to re-read because I got decidedly uninterested midway through reading. Nevertheless, Woolf manged to write something exceptional and remarkable in these two essays and I warmly congratulate her for the insights she accomplished to deliver in her pieces, most notably in A Room of One's Own. I am so excited to read her fiction before the year ends. I'm undeniably compelled to do so now..