After being asked to present a lecture on Women and Literature, Virginia Woolf said that she could talk about Auster, Brönte, and so on, but that wouldn’t be enough. There are always pendint topics. We need more than just a few names to understand the relationship between women and literature. Therefore, she decided to show the path she’s followed in order to attain a sort of conclusion on this theme (“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction“) and also point out all the prejudices and false ideas that led her to this conclusion so the audience can decide whether she is right or wrong.
She begins by stating the sexism and intolerance within the academic world. How she is being criticised for walking a path reserved only for men, how she is forbidden to access the university library because “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”
After she’s been denied access to the library of this sort-of-fake university of Oxbridge just because she is a woman, she proceeds with her research gathering information through her friends and acquaintances but, the next day, she goes to London and manages to enter, at last, into a library and properly research all the books available on the topic of women and literature. Then she fast reaches a conclusion: all the people writing are men and they seem to be angry. Why? She asks herself. Men have all the power, they are the kings of the pathriarcal society so, why are they angry? Maybe, she wonders, when the pathriarc “insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. that was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis.” Just like whenever the rich men criticize the poor ones out of fear of the latter taking some of their money.
“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”
“Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms” used to say the Duchess of Newcastle, this Margaret Cavendish who seems to be a really fascinating charachter claiming to be analised better and whom I met for the first time on Siri Hustvedt’s Blazing World.
“It is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial”.” And this idea, adds Woolf, is conveyed into fiction: “this is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”
“It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.” Following the dualist thesis of the mind (we all possess a male or female part), Woolf asks for the cooperation from both sides. To stop writing books that are only male books, only interesting to the male society, and to start writing androginous, bisexual books.
“We may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.” And that was true then as it is now. The mirage of democracy leads the poor people (both economically and morally speaking) to believe that they are granted the same rights and given the same chances as the rich and powerful ones. But, when the time comes, when ones’ conflicts collide with the others, they have to accept they were wrong. And if these poor souls have been so unlucky as to have been born as women, their chances get dimished by the thousands. Then and now. No matter how much they pretend otherwise.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of one’s own (Penguin)