I started reading the book before I set forth to Vietnam. I was thinking of finishing it before I left, but it was harder than I expected. For the first Chapter, I let it go and immersed myself in the elegant eloquence of Woolf. You have to admit it is a high enjoyment and “let it go” can be a thing out of instinct: you sacrifice the depth of thoughts for the density of dictions, delicate dictions throughout the book. You may take me as a fool or a careerist to make notes while reading a book of “the stream of consciousness” but I am glad I did so. I did so, because I soon understood Woolf was much smarter than me and her mind whirled like thousands of leaves in an autumn wood. I take notes as a girl piking up leaves to make bookmarks. She believes she has collected the most beautiful ones though she has no idea what she fails to sense still exist there silently.
* Why, women are connected to working class in writing?
Chapter One explains how Woolf was assigned the speech on “Women and Fiction” and how she constructed it in Oxford until she was rejected by the Oxford library and had to find a place in the British Museum. She then began pursing truth in Chapter two in a way of “strain(ing) off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions” and so to “reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth.” She asked why men wrote women but rarely women wrote men and why women were poor. Simultaneously, men were disputing whether women had a soul or not. And a representative of them, Professor X, claimed, women were interior to men mentally, morally and physically. It aroused a sense of indignation of Woolf and she said, “one has certain vanities” to deny being regarded as inferiority. The indignation, ironically, was two-way. Men also wrote women in “heat and anger”, “in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth”.
Woolf had a luncheon in a nearby restaurant and she read a newspaper conveniently. Nevertheless, the newspaper exposed her to more misogyny ideas and proved “the dominance of the professor”. It aroused her curiosity: if men had dominated everything, why they were still angry? Was it because they were afraid that their power would be taken over by the other sex? Woolf gave an alternative explanation. Life is arduous; it is difficult and “perpetual struggle”. It calls for “gigantic courage and strength”. To belittle women is a way to arouse confidence in oneself and thus what they want to emphasize is not the inferiority of women but the superiority of themselves.
Women are the Magic Mirror for men. They exaggerate men and it is in this exaggeration, men are able to create, occupy and write history. Mirrors are essential to “all violent and heroic action” and thus women are dumb to speak out truth like Magic Mirror should not be flat.
But Woolf was an exception. When she paid her lunch bill, she again confirmed her affluence. The annual 500 pounds inherited by her aunt relieved her from previous trivial, repetitive and exhausting works. “What a change of temper a fixed income will bring about” is to relieve women from “hatred and bitterness”. “I need not hate any man, he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man, he has nothing to give me.”
Man has the instinct of possession. The heritage of her aunt endowed Woolf “a view of the open sky”. She also made a connection between women and the working class and thought about maybe one day women would compete for men’s work and eliminate the label of “the protected sex”.
Woolf returned home and continued her brood on why women were further from fiction. Fiction should be seen as a spider web and things “like health, and money and the houses we live in” are attached to it.
She explored the situations of women in History of England. Women were “locked up, beaten, and flung about the room” both in real life and in friction. Not a goddess as we thought. “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance, practically she is completely insignificant”, can explain the sharp contrast between women in poetry and women in history.
Men can be traced in history but women’s history are “scattered about somewhere”. Someone should “add a supplement to history” of women’s stories. The History of England in fact told us nothing about “any woman living before 18th century”.
In the era of Shakespeare, women were unable to write like Shakespeare. Imaging a little sister of Shakespeare, Judith, you will find she would soon end her life despite the fact she was as literally gifted as her brother. “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heat when caught and tangled in a woman’s body.” The genius of Shakespeare “is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people”, but such genius can be found in women, as in the working class. But the time they were born in, the 16 century, would leave them no more than two choices: the madhouse or the mortuary.
One thing suppressed women writers was the conception of chastity. “Publicity in women is detestable” and women had no choice but anonymity. A woman having a gift of poetry “is a woman at strife against herself”. Now that “all the conditions of her life were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whether is in the brain”, what kind of state of mind is desired? In fact, people paid little attention to the state of mind of writers until the 18th Century. In the 19th Century, men of letters will explain their minds in confessions or autobiographies. The self-analysis left by those men proved “writing a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty”, among which the two biggest ones were humble material circumstances, as well as “the world’s notorious indifference”. Writing is difficult, and for both men and women, “probably no book is born entire and unclipped as it was conceived.”
However, it is still women who face more concrete and enormous obstacles. First, she doesn’t have a room of her own and has to write in a sitting-bedroom with guests or chores time and again; second, the world’s indifference to men aggravates itself as hostility to women. A psychological experiment conducted by Newnham and Girton proved rats having milk grew faster and larger. But what do we feed woman? Dinner of prunes and custard.
More quotes of the upper class men support Woolf’s conviction. Mr. Oscar Browns, “The best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.” And you should understand their words have an influence because of their statuses. You may then have a tinge of sympathy of Woolf’s use of “hostility” instead of “indifference”. But still, women writers may be the easiest in the circle or women artists. Thinking about women painters, or women musicians.
It may be a relief if we believe artists are aware of their talent and can go beyond words of the mundane. But genius, under most circumstances, are trapped in opinions because of their susceptibility. Artists can “free whole and entire the work that is in him” only when he is in the clear. Like Shakespeare.
A state of mind like Shakespeare was unachievable for women of the 16th Century. Noble women, though encouraged, also felt “fear and hatred” and “showed traces of that disturbance” in works. Lady Winchilsea could have written better poems if she had transcended the opposition of sex. But how could she? We know so little about her in history that Woolf sighed even some “dubious gossip” would be a console to help “make up some image of this melancholy lady”.
Another example, Margeret of Newcastle. She was talented in scientific researches but she closed herself to defend sacasms, laughs and hurts. She was ironically blamed for writing a book by Dorothy Osborne, a woman proser Woolf appreciated. But Dorothy herself, had a gift for the framing of a sentence and “had the makings of a writer in her”.
Then a comic figure, Mrs. Behn, who made a living by writing. She was so disdained that some critics wished her “death would be better”. But it was Mrs.Behn who proved “writing was of practical importance” and since the 18th Century, more women made money through writing (and “money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for”) and later women of middle-class joined the tide. These women writing to make money, are the forerunners of Jane Austin, Bronte’s’ and so on. “For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”
In the 19th Century, we predicted women poets would come first. But no poets, we have novelists instead. Maybe it is because women had to write in sitting room and bore constant interruption, poems calling for a more concentrated mind were painfully given away; or the place they had in a sitting room entailed a natural perspective of people’s feeling and personal relations, which later entered their writing as the mere materials they could gain directly from life itself.
What a miracle it is that Jane Austin’s writing was not harmed by frequent concealing of her manuscripts before guests coming in. But Charlotte Bronte was harmed. She couldn’t restrain herself from talking about how women were oppressed by men. She may be more gifted than Austin but the unjust and indignation “will never get her genius expressed whole and entire”. Bronte sold the copyright of her book with only 150 pounds; she knew little about the outside world and had little interactions with people. These flaws however did not result from the fact her was a writer, but she was a woman.
How about George Eliot. She wanted to smash the shackles but had to retire from the world while male writers, like Tolstoy can have every taste of life.
Seeing life from novels is like seeing through a glass; simplications and distortions are inevitable. But the shape still is not decided by the glass but by the observer. “Thus a novel starts in us all sorts of antagonistic and opposed emotions” and so we know “life conflicts with something that is not life.” Great novels have “the whole structure of infinite complexity”. What makes a novel hold together is integrity, “in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth” and readers are convinces as ever.
Flaws may exist in novels when it comes to grief somewhere or “the imagination falters under the enormous strain” or truth cannot be differed from lies. But these do nothing with the sex of the novelist. The sex of the novelist does not necessarily affect the integrity of the novel.
Novels correspond to real life so its values to some extent correspond to the values of real life. Values in real life, dominated by men, then force “women novelists (to) alter her values in deference to the opinions of other.” Only very a few women writers can “ignore the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue.” Yet in 1928 (not 1828), critics still announce, “female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex.”
The biggest difficulties for women novelists were to “set their thoughts on paper” unprecedentedly. It was hard for women writers to “lift anything substantial from a male writer successfully” and poetry and prose had been framed in the thinking and writing modes of men. It is fatal for women writers. Fortunately, novels as a form were young enough to be soft so women writers chose it.
Does the physical conditions of women necessarily suggest that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated frame so they will be free from long time and unremitting writing labor. But this point remains to be discussed and “rest does not mean do noting but do something that is different”.
Finally, Woolf came to the bookshelves of living people. Women were no longer confined to novels and novels had been changed. “She may be beginning to use writing as an art, not as a method of self-expression”. But still, even it was a book written by a newcomer, we still see it “if it were the last volume in a fairly long series”. “For books continue each other, in spite of your habit of judging them separately.”
Woolf chose a book named Life’s Adventure; she found the author was unhanding herself and sentences were scrapped. Woolf questioned, why you don’t need Jane Austin’s sentences; you don’t want to be seen sentimental? And she wasn’t sure “whether she is being herself or someone else”. Then she found Mary Carmichael “is playing a trick on us”; she didn’t confirm it until she encountered the ending that Mary wrote, “Chloe liked Olivia.” She realized the book was unprecedented because it presented the relationship between women other than a male’s perspective. The relationship of women in novels was too simple because it was “not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.” Women and men do not understand each other as much as they thought. If men were only depicted from their interactions with women, how much loss our literature would suffer. It is hence imaginable how much loss our literature has suffered by having women only presented through men’s eyes.
Woolf praised women characters of Mary who appeared besides men’s lovers; but she admitted praising one’s sex “is always suspect, often silly”. Still, women’s achievements were not quantitated like men and had little record in history.
What men gained from women were beyond “comfort, flattery, the pleasure of the body” but “something that their sex was unable to supply”. It is “some stimulus, some renewal of creative power which is in the gift only of the opposite sex to bestow”. Not only great men, but ordinary men may feel “the nature of this intricacy and the power of this highly developed creative faculty among women”. And women’s creativity is so different from men that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men”. Women’s infinitely obscure lives worth recording and should not be covered, dispelled and disappeared in chores and trivia. In a world with women having records, we will see truth and history uncovered. The black spot on the back side of men’s head will be told by women like men had told the black spot of women. Only in this way, can the entire image of men be described.
Mary may be limited in her writing talent but in her books, men were no longer to her “the opposing faction”. “She wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.” Mary broke out the encirclement of men’s criticism, discipline and admonition. Given better conditions and “another hundred years”, she will write a better book.
The book is not of Mary, but of any women writer.
Woolf felt challenged to think separately when discussing the gender issue in literature and she was glad to welcome “the unity of the mind”. Like bodies, brains have the part of female and the part of male. The male power dominates men’s brains but the female part remains. Only the fusion of the two parts can get the most of our brains. This is what Coleridge says, “A great mind is androgynous”. But be careful, Coleridge does not mean “a mind has any special sympathy with women” but “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous”.
In the past ages, “the fully developed mind” does not think specially or separately of sex, while “no age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own.”
Woolf took Mr.A’s work as an example. A male work with indecent sexual description but still the dullness makes it appear doggedly. It is dull because the author “does it in protest”. “He is protesting against the equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority.” How women movement influences men!
Or another example, critic of Mr. B, whose “feelings no longer communicated”. Also Mr. Goldsworthy, Mr. Kipley, the best writers alive. “The emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible” because for women, “they lack suggestive power”. The truth is, “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”
Woolf makes two points throughout her speech. First, taking sexes as opposite sides is a premature stage of human’s development and human should move forward to the next stage. Second, Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.
Woolf explains she makes this speech because of some selfish motives that she wants to have more good books to read. Nevertheless, “when I ask you to write more books, I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.” “It is the writer’s business to find reality and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.”
Woolf can’t close the talk in an exalted way like men. Only some simple words are made. “Do not dream of influencing other people.” “Think of things in themselves.” She is not interested in the “women against women” vibe created by popular media and admits, “the truth is, I often like women.”
She told a story of Shakespeare’s sister Judith and now she wants to “recall to life, Judith”.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so –I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals –and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogy, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.