Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (What?)
I was. I had never read a thing by her and had kept my distance. I had a vague sense of her as an intimidating presence looming over 20th century literature and philosophy, and I had been unimpressed by stream-of-consciousness writing but daunted by the prospect of reading any of Woolf’s own, for in many senses it was the original. I had also encountered her contributions to modernist thought by proxy, through literary criticism that I read during my years as an undergraduate English major, but never directly… until now.
Over the winter holiday I was assigned to read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for—believe it or not—my PUB 802 course, which is about tech and evolving forms of publishing. Why? My prof answered that question in this great short-essay-style blog post.
Woolf was great reading. (The Nash-Runkle interview my prof linked to in that blog post is also excellent reading for anyone interested in publishing!) But seriously folks, get a room. Of your own. Also: money.
(You can read A Room of One’s Own too if you like; it’s available here.)
I haven’t read any of her novels, and the pristine perfection of this little work makes me afraid to touch anything else of Woolf’s for fear that the icing will not taste so good as the cake, if you know what I mean. It’s a response I don’t often have; usually when I find a writer whose voice smacks just so with me, I dive in. For example, I love every novel by Jane Urquhart, almost unconditionally; the woman sings so beautifully about life and the commingling of souls. Yet Woolf makes me want to take up the pen and/or heat up the presses (and I have; you are reading the evidence), whereas Urquhart just makes me want to keep reading. Both are good urges to be urged about. But that is underneath the point.
Urquhart and I have something in common: we are the inheritors of Woolf’s dream. We are women with agency, and we work in writing and publishing. I grew up in a room of my own and have lived in relative comfort which, as Woolf opines, provides intellectual freedom. I have had a university education and I have had the time and volition to read and to write (even poetry). How fortunate I am, truly.
When I read, I can’t help but make correlations between what I am reading and what else I have read. Perhaps you’ll say that that is what reading ought truly to be, and I might agree. Woolf would have encouraged this natural tendency, given what she implies about the capacity of the reader to educate herself and the capacity of writers to access the collective consciousness (for lack of a more Woolf-ish term). I must start at the beginning of the thought, to do it justice, so bear with her:
Aphra Behn proved that money could be made [by women] by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance. A husband might die, or some disaster overtake the family. Hundreds of women began as the eighteenth century drew on to add to their pin money, or to come to the rescue of their families by making translations or writing the innumerable had novels which have ceased to be recorded […]. The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women — the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics — was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling’, but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses.
The middle-class woman began to write. For if Pride and Prejudice matters, and Middlemarch and Villette and Wuthering Heights matter, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour’s discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing. Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. 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. Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter — the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek. All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits. (from part four)
This little blog is, metaphorically speaking, another room of one’s own. And if it is my room, then open-source software is my five hundred a year—that is, not only do we have rooms, we have tools and access to resources, including libraries. (Let us not get into the fact that we are all essentially paying taxes to our Internet and cell phone companies for access to communication tools that should be the right of all humans, and hopefully soon will be. London is working on it, apparently.)
As I read A Room of One’s Own, I happened to correlate a few passages and ideas from Woolf with passages and ideas from the sacred writings of the Baha’i Faith, for I was immersed in Woolf this weekend but have immersed myself in the other for many years, having found them to be marvelous resources in the life of a human striving continually to better herself and to better the neighborhood around her and the world at large.
My thoughts alighted on one concept in particular: the equality of men and women. Check out one of Woolf’s thoughts on the subject:
For certainly when I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness.
This passage—and the general thrust of Woolf’s commentary on the balance of masculine and feminine qualities—reminded me of the following words, spoken in the early 1900s by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment. When the two wings or parts become equivalent in strength, enjoying the same prerogatives, the flight of man will be exceedingly lofty and extraordinary. Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 375)
Great leaps and bounds have been made in establishing equality since the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but much work remains. Woolf gave it a hundred years, and she was writing in 1928:
…in a hundred years, … women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared — as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street), that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people. […] Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation, I thought, opening the door. (from part two)
So are we there yet?
Publishing, itself, has been referred to as one of the pink-collar ghettos; it is an industry whose employees are mostly women but whose employers are still mostly men.
But we are getting closer; women are not only allowed in libraries today, they make up most of the university-going population (see this). Women are certainly writers and readers, and they certainly work in publishing.
I have faith in equality; the truth will out.
What more can I say in one measly little post? How about a pun: