WOOLF IN 2017

HELEN NIANIAS

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What if William Shakespeare had a sister? One with equal talent, born in the same era and with the same family? Would she have been as successful as her brother? This is the question Virginia Woolf asks.

And, while Woolf was asking these questions in 1929, they feed into questions women ask themselves frequently today. Questions like, “if I was a man, would this be happening to me?”

Woolf believes that Judith Shakespeare would be uneducated, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, forced to run away in the dead of night in order to seek her fortune in London. Once there, she would find her fortune only amounted to being ridiculed by men, an unplanned pregnancy, and suicide. Women wonder, how might my fortune differ? Might I be higher up in the company? Might I be being paid more? Invited to the pub after work? Might I find myself speaking with confidence in public, rather than being spoken over? Might more be expected of me?

Woolf looks back to Shakespeare’s time and asks “why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived?” She might as well be asking: “why not us?”

There’s a tidy metaphor Woolf uses to explain this ingrained understanding of women as ‘other’. She sets it in the grounds of an idyllic Oxbridge college. Only the scholars – all men, of course – are allowed to walk on the turf, while lesser people  - for which we can read ‘women’ – can only walk on the gravel. She acknowledges that it doesn’t really matter except it’s less pleasant to walk across, but what’s interesting about her reaction to being told off for walking across the plot of grass is interesting – she instinctively knows that she doesn’t belong on it.

The idea of knowing you’re inferior and that you don’t belong in certain places is inbuilt. She knows by “instinct rather than reason” that one man’s “horror and indignation” has been caused by the fact she’s on “his” turf. He doesn’t even need to explain that she doesn’t belong there – she already knows. To get off his lawn before he opens his mouth. This is something many women today still recognise. Whether it’s on the top deck of a bus full of men, or in a discussion about gaming. When I’m walking near my mother’s house on a Saturday when there’s a football game on I know that the pubs are for men, really, and if you’re a woman then you must play by the rules – don’t complain when told to “smile” by over-familiar men. We don’t need to be told these things, somehow we just know.

This instinct keys in with the grand overarching theme of Woolf’s speech, which is the female tradition. She pokes fun at the topic on which she has been invited to speak – the opaque title “women and fiction.” Woolf picks it apart: “Women and fiction… might mean ‘women and what they like’, or it might mean ‘women and the fiction that they write’ or it might mean ‘women and the fiction that is written about them.’”

Woolf makes fleeting reference to something that has annoyed feminists for years – the ‘women’s fiction’ section of the bookshop or library. This long been a point of contention as it implies books written by women and women’s history are necessarily different from that which is written by or predominantly featuring men. By mentioning this, perhaps Woolf helps to explain these little things that feed the instinct to stay off men’s turf. Instinct is based on prior knowledge, you never just ‘know’ you can’t or shouldn’t do something, it comes from experience. Perhaps one drop in the lake that makes up an understanding of knowing your place is by seeing things like a segregated bookshop.

In this speech, Woolf says that line that’s been so repeated that it’s almost lost its meaning: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Within this speech, it’s resuscitated. The money and the room represent opportunity and freedom. Not to have to look after children all day, not to have to do all the housework yourself, not to be laughed at the second you make a suggestion, not to remain (as Judith Shakespeare did) uneducated and undervalued. In the UK today women do 40% more of the unpaid chores around the house than men do. Women still have to be included in diversity quotas in many industries in order to present the appearance of an equal society.  

In Woolf’s room, you’re unshackled from these things. The room is to be filled with whatever you like and you can and must write what you want, with confidence, and without anyone telling you to get off their turf.

What we must do, she argues, is inhabit the women’s tradition without being constrained by it. Remember Judith Shakespeare and honour her. Woolf argues that poets never die in the same way the Einstein would later argue that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The poet’s soul is eternal, and when women write it is always a worthy endeavour. By writing, Woolf suggests, women can summon Shakespeare’s sister and make her exist. “I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work even in poverty and obscurity is worthwhile.” Perhaps by writing with the effort and determination that Woolf demanded of women, we can make her live again in 2017.


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Helen Nianias a freelance writer and editor from London, whose areas of specialism are migration, women's issues, humour, sex, culture, and issues affecting young people.