The Reading Room
Reading A Room of One’s Own: Parts 3&4
Returning to A Room of One’s Own, we find ourselves in the home—the room—of Woolf’s narrator, Mary. Having made her observations out in the world, she returns here to tease out and develop her thoughts. Disappointed with her trip to the British Library, Mary consults the books on her shelves.
Why, Mary wonders, is there no female Shakespeare? She finds, picking up a history of England, that women in the Elizabethan era were uneducated, routinely beaten, married young (often against their will), and were the property of their husbands.
Mary thus imagines what would have happened had Shakespeare had a gifted sister. Unlike her brother, she would not have been educated. Attempts to read and write would be interrupted and discouraged. Her loving but practical parents would insist that she marry and would have seen her independent aspirations as an affront to her father. She could run away, perhaps, to join the theatre. But she’d as likely be laughed out the door as taken in only as a mistress. She would have no real chance to learn the crafts of acting or writing. Had she the passions of a poet, thinks Mary, Shakespeare’s gifted sister would likely have killed herself.
The barriers to women writing fiction in the 16th century applied also to the working class. The education, the thought, and the time it takes to write well was—is—incredible. Without money, without independence, they hadn’t a hope of succeeding.
Even among upper class women who may have had the resources for education and a say in their romantic future, society expected nothing intellectually of them. The value of chastity demanded that they not stand out. And a female author would certainly stand out. Had any woman put pen to paper, muses Mary, she’d never have signed her name to it.
And yet, eventually, women began to write.
It was the plays of Aphra Behn (1640–1689), says Mary, that paved the way. "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." Aphra Behn lays the groundwork, says Mary, because it was Behn who showed that women could earn money by writing. Where once the idea of women writing was ridiculous or scandalous, it slowly became acceptable. “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”
Considered next are four great female novelists of the 19th century, more than a hundred years after Aphra Behn: Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. They wrote—they wrote well—but they wrote novels. Not plays, poetry, history, or biography.
Mary speculates that the stunted lives of women in the 19th century, lives that kept them in shops and drawing rooms and denied them rooms of their own, left them without material for anything more substantial than novels.
A further hurdle for these female novelists was their somewhat pioneering position. “They had no tradition behind them” They only have the traditions, the sentence structure, the storytelling, of male authors to refer to. Mary reckons that only Jane Austen overcame this, writing in a style all her own.
Despite these frustrations, they wrote. And they wrote with integrity. Their novels have stood the test of time because they captured something of the truth. Against all odds, they laid a foundation for literature by women. A foundation on which the independence of female thought could be laid patiently, but firmly, down.