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A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Summary

Incandescence, the narrator reiterates, is a state of mind that simply would have been impossible for a woman in the sixteenth century. She continues her history by tracing the gradual emergence of women writers out of that blank past. The first would have been aristocrats, women of "comparative freedom and comfort" who had the resources not only to spend their time writing, but also to brave public disapproval. This is how the narrator accounts for the poetry of Lady Winchilsea around the turn of the eighteenth century. Her work, however, is far from incandescent: "one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women." She then turns to the writings of Margaret of Newcastle, who might have been a poet or a scientist but instead "frittered her time away scribbling nonsense." Like Lady Winchilsea, she was an aristocrat, had no children, and was married to the right kind of man. The letters of Dorothy Osborne, next off the shelf, indicate a disdain for women who write, and at the same time betray a remarkable verbal gift in their own right. With Aphra Behn, the narrator identifies a turning point: a middle class woman making a living by her writing, in defiance of conventions of chastity. The later eighteenth century saw droves of women following her example, and these paved the way for the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. "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."

Why were all these women writers novelists? The major nineteenth-century figures, except for the fact that all were childless, seem to have had very little in common. The narrator offers several reasons why they all might have been attracted to the novel form. For one thing, these women wrote in the shared space of the sitting-room; perhaps the novel proved a hardier form than poetry in this climate of distraction. Secondly, without any formal literary training, the education nineteenth century women received in reading character and behavior would have been their main literary asset—one most applicable to the novel. Emily Bronte might have made a better dramatic poet; Eliot was by disposition a historian or biographer. Yet these women wrote novels (though Bronte also wrote lyric poems), and the novels were good ones. Jane Austen was known to hide her work when someone entered the room, yet her novels are written "without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching." Like Shakespeare, the narrator thinks, Austen wrote in such a way that her art "consumed all impediments." Charlotte Bronte does not write with that same incandescence; Bronte may have had more genius than Austen, but her writing bears the scars of her personal wounds.

Integrity, in the novelist, "is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth." It is what holds novels together and makes them exciting to read. This is a simple principle, but how difficult to achieve! "For the most part," we are told, "novels do come to grief somewhere." The narrators wonders how the sex of the novelist affects the possibility of achieving this artistic integrity. For Bronte it certainly did: "She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. ...Her imagination swerved from indignation and we felt it swerve." Not only anger, but ignorance, fear, and pain are the residue of gender in Bronte's case, nor is Bronte alone in this: "One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. ...She was thinking of something other than the thing itself." Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte manage to eradicate that central flaw, to maintain integrity in the face of criticism, opposition, and misunderstanding. Their achievement, under the circumstances, is miraculous.

The lack of an existing literary tradition is, in the narrator's opinion, the greatest obstacle for these heroic nineteenth-century writers. The writings of the greatest literary men were no help to the female author against the problem "that there was no common sentence ready for her use." The masculine sentence of a Johnson, say, would not do, and these motherless women had a great work before them. This may be another explanation for the turn to the novel, which form "alone was young enough to be soft in her hands." But women may not always choose to write novels, the narrator predicts. They have poetry in them still unexpressed. This does not necessarily mean that they will write poems, however, but that they may channel that poetry into some new form, as yet unconceived.

Commentary

The narrator begins to outline (with great reverence) the women's literary tradition to which she herself is heir, and which was so conspicuously absent for those first women writers. Even the "innumerable bad novels" that women produced in the years after Behn made writing into an industry are a salient piece in this tradition. The fact that writing could generate income was foundational for all that came later; "money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for."

Woolf has returned, in this fourth chapter of her essay, to the point from which she refused to begin it: a discussion of prominent women writers. After all that has been discussed about the conditions for genius and its expression, the careers of the canonical literary women appear in a fresh light. We are asked to consider what they did and did not achieve in terms of the incandescence and integrity of their work. This aesthetic standard itself is a luxury hard-won; Woolf wants us to see that it could not have been applied a generation earlier, and that its very relevance measures the leaps these women have made. Charlotte Bronte had axes to grind; the fact that they show up in her work is a failing, but it doesn't make her grievances any less legitimate or make her any less important in the history Woolf is outlining. The fact the Austen wrote as purely as she did appears, in light of the total absence of tradition or precedent, as a near miracle.

The form of Woolf's essay enacts the changes it describes. The narrative details with which the first chapters were littered begin to fall away as the speaker enters into full engagement with her ideas. The daily comings and goings of the fictional narrator recede into the background, and the argument—the ideas themselves—comes to the fore. It took some uphill work to get to this point however. Even though that lead-up and preparation may not be evident in the flush of the argument, they are its invisible foundation. Like the five hundred pounds, or those first, bad novels by women, these foundations disappear in the bright light of what they enable. It is this bedrock which Woolf, for the purposes of this essay, has wanted us to see; yet it is precisely what a work of art ought not to exhibit.

The statement that there is a uniquely female way of writing—a woman's sentence—is one of Woolf's most provocative claims. She argues that women see and feel and value differently than men, and that because of this they must also write differently if they are to be true to themselves and their experience. She praises Jane Austen, who had "devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it."

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