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See discount terms and conditions.
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,
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.
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."
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Room of One's Own!