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Moving on to "the shelves which hold books by the living,"
the narrator finds that women are currently writing nearly as many
books as men, and that they are not only novels. "There are books
on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched."
In assessing the change has occurred in women's writing in her own
generation, the narrator pulls down a novel called Life's Adventure by
Mary Carmichael. It is her first novel. Looking to see what this
young writer has inherited from women of the past—both writers and
non-writers, both "their characteristics and restrictions"—she first
decides that the prose is not as good as Jane Austen's. "The smooth
gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore,
something scratched." She soon revises her opinion, however, noting
that Miss Carmichael's writing actually has nothing in common with
Austen's; it is attempting something completely different. "First
she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence. Very well,
she has every right to do both these things if she does them not
for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating."
The decisive moment in Mary Carmichael's innovation comes with
the words, "Chloe liked Olivia." The narrator stands slackjawed.
How rarely, she realizes, has literature presented real, amicable
relationships between women! Women were always, at least until the
nineteenth century, considered in their relationship to men, and
this has resulted in a huge and grave omission from literary history,
and all history. "Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in
fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations
between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity—for so a lover would
see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy." Women
also, in Carmichael's book, have interests and pursuits outside
the home. Chloe and Olivia work together in a laboratory, a fact
which greatly changes the kind of friends they can be. The narrator
begins to think that an importance transition has occurred, "for
if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it
she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet
been." The real, unrecorded experience of women in solitude has
been so little handled that its expression will stretch the existing
resources of the English language.
Mary Carmichael will have her work cut out for her, the
narrator fondly acknowledges. She does not represent the culmination
of the literary development Woolf has in mind, "for she will still
be encumbered with that self-consciousness" that keeps her in the
realm of "the nature-novelist" rather than the contemplative artist.
She will have to learn not only to tell the truth about women, but
also to tell, gently and without rancor, that bit of truth about
men that has gone untold because it is what they cannot see in themselves.
But if Miss Carmichael does not have the genius of Austen or Eliot,
the narrator observes, she has certain advantages—not just as a
person but also as a writer—unknown to them. Her writing shows no
rancor against men, and no resentment against her situation in life.
"Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only
in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom." In another hundred years,
the author concludes, and with five hundred pounds and a room of
her own, this Mary Carmichael will be a poet.
Mary Carmichael is the literary heir not only to the great
women writers discussed in the previous chapter, but also "the descendent of
all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at."
Yet she takes on something very different than they would have attempted.
Woolf gives us a little lesson in reading experimental writing (like
Woolf's own), reminding us that "she has every right" to attempt
new forms and styles, as long as she is creating something new rather
than merely destroying what has gone before. Carmichael represents
Woolf's take on the state of women's fiction in her own historical
moment. She sees the female literary tradition as being poised on
the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and she takes
the opportunity to point out its current shortcomings and to articulate
a direction for the future.
"The natural simplicity, the epic age of women's writing
may have gone," remarks the narrator, in reviewing the range of
subjects upon which women in her own time have made themselves authors. This
is the next logical step from Woolf's historical identification
of "a woman's sentence." Although she draws attention to the idea that
there is a natural way for women to write, a distinctive "woman's
sentence," for example, she is also open to the idea that even that
naturalness may be historically contingent. As women change, and
as their social roles and circumstantial realities evolve, what
is "natural" to them will presumably change as well. Such a change
will indeed be for the better: "She may begin to use writing as
an art, not as a method of self-expression." When this happens, will
there still be such a thing as a "woman's sentence"? Woolf imagines
so, for she wants to preserve the richness of difference between
men and women. But it must be as flexible and evolving as women
Women have a creative power that differs substantially
from that of men, one that has found expression, even in bygone
ages, in non-literary ways. Education, she argues, should bring
out those differences rather than enforcing similarity, and so acknowledge
and enhance the richness and variety of human culture. "For we have too
much likeness as it is."
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Room of One's Own!