Woolf and the Struggle of the Female Author
In 1929, Woolf published an important book-length critical essay, A Room of One’s Own in which she pointed to ways that female writers had been largely excluded from the creative and critical tradition of English Literature.
Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Her fictional character, Judith Shakespeare — William’s sister — is designed to illustrate the way in which a woman with Shakespeare’s literary talents would have been denied the chance to realize her creative potential because social convention prevented women’s access to education and a room in which to write. Judith Shakespeare typifies the social inequality that exists between men and women in patriarchal society.
You might have noticed that almost all of the writers discussed so far have been men. There had, of course, been female writers and critics before this point, but part of Woolf’s argument concerns the way in which patriarchal, or male-dominated, society acted to marginalize and stifle women’s voices.
You might think of the Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans (1819—80), who adopted the male pen name “George Eliot” in order to ensure a serious reception for her novels in an age when female writers were usually associated with the less reputable romance genre.
Similarly, Charlotte Brontë (1816—55) published Jane Eyre (1847) under the pseudonym “Currer Bell”, and her sister, Emily Brontë (1818—48), published her only novel Wuthering Heights (1847) under the pen name “Ellis Bell”.
Woolf’s intervention helped pave the way for a re-conceptualization of the discursive boundaries of the critical tradition, or canon, helping to create and foster a cultural and intellectual milieu in which the voices of female writers could be recovered and studied.
Her own critical writings were bound up with wider social and political change. A Room of One’s Own, for instance, appeared several years after the Suffragettes’ campaign for women’s right to vote had begun to influence wider public consciousness.
Woolf’s critical writing is, accordingly, one of the most important early examples of feminist criticism (see here), although her contribution to literary criticism and critical theory is not reducible to just this.
A Room of One’s Own was based on lectures delivered by Woolf in October 1928 at Newnham and Girton, two Cambridge colleges that, at the time, were women’s colleges, as Newnham still is today.
Woolf’s narrator, Mary Beton, visits an imaginary university, Oxbridge, and the British Museum, where she encounters numerous vestiges of male privilege and patriarchal prejudice. The book’s introduction contains a striking recognition:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
This independence remains problematic in that only a certain class of women could afford to be financially self-sufficient. Mary Beton, for example, enjoyed a legacy of £500 a year, bequeathed to her by her aunt. She viewed this as more significant than the act of Parliament that granted the vote to women.
You might also have noticed that the majority of the writers discussed so far, with the possible exception of Samuel Johnson, Plato and Aristotle, are primarily remembered (and studied) for their work as poets, novelists and playwrights. Their critical writings which have been surveyed here could seem like a mere outgrowth of their wider oeuvres*, were it not for the fact that these documents, taken together, constitute a major genre in and of itself.
Although Wilde and Eliot would argue that there are, in fact, no fixed generic distinctions between critical and creative writing.
The brief outline offered in this book suggests some of the major contours of the tradition of literary criticism, which has frequently involved polemical and antagonistic interventions in the midst of wider cultural and literary debates and controversies.