Some basic facts
In 1918 Parliament in the UK passed a law that granted the right to vote to all men of over 21 and every woman over 30 the right to vote.
It wasn’t untill ten years later, in 1928, that the right to vote was extended to all women of over 21 years of age.
Women as Second Rate Citizens
This is, more or less, women’s condition in Britain when Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, that of second rate citizens. It is precisely against this state of things that she too fights with and through her writing. Ms Woolf is a renowned writer not only among women, however, or specifically as a writer for women firmly engaged in the feminist cause. Ms Woolf was, and is, an esteemed intellectual despite her gender which isn’t always the case with female writers or public figures.
The two works I think most relevant to our purpose are: first, Orlando, a novel published in 1928 and the second: A Room of One’s Own, a two-part lecture she was asked to deliver at Newham College and at Girton College – the first two women colleges at Cambridge – in the fall of 1928 on women’s literary production, the lectures were later published in the form of an essay in 1929.
Orlando is a novel published with great success in 1928, quite a peculiar novel at that; its structure is apparently traditional, yet the plot encompasses over 400 years of British history and begins in 1588 with the protagonist – Orlando – a sixteen year old boy belonging to one of the most ancient aristocratic British families who is about to be introduced to the Queen, Elizabeth I, who is so taken by him that she invites him to court. Orlando has a sensitive poetic soul and he dedicates his time to writing, he is in fact composing his lifetime poem, The Oak Tree.
Orlando Becomes a Woman
Under the reign of Charles II he is assigned to an important diplomatic mission to Constantinople thanks to which he is awarded with a dukedom. It is while in Turkey that Orlando becomes a woman, a sudden and unexpected change that doesn’t disturb him/her at all, for she feels just as before and it’s just her gender that has changed.
The scene that describes the drastic transformation from male to female is both poetic and abrupt and it is carried out by metaphors through the appearance of three ladies: Chastity, Purity and Modesty who embody the attempts to conceal such an unsettling change in front of society, the sudden intrusion of lady Truth however, makes the previous three disappear and the new true Orlando is revealed fostering the idea that we normally possess features of both genders without even realising it at times, there is no clear cut difference, black or white. It is not her gender that is important to her but what she is as a person.
The Deep Fulfilment in Being Both Male and Female
At this point of the narration Orlando buys female clothes and sails back to England, during the sea voyage that brings her home as she is wearing for the first time female attire she truly begins to grasp the deep meaning about her gender transformation.
The ship captain’s courtly behaviour towards her brings finally home what’s happened to her and, if she is appreciative of her new condition – enjoys being courted and indulges in responding coyly, flirting with him while pampering her vanity – she nevertheless dislikes the limitations that social conventions force on women such as being powerless and always in need of protection, she doesn’t want to hold her tongue and she enters in conflict with her/himself.
Moreover having been a man previously she can truly make practical comparisons, now she understands women thoroughly and grasps complete insight of both genders knowing that she is quite privileged indeed, for the fulfilling awareness she experiences of being both female and male.
Notwithstanding that upon returning to England – as she lands on English coasts the 18th century is over and the 19th has just begun. Victorian England is permeated by an oppressive spirit: the industrial thrive is contradicted by a strict moral code of behaviour – she learns that as a woman she has virtually no legal rights over her title, money or property – and she is compelled to file a legal suit to get her money and assets back.
The Importance of Clothes and Gender Difference Is Cultural Rather Than Biological
In the midst of all these changes Orlando also realizes that her outlook of the world changes according to the clothes she is wearing so she starts changing them according to her mood as she comprehends that others’ perceptions of people too are influenced by the clothes they are wearing as if to say that people do, in fact, judge the book by its cover; therefore if she wants to wander freely in London’s streets at night it is by donning men’s clothes that she can go about undisturbed and avoid dangers.
…it is clothes that wear us and not we them, we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their likings.
Thanks to her new gender then and with full awareness of the previous one she is much more insightful than most. That is why Orlando is also a novel about androgyny in which the author is clearly stating that gender is a quality instilled culturally rather than a biological trait.
The novel ends in 1928, Orlando has taken a husband during the Victorian Age merely because she wants to conform with society, but the description of their relationship underlines their total rejection of definite gender roles stating that they are complex individuals that cannot be labelled one way or the other.
Finally, the narrative structure gives greater importance to personal issues rather than political, however if the protagonist’s life issues and events are emphasised in the plot the historical background is ever present.
Imagination Is as Important as Fact and Everything is Connected
Orlando is a mock-biography dedicated to Vita Sackville West with whom Woolf had a sentimental affair. But it is also and, perhaps, foremost a history of England and a history of developing English literature as shown in the last chapter in which the protagonist understands that everything is connected, reality, age and time have a subjective quality while imagination is just as important as “fact”. It is in her mature age that she finally absorbs that she is not a fixed individual defined by one fact or event, by one single moment, but that it is through the continuity of experience and life from beginning to end that she lives fully and can be whole and not fragmented.
The same happens with her poem The Oak Tree; she starts writing it during the Elizabethan Age and her models are history and myths from classical poetry, but the quality and the themes of her work change with the shifts of time till she reaches her full ripeness as a writer condensing and combining all she has learned and all that she has become during her long life, not just one but many individuals interconnected and blended together.
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
In A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf we can read:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”
Woolf here begins by stating material facts and issues to counteract the assumption that women’s literary production has been for so long inferior in quality to men’s. The essay has a rather unusual structure that turns out to be quite effective in outlining the hardships that women have always had to face during the creativity process.
Unequal Treatment of Women by Men Has Always Marred Women’s Creativity
Daily issues, even petty ones that indeed affected their capability to focus on their work and even the chance to believe in themselves, in their talent, so as to build up a thorough and lasting self-confidence. Essential qualities to pursue in their efforts. Jane Austen, for instance. was known to hide away her writings when servants came in the sitting room where she regularly worked, all the female writers of those times were forces to publish under pseudonyms because they couldn’t reveal their female identities, or publishers would have refused to publish their works.
In fact, she says, unlike their male counterparts, women have always been burdened with household duties that inevitably imprisoned them in repetitive, boring , tiring and time consuming daily routines that deprived them of the vital time and private space that were – and still are – crucial for any creative ambition they might have had. We may be tempted to take all this for granted given the enormous changes that we can enjoy today, however these words ant the concept they conveyed were radically revolutionary in 1928. A time during which women were still legally and financially depending on their husbands.
Women historically have been denied those luxuries that were considered perfectly natural to men, first of all education, she says, and in a fictitious tour of a men’s University she begins to describe the opulence of the buildings, the incredible number of books in their libraries, the beauty of study rooms and campuses and she reports being stopped by a custodian from stepping on the grass because she is a woman and only men are allowed to walk or sit on the grass, just as she is denied access to the library for the same reason. She must not wander off the gravel path. Therefore emphasising that for the mere fact of being a woman she could not do as she pleased, like men could, but she had to keep to the rules set for women by men.
That is precisely why she underlines the need for women to be financially independent and self-sufficient and to have their own private space where to find the proper concentration without useless interruptions that result in inevitably fragmented production.
Men vs Women’s Education
She continues by relating that men’s universities have been lavishly funded by generous patrons who held young men’s education in great esteem whereas the women’s college she visited on the same occasion showed clear signs of much less importance and to do so she listed the menu of the lunches served on the same day in the men’s college and in the women’s describing in detail the great differences between the two, in fact if the first has the best dishes and the best wines, the second one is not even half as plentiful or savoury, on the contrary it is quite plain. This merely to show that there is much less interest in women’s education therefore the funding is always lacking. However, she adds, had women been taught to make money and make the best of their talents and creativity they probably would have stopped having children.
The metaphor is meant to underline that women have always had less opportunities than men in enjoying the proper financial status and the adequate free time to let loose their imagination, to enrich their knowledge and thus to produce as well.
Historically Labelled as Inadequate They Inevitably Believed it To Be True
In chapter two she writes:
“One must strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth.”
In other words in her effort to get at the truth she realizes that that’s quite impossible because, she continues, we are all imbued with our own experience of life, we are permeated by historical events, moulded by family background and all this concurs in the perception that we have of ourselves, of others and of whatever is around us.
There is no escape from the perception of reality that influences our opinions. That is why, she tells her audience, there is not one given truth and everything depends on everything else and it is the same for women’s literary endeavours which are a sum of their entire lives and of their personality too.
To make this idea clearer she underlines that:
“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.”
Judith Shakespeare and Her Tragic Fate
Again she resorts to fiction to illustrate exactly what she is thinking and she invents a fictitious twin sister of the famous poet, Judith Shakespeare; had she existed, continues Woolf, she would have had a tragic fate, no doubt. Endowed with the same visionary poetic talent as her brother, conventions and female duties would have undoubtedly played against her. At one point of her life she would have been forced to marry a spouse of her father’s choice and had she rebelled against this decision she would have been beaten to curb her spirit and silence her protests and even if she had run away and actually reached London, just as her twin brother had, she would never have been allowed to become an actress, on the contrary she would have been taken advantage of, abused of, she would have gotten pregnant and fallen in total disgrace she would have committed suicide.
Virginia Woolf takes the most common idea according to which the lacking quality of women’s writing proves their inferiority compared to men but she uses a completely different approach to invalidate this assumption. In fact, she analyses the historical context and discovers that the way women are judged and treated sets a completely unequal ground and virtually decrees the impossibility for women to realistically rival men in their literary achievements.
The circumstances in which Judith Shakespeare is forced to live prove that it’s not a matter of talent or intellectual ability; it is indeed her sex that prevents her to reach any artistic fulfilment.
To support her thesis Woolf goes one step further:
“Life for both sexes – and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement – is ardous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.” – Ch. 2
The Quest for Confidence Is Essential in the Creativity Process
This statement underlines the fact that the way men have treated women has always been unequal, in fact she believes that men have systematically subordinated women to reinforce their own confidence as the more capable sex. But that’s quite understanding, she says, and she highlights the great importance of the quest of confidence, it is essential to possess it if one wants to pursue art. Women have so far lacked confidence and that is why the quality of their art is not as good as it can be.
They lack confidence and they are full of anger for their condition of second rate citizens and it shows in their writing, their resentment and rancour comes off. Yet, despite all that they keep going, they persist and just for that she deems them heroic.
It is then in this context and in the change of times that I want to close telling you about another relevant twentieth century writer and woman. Especially to underline how the changing times do make a difference, indeed and how, as Woolf wrote, everything is connected.
It’s all due to the time we live in. – Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)
© L. R. Capuana
Further Readings: Orlando, A Room of One’s Own by V. Woolf
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