Wednesday, 17 December 2008

How would Virginia Woolf feel now?

Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own" is a wonderful reflection on the position of women and the reasons why so few had managed to become writers of fiction. It is a beautiful piece of writing made all the more beautiful by its restraint. Given the terrible history that she recounts, she would have had every justification in expressing anger and bitterness, but she rises above these emotions, and her writing is all the more powerful for it.

What I want to pick up here is an interesting comment she makes at the end of the talk (it was originally a talk presented to a female audience at Cambridge University) when she looks to the future. She was writing in 1928 and at the end of her talk she tries to look forward and be optimistic about what may well be achieved over the coming century. But before looking at that it is worth highlighting her idea about how writers have a privileged way of capturing reality - not the brute reality of things that may or may not be noticed, but the reality which is the lasting impression that is made when an experience is particularly vivid. Woolf has a strikingly odd way of putting this: It is what remains of the past when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge.

"What is meant by 'reality'? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable-now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech-and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading LEAR or EMMA or LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life."

With that in mind, let me quote the part where Woolf looks forward an century.

"I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young-alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so-I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals-and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born."

At this point, 80 years after Virginia Woolf wrote those words, I can't help wondering what the author would say were she allowed to return and glimpse what has come to pass. Undoubtedly she would be heartened that so many women have written so much and so many more women have ample opportunity to achieve the financial independence and the room of their own, without which they would not be able to realise their potential. But would she not also be very sad? Would she not be disturbed to see that the culture of the written word that meant so much to her has lost its pride of place? Other - audiovisual - media have taken centre stage with the general impression that they are more able to capture those moments when life becomes more vivid, more meaningful, more real; and these are media that give employment and a source of financial independence and opportunities to be creative to a great many women. But for Virginia Woolf, would this adequately compensate for the marginalisation of the older culture - perhaps she would say higher culture - of the written word?


Roger E. Jones said...

This is a provocative and well-written piece. I also recommend Sara Paretsky's "Writing in an Age of Silence" - about not only being a woman but a human in the era of Bush, with its rabid anti-intellectualism and preoccupation with terror and warfare. I also wonder what Woolf would think of the junk that passes for writing these days, with the bottom line and profit dictating whose voice gets heard and how loudly.

neo-anchorite said...

Thanks for the feedback, Roger. On the subject of the bottom line, I am preparing a little piece with the working title: The Tyranny of the Focus Group. Have you had any experience of publishers' focus groups? My experience opened my eyes (which were already close to tearing) to the nihilism that ensues when economic growth becomes an end in itself.