[NOTE: This review was written in August 2001, when I was planning to become a Woolf “completist”. On her birthday, today, here it is again, dusted off a bit.]
As Reading Years go, this is my ‘Year of the Woolf’, during which I plan to finish all the books by Virginia Woolf, and also a number of books on her. What better way to get started than to share with you my first introduction to this great writer – ARoOO?
I first encountered this book at the British Council Library in Bombay when I was eighteen years old and studying for my A-Levels. A reader had left it on one of the tables as I sat down with my books of Mathematics and Mechanics and I couldn’t resist picking it up. I read it all the way through in a day, not even stopping for lunch. And, when I left that evening, I couldn’t resist checking it out. Guess what? I never did get to return the book and it has lived with me all these decades as I’ve moved from country to country, bearing witness to my own struggles for a room of my own and offering me, always, wisdom and courage when I’ve needed it. At one point in time, I transcribed about 10K words of my favorite quotes into Evernote so that I could read through them on my phone anytime I wanted to.
… a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out. So great a feat is seldom accomplished, though the fault may well be as much on the reader’s side as on the writer’s. Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate. A novel has a story, a poem rhyme, but what art can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life?
Understanding these limitations and requirements, Woolf was constantly experimenting with the essay genre, and continues to receive as high praise for her essays as for her novels. This book is an extended essay of lectures that Woolf gave in 1928 at the first women’s colleges at Cambridge University. It is, at the same time, a sociopolitical analysis and a literary history of England through the ages. The climax of ARoOO is, famously, a “fascinating and masterly biography of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, as much of a genius as her brother, but doomed by her sex to a life of exploitation, pain and failure.” The narrative is mostly in the third person, such that fact and fiction are twisted subtly into story, rhyme and reason, through a “triologue” of listener-speaker-reader.
Woolf made a special case for women here because of the particular circumstances that women had faced through the centuries with their gift for writing. Also, as she wrote to a friend, Goldie Dickinson: “I wanted to encourage the young women – they seem to get fearfully depressed.” Yet, her theses on creativity and genius could be applied universally to both genders and any art form, not just the writing of fiction. All artists need intellectual freedom and a certain financial independence for their genius to flourish. Woolf knew this very well herself. Like other women of her generation, she had been denied a college education while her brothers had received it as entitlement. After the death of her father, many well-meaning older relatives pressured both her sister, Vanessa, and her to settle down to a conventional life as expected of women of their class and position. Vanessa and Virginia stood firm with their vocations in the face of constant censure. They became respected, lauded, and sought for their work and opinions in their respective fields. So, yes, Woolf was well aware of the irony of being invited to lecture at a centuries-old educational institution which, not so long ago, barred women like her from even entering their hallowed grounds.
Before we go any further, let’s clear one common misperception up regarding this book. Woolf was not trying to pit sex against sex. Throughout, she expressed sympathy towards both men and women for the way socio-cultural conditioning had shaped their ambitions, talents, and psyches. This is chiefly why I don’t consider the book to be the “feminist propaganda” as touted by some post-modernists, who have “changed the movement from a cause to a symptom”, and given it a wholly unpleasant connotation by labeling men as the root of all evil.
There are “feminist elements” in this writing. Also, in her explorations through literary history, Woolf showed how patriarchal societies were responsible for thwarting and hindering women artists. But, she also went on to say:
It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts, which are not within their control. They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great.…. Blame, if one is anxious to lay blame, rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible.
What makes ARoOO all the more special (for, Woolf did not really say things that others hadn’t already said before; e.g. her countrywoman, Mary Wollstonecraft, over a century earlier in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’”) is Woolf’s conversational and witty style, clear arguments and, of course, unique prose. The truth and honesty here will, at times, swing out like a knuckle sandwich and leave you somewhat breathless and bruised and, at other times, shine a torch on your own natural instincts.
What is meant by genius and creativity? What does one need to be able to write a work of genius? How do gender, tradition and socioeconomic class affect creativity and genius? What are the difficulties for both sexes when attempting to write masterpieces? What kind of fiction do women write, and what kind of fiction is written about them? What is the relationship between writing and reality? How and what should one write? Why, in fact, is creating works of genius important? And, how does all of this apply to writers today? So many questions raised, argued and answered in this treatise that, despite having read it several times during various stages of my life, I still find something new to take away each time I return.
Genius is not born, Woolf argued, but made with prodigious difficulty. It requires an incandescent state of mind, free from all obstacles and interruptions. So, already you have material circumstances against this. Then, there is the world’s indifference.
It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories… It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact… And, so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement.
Right up to the early 20th century, this was even more difficult for a woman than it was for a man. History and biography have given us enough detail about the lot of women in those earlier centuries. The law did not allow women to possess land or money to their name. The immaterial difficulties were worse. Social traditions did not allow women to earn money because they had to fulfill other roles – as wife and mother. Fathers, with the highest of motives, certainly did not wish their daughters to leave home to become writers, painters or scholars.
Even in the 19th century, a woman was not encouraged to be an artist. On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured, exhorted. Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that.
When, eventually, woman did start to write, she tried to write like a man, or tried to deflect or meet criticism with diffidence, or docility, or anger, or emphasis in her writing. She compromised her integrity and values to meet the opinions of others. She thought of herself, not of the issue itself or of the writing, as she stressed personal grievances, or pleaded justice for some social cause, or proclaimed an injury, or paid off a score.
This pioneering woman writer had still more hindrances. Her literary education was limited to the drawing room and the analysis of emotions. The feminine way of writing fiction was unimportant in a man’s world, where writing about wars and heroic passions was considered more worthwhile.
All these together – lack of personal material resources, ignorance, discouragement, criticism, and the resulting anger – put a great strain on her art, creativity and genius. Her own contrary instincts tortured and pulled her apart.
Yet, there’s one more blow, perhaps the greatest of them all. This woman writer had no literary tradition to follow. She had to fell her own trees, clear her own pathways and build her own bridges. A man’s writing, being so different, could only allow her to borrow a few tricks of the trade. She had to forge the tools herself. You wonder that she wrote at all! And, you salute her for becoming the firebrand that she did, and possessing that greater courage, genius and integrity needed to hold fast against the criticism of a purely patriarchal society, and giving us her original masterpieces.
Of course, her influence grew as she became a voter, a wage earner, a responsible citizen. Both her life and her art took a turn towards the impersonal. Her relations are now not only emotional, but also intellectual and political. She acts for herself, instead of just influencing the acts of others. Her writing is increasingly becoming more appraising of society instead of just analytical of individual lives. She sees men and women, not just in relation to each other emotionally, but also as they interact in groups/classes/races. She is now looking beyond the personal and political relationships to the wider questions of destiny and the meaning of life. Not just skimming surfaces anymore, but looking beneath into the depths. And, she need not hate or fear or flatter any man, as he has nothing to give her. She has her own room and her £500 a year.
Such a rara avis is to be found, of course, in the more advanced societies of this world. The sociopolitical difficulties that women artists faced before the 19th century are still rampant in certain cultures, classes and societies today.
Perhaps, we can look at our own subset of Indian women writers. There are plenty around now, a few even winning literary awards. Note, though, the self-conscious assertiveness that often weighs on the imaginations, rendering the writing as a method of self-expression and not as an art.
These new women have won rooms of their own ‘in the house hitherto owned by men’… The room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. Some of the furniture – mental and physical – which gets into the new room may be left over from the old houses.
One might say, however, that life itself is a mixture of the sordid and the magnificent; of mud and stars; of earth and flowers; of love and hate; of laughter and tears; of ugliness and beauty and hurt. So, why not write about all this? Besides, how can one bring about awareness without expressing the protests, pleas, and grievances?
Writers who feel the need to find and communicate such reality live more intensely in it. And, just as readers bring their personal prejudices, biases and experiences to their reading so, too, do writers to their writing. So, it is harder to convey this deeply-experienced reality without personal history getting in the way.
To keep the writer’s integrity intact, then, considerable creativity and genius is required. Woolf demonstrated these latter qualities superbly through ARoOO. Had she not kept her own figure fictitious in the essay, and said instead: “Here I am, uneducated because my brothers used up all the family funds,”, then the axe that she would have been grinding would not have been taken quite as seriously.
Some of these obstacles can hamper the creativity of male writers too. There have been many male writers who had to practice their art in poor conditions. But, they had, at least, a college education, intellectual freedom and a rich literary tradition to write as they wished to.
Gender and personal histories get in the way of male writers as well. The male perspective is certainly different from the female perspective. A male writer, generally, has a more direct, straightforward and free way of writing. However, sometimes, we notice “the shadow of the ‘I’ fall across the writing”; even if it is respectable, honest, logical and full of learning. This limits the creative energy within certain narrow confines. His virility and intellectualism have now become self-conscious. His writing lacks suggestive power. So, “however hard it hits the surface of the mind, it cannot penetrate within”.
So, what allows for a complete expression of genius? It is the androgynous mind, where a writer uses both parts of the brain equally. Coleridge first described this concept of writing. Woolf elaborated so:
Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous; it transmits emotion without impediment; it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.
To write freely like this, not just fiction but all kinds of books, is to live invigoratingly in the presence of reality; whether one manages to convey it or not. And, while reality is transient and multiform, whatever it touches is everlasting.
Let me end with this personal note. There’s an ancient Latin word that isn’t translateable in English. It sums up, though, what this particular book has meant for me.
Vade Mecum (Latin; pronounced VAY/VAH-dee MEE/MAY-kuhm): Literally translated as ‘go with me.’ Used in reference to a book that – like a friend – is a wise, helpful and constant guide through life. To be a vade mecum is the ideal to which all literature aspires.
Postscript: I have, on my bookshelves, two large volumes of ‘Women Writing in India – from 600 BC till Present’, purchased as a result of writing about ARoOO. Although a very long and struggling journey is described in these books, we have yet to reach this ultima Thule of writing that Woolf discoursed on all those years ago.
Woolf’s rousing conclusion, thus, never fails to send a frisson of energy through me:
Young women . . . you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays by Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilization. What is your excuse?… When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good.