Why Should We Read Virginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Vir­ginia Woolf dis­suad­ed read­ers from play­ing the crit­ic in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” But in addi­tion to her nov­els, she is best known for her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and became a foun­da­tion­al fig­ure in fem­i­nist lit­er­ary the­o­ry for her imag­i­na­tive polemic “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay that takes tra­di­tion­al crit­i­cism to task for its pre­sump­tions of male lit­er­ary supe­ri­or­i­ty.

Women writ­ers like her­self, she argues, had always been a priv­i­leged few with the means and the free­dom to pur­sue writ­ing in ways most women couldn’t. These con­di­tions were so rare for women through­out lit­er­ary his­to­ry that innu­mer­able artists may have gone unno­ticed and unher­ald­ed for their lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty. Her obser­va­tion would have put her read­ers in mind of Thomas Gray’s revered “Ele­gy Writ­ten in a Coun­try Church­yard,” with its famous line about a pau­per’s grave: “Some mute inglo­ri­ous Mil­ton here may rest.”

Woolf alludes to the poem, writ­ing of “some mute and inglo­ri­ous Jane Austen,” and makes a case that would-have-been women writ­ers were excep­tion­al­ly mar­gin­al­ized by gender—by its inter­sec­tions with pow­er and priv­i­lege and their lack. She famous­ly con­struct­ed a scenario—brought into pop cul­ture by The Smiths and Bana­nara­ma singer Siob­han Fahey—involv­ing Shakespeare’s fic­tion­al sis­ter Judith, whose tal­ent and ambi­tion are squashed for the sake of her brother’s edu­ca­tion. It is hard­ly a far-fetched idea. We might remem­ber Mozart’s sis­ter Nan­nerl, who was also a child prodi­gy, whose career end­ed with her child­hood, and who dis­ap­peared in her brother’s shad­ow.

In the TED-Ed video at the top, Woolf schol­ar and doc­tor­al can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Iseult Gille­spie describes the import of Woolf’s thought exper­i­ment. Shakespeare’s sis­ter stands in for every woman who is pushed into domes­tic labor and mar­riage while the men in her fam­i­ly pur­sue their goals unhin­dered. “Woolf demon­strates the tragedy of genius restrict­ed,” just as Langston Hugh­es would do a cou­ple decades lat­er. Her par­tic­u­lar genius, says Gille­spie, lies in her abil­i­ty to por­tray “the inter­nal expe­ri­ence of alien­ation…. Her char­ac­ters fre­quent­ly live inner lives that are deeply at odds with their exter­nal exis­tence.”

The video out­lines Woolf’s own biog­ra­phy: her inclu­sion in the “Blooms­bury Group”—a social cir­cle includ­ing E.M. Forster and Vir­gini­a’s soon-to-be hus­band Leonard Woolf. And it sketch­es out the inno­v­a­tive  lit­er­ary tech­niques of her nov­els. Woolf thought of her­self, as Alain de Bot­ton says in his short intro­duc­tion above, as a “dis­tinc­tive­ly mod­ernist writer at odds with a raft of the staid and com­pla­cent assump­tions of 19th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture.” One such assump­tion, as she writes in “A Room of One’s Own,” includes an opin­ion that “the best woman was intel­lec­tu­al­ly the infe­ri­or of the worst man.”

Woolf’s own mod­ernist break­throughs rival those of her con­tem­po­raries James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Her favorite women writ­ers rank as high­ly as men in the same canon in any seri­ous study; but this is of course beside the point. It wasn’t the truth or false­hood of claims about women’s infe­ri­or­i­ty that deter­mined their pow­er, but rather the social pow­er of those who made such claims.

Dom­i­neer­ing fathers, spot­light-steal­ing broth­ers, mor­al­iz­ing cler­gy­men, the gate­keep­ing intel­lec­tu­als of “Oxbridge”—Woolf’s port­man­teau for the snob­bery and chau­vin­ism of Oxford and Cam­bridge dons: it was such men who deter­mined not only whether or not a woman might pur­sue her writ­ing, but whether she lived or died in penury, mute and inglo­ri­ous. Woolf knew much of what she wrote, hav­ing grown up sur­round­ed by the cream of 19th-cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary soci­ety, and hav­ing had to “steal an edu­ca­tion from her father’s study,” as de Bot­ton notes, while her broth­ers went off to Cam­bridge. She was nonethe­less well aware of her priv­i­lege and used it not only to cre­ate new forms of writ­ing, but to open new lit­er­ary spaces for women writ­ers to come.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Vir­ginia Woolf

The Steamy Love Let­ters of Vir­ginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925–1929)

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • E says:

    My dad once told me that he opened _To the Lighthouse_ for the first time on his inau­gur­al train ride to col­lege. He was so engrossed that he missed his stop and rode the train to the end of the line, miss­ing his first day of col­lege.

    Nat­u­ral­ly this made me extreme­ly curi­ous about Vir­ginia Woolf, but I always had trou­ble under­stand­ing her. These two videos help a lot––I will give her anoth­er try soon!

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