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.