Monday, April 7, 2014

In the Words of Geoffery Chaucer...

"...Better late than never!" - The Canterbury Tales

Disclaimer: I loved reading this. But unfortunately--although there is so much that could be said or discussed--with the limited time (and attention span) I have, I will only touch briefly on an example of the changing condition of women that Woolf highlights.

The genius of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), is that it asks as many questions (p. 25) as it gives answers. The book, which springs out of the narrator's epistemological journey to produce a response to the topic "Women and Fiction," is the perfect example of reader response theory--in that it forces the reader to give meaning to the text through their own interpretation of the writing. From the beginning, the narrator establishes the novel as a "train of thought" and attempt to lay out how she came to her conclusion that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (p. 4). The narrator then provokes the reader to search her words for truths, admitting that her thoughts may be riddled with lies and bias. Yet instead of undermining her credibility, this helps the narrator, whose real name is supposedly "not a matter of any importance," (p. 5) by adding honesty and skepticism to the topic of women which "is highly controversial--and any question about sex is that" (p. 4).

With that as background, I offer here a train-of-thought response to A Room of One's Own by Romy Franks, Romy Fulton, or Romy Fulmer (the name is of little consequence). May you, too, scour it for potential seeds of truth amidst my own personal biased opinions.

As Woolf's narrator ponders over the unequal and impoverished condition of women (whether socially, economically, legally, etc.), she often touches on the historical circumstances of women as subjects to the confines of tradition. In reviewing universities and the education of women, Woolf notes that the likelihood of a woman amassing a wealth with which to support a school was considerably low. This is because of an unbreakable, paradoxical cycle of women working and also being mothers:
"Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it. Consider the facts.... in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to posses what moeny they earned.... For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property.... Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be takne from me and disposed of according to my husband's wisdom.... so that to earn money, even if I could earn money, is not a matter that interest me very greatly. I had better leave it to my husband." 
Woolf's brilliance as a feminist emerges as she begins to write of the women whose actions changed the status-quo for women as a fiction. Women, who had for so long in history been seen as above or below culture (inferior to men, and yet the heroine in their imaginations), began to make the idea of supporting themselves a reality. One example of this that I wanted to touch on is Woolf's opinion of the seventeenth-century author, Aphra Behn. Though several centuries before time (and her example did not necessarily take off when she was living) the reason I wish to talk about Behn is primarily because of a comment that I left on Melanie's earlier post about whether Mrs. Behn was in fact a feminist. Initially, I was not sure she was. After reading what Woolf had to say, I think that I might stand corrected (or not?). You see, Virginia Woolf speaks highly of the contributions -- however controversial -- of Aphra Behn to women's standing, particularly the status of women as workers for their own gain. This was quite pioneering for her time (the 1600s!) as well as Woolf's. Here is an excerpt (a rather lengthy one at that) from what Woolf wrote:
 "...with Mrs. Behn we turn a very important corner on the road. We leave behind, shut up int heir parks among their folios, those solitary grade ladies who wrote without audience or criticism, for their own delight alone. We come to town and rub shoulders with ordinary people int eh streets. Mrs. Behn was a middle-class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humour, vitality and courage; a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote... for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen. Of course the answer for many years to come was, Yes, by living the life of Aphra Behn! Death would be better! and the door was slammed faster than ever.... But to return. Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance. A husband might die, or some disaster overtake the family." (p. 63-64)
What can we take away from this? I would say that, given my previous comment on Melanie's post and what I have read now, it still remains questionable whether Behn's writings themselves were inherently feminist (though I'm open to discussion on the matter). Rather, I posit that the key point here is that Behn was writing for a living, an action that was (up until then) unprecedented for women.

The idea that women were transcending barriers and crossing over into previously barred spheres is one of the ideas cherished by Woolf and her contemporary first-wave feminists, which I have come to love. I find it fascinating that Woolf predicted, "... in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them... Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation..." (p. 40). Although the nursemaid does not necessarily "heave coal" and men do not say, "'I saw a woman today,' as one used to say, ' I saw an aeroplane.'..." (p. 40) the century that followed the writings of Virginia Woolf--particularly the post-modern world that was shaped by the complete upheaval of society caused by the Great War (which, I unfortunately will not touch on much here, but is clearly of influence in Woolf's writings; see page 15)--was one characterized by dramatic change. As Woolf predicted, I think it is safe to say that over time, Woman has come to break the binds of traditions that bound he. to what Woman could do and her ability to earn the money necessary to provide for herself a room that she might call her own.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf and the Necessity of Material Wealth

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf proves her merit as not only an educated woman, but a philosopher of her age.  To set the background for her argument, she imagines Shakespeare had a sister of equal talent and merit, but because of her situation, and without a room of her own or the money properly support her writing, she dwindled as the invisible and “inferior” sibling to the famous playwright.  She argues that women need to be educated, have financial support, and privacy in order to flourish and attain genius. Through writing, she says, women can achieve freedom, but they can only write if they have material indulgences.  Woolf takes the reader on a historic journey of women writers and their own strengths, but mostly, their shortcomings, because they lacked what Woolf considers to be of most value to a writer. Her tone is effective as it is simultaneously witty and lovely, and simple to read.

A Room of One’s Own reminded me of a movie I once viewed titled Mozart’s Sister, which I can’t help but think was inspired by Virginia Woolf.  Although its main purpose seems to be for entertainment, the movie took liberties describing the life of Maria Anne Mozart, depicting her as a very promising musician who faded into obscurity because of her sex.  In the film, she was a very daring woman who went as far as to cross dress in order to play for the dauphin. The introduction to this book states that “[she] is concerned with the fate of women of genius, not with that of ordinary women…not for universal justice.”  Even in this sense, the film appears to reiterate Woolf’s theme.  Had I not read the book, I would, and had, missed the relation entirely.  I have to pause and wonder how many other stories or works I have observed were inspired by this intelligent feminist. While I would not necessarily recommend the film because of some questionable material, I find it interesting the parallels it used in relation to A Room of one’s Own, and how Woolf continues to inspire and fascinate audiences more than eighty years after its publication.

From her writing, I have found that Woolf is not a radical feminist.  She is conservative, in many respects.  One, in her adamant belief that men and women are intrinsically different. This is not to say that she considers them unequal, but merely unique.  However, she states that the greatest writers must find a way to be androgynous in order to get their creative expression across without devolving too much of the personal in their writing voice.  I find it fascinating that she brought up the point that women, without any precedence except for male writers before them, were confined to writing about and in the manner of men, which caused their writing to suffer because they had not had the opportunity to share in those experiences in which they were writing about.  I am impressed by her manner of speaking, and her recognition of the subjectiveness of her viewpoint even while she attempts to paint a very convincing argument.  “At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.”  To me, it is endearing, although her mild wordiness that tended to appear whenever she was trying to make a point slightly got on my nerves.  Overall, however, I found her work to be enlightening and very suitably cast as a classic in feminist literature. The theme to which I would ascribe this work is most certainly feminism, as that is the focus point of the essay.  Although other themes are brought up, including gender as a role (or non-role) in writing, the overarching theme was freedom for women. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Elliot family (Sir Walter, a widow and 3 daughters; Elizabeth, Anne and Mary) are a respected, titled landowning family.  Mary is married to a wealthy man (Charles Musgrove) and Elizabeth and Anne are single.  Sir Walter loves his lavish lifestyle and has brought his family into massive debt with his overabundant spending. A friend convinces him that he must rent out his estate and relocate to a less expensive town (Bath) and a smaller house where his expenses will be less in order to save the financial situation of his family. Sir Walter rents his house to Admiral and Mrs. Croft, wealthy Navy people who earned their wealth rather than inherited it unlike Sir Walter.  Mrs. Croft is the sister of Anne’s former love.  Anne, now 27 was in love at age 19 with Captain Wentworth. They were engaged, but Anne was persuaded by family and friends that the Captain was not of “high enough consequence” and not rich which lead to Anne breaking off the engagement and regretted the decision for 9 years.  During that time, Captain Wentworth worked hard in the Navy and growing in both status and wealth.  After several meetings and finally discovering that they both still loved each other, Anne and Captain Wentworth renew their engagement.

Marriage and family
Having a historical setting of early 1800’s England, the plot involving an early marriage society perfectly coincides with the themes discussed in the class this semester. The theme of marriage and family is ever present in the novel, specially encompassing the issue of influence between marriage and family members. A potential spouse with a title and money was deemed superior to a mate without these things and family members felt an obligation to ensure their daughters, sisters, son, etc would marry someone of equal status. Sir Walter did not feel that traits such as; good character, hard work, good sense, or independence that Captain Wentworth possessed and dismissed him as a husband for his daughter Anne, even though they loved each other.  It was not until Captain Wentworth came back a wealthy Navy man that Sir Walter considered him and gave Anne his blessing.  Another facet is how much weight should a person give to others opinions when deciding who to marry in the early marriage society.  In 19th-century England, Anne followed the norm of the day and broke off her engagement to the Captain whom she loved because family and friends persuaded her to do so.  She was raised in the traditions of the wealthy titled family and though it was difficult because she loved the Captain, she followed her sense of duty, allowing herself to be influenced by her family and friends, rather than to her heart.  This leads to another facet of marriage and family—that of the plight of a single woman in 19th century England.  Women of the upper middle class didn’t have many choices---marry an approved man or become a spinster.  Anne, still single at age 27 was considered unlikely to marry due to her age.  She would not inherit from her father because she was a woman and therefore was doomed to a dismal future. Another facet of the marriage and family theme of the book is looking at an unconventional marriage that Admiral Croft and his wife had.  Typically the man would be responsible for things outside the home with the woman taking care of running the household and taking care of the children.  The Admiral and Mrs. Croft did things differently with Mrs. Croft sailing with her husband and the Admiral sharing the chores when they were home. 

In Persuasion, Jane Austen examines the topic of marriage and family through the looking glass of the upper middle class in Old England.  We see that tradition and the way in which a person was raised greatly affected the decision that Anne made to break off her engagement to Captain Wentworth. She sees in the 9 years until she meets him again examples of marriages that work and don’t work—her sister’s difficult marriage, the good example of marriage in the Croft’s, the unsavory nature of marriages made for social gain in the events involving Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, the Musgrove sister and Anne herself when she is pursued by her cousin William Elliot the heir to Sir Walter’s estate and title.  By the time she reconnects with the Captain at age 27, she is wiser, more mature, knows what she wants even though she may not have the approval of her friends and family, but she knows that her heart is the most important factor.