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.

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