In the year 1928, Virginia Woolf was called by the Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton to speak about women and fiction. The papers delivered by Woolf on the two occasions have since been compiled and expanded into an essay titled ‘A room of one’s own’. But, hang on, we’re talking about women and about fiction and this lady is talking real estate? Not quite. For a woman to be a successful author/writer or poet, she must have a room of her own and an income of so-and-so per year, Woolf asserted. The simplicity and directness of this statement makes one not take it too seriously. She said nothing about passion, dedication, discipline, creativity or any of those virtues we may expect to have an important role in the development of the writer. Instead, she drew my attention to two mere resources- a private room and a steady income. Why? The rationale took me back to a time where female writers were unheard of, right at the beginning of what we may call the dawn of women and fiction. The reasons presented in her argument collude and transcend all that affects, aids and discriminates against her sex. I found myself riveted to the essay, produced almost a century ago, but very much concordant with and inclusive of the notions of femininity and feminism that arrest me today.
To study about women and fiction, Woolf went back to the earliest of literature about women. But, here, we encounter an issue. There is no dearth of literature featuring women but only as a subject. There are plenty of books by men on a range of topics but no books written by women. What were the women doing and why were they not writing but leaving it to the other sex to represent and document them? Even the books of history had a minimal mention of them, as if they had been invisible during all of the wars and revolutions. But there was no shortage of books written on or about women, studies on the character of women, on how to deal with them and understand them. At this point, I began to wonder- are we really two variants of the same species? Or did the women just show up one day, from Venus perhaps, and demanded that men study, tolerate and control them? There is also a certain vehemence with which men, irrespective of country, race or religion, have all rushed at some point of history to denounce women and introduce ideas of inferiority.
Forgive my unintended misandry for an instant while we examine the position of the average person: A person, to be successful in any industry, must possess a certain degree of self-respect and confidence. We must also agree to the fact that if the average person is communicated a notion of ‘being better’ than, let’s say, another person, this perception of self-worth automatically increases. Now, think of the average man and think about him being told that ‘he’ is the superior sex. Oh, that would be a nice boost for the ego, wouldn’t it? An entire half of the population diminished and swept away in a matter of sentences. And this sentiment was echoed when Woolf tried to find the reason for why there were so many men writing their views on women. For a long period in history, the woman has served as a mirror to the man- a mirror that enlarging their self-image and feeding the idea of superiority. This is the premise of a patriarchal society.
On the idea of superiority of males over females- enough has been said and proven already. Yet, the idea never leaves us. It finds its way across generations and cultures to restrain the woman or to falsely implicate the man in to pre-defined, stereotypical roles. The worst consequence of this school of thought is obviously the mass prevalence of female feticides and favoritism exhibited towards the male child. It is how we treat the child that determines how society functions in the future.
However, going back to the era Woolf had me in; I find that the woman had not written any book to defend herself.
The question of there being no literature produced by women in that period can be attributed to two factors- illiteracy and poverty. She was illiterate because there was no place for a woman of words and knowledge in a household run on patriarchy. The lack of education again guaranteed a disability for her to fend for herself. Also, the laws and practices of inheritance made it impossible for her to come in possession of money. Hence, she was poor and dependent. The force restricting expression of the female creative power was the patriarchal society.
When a society is governed by rules written by a certain section; the other section would always find themselves living within the confines of roles chalked out for them. The woman found that the masculine opinions of what she could and could not do- often unsupported by fact but flung casually at her nevertheless, blotted her formative years and carved holes into the pillars of her self-confidence. Could an artist be born this way? One may argue that the woman need not pay attention to these external factors so out of her control and focus on her own artistic intent itself. But, Art is born out of sense of self and , quoting Woolf, ‘it is precisely the men or women of genius that mind most what is said of them’. Even so, let us consider that she somehow ignores what is said about her ability and talent, but the lack of money and education coupled with the abundance of domestic responsibility were reasons enough to dissuade her. It were only the distinguished, privileged and wealthy ladies who could afford to write poetry or literature- but even then, other forms of Art were strictly out of her reach. Their works were marked with traces of feminism that were, without a doubt, necessary. Their creative energies could have been directed elsewhere, to other aspects of Life, in general, yet they chose to divest them on the more pressing issue, may be to reclaim their voice. The woman wrote neither philosophy nor odes to nature or love but tales about the injustice of her oppression.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the female author discovered that she could turn to the letter for bread. But, of course, no honourable woman could be found making a career out of being a wordsmith. Even Austen hid behind pseudonyms. But now her work was free from aggression directed towards men or pity on her own self. With the dawn of the nineteenth century, she finally began seeing writing as an art form, not merely as a tool for self-expression.
To what extent can we disentangle the personal from Art? It can be argued that every creative endeavour attempted by a person provides an insight to that person- his views, memories, general ideals and ideas of life. Hence, in this context, literature can be said to serve as a sort of a mirror to society. Thereby, it makes sense to draw an analysis of literature over the years to gauge the trends in gender perception with time.
The relationship between women as represented in literature/Art can be compared and examined for its similarities with reality. A lot many pieces leave the reader wondering if two women can ever share the bond of friendship without jealousy and competition. Literature has had several examples of men as friends, bosses, helpers, etc. of other men. But, to sketch women in relationships other than those they share with men was a task not attempted as often. As Woolf wrote, ‘…seen only in relation to the other sex…how small a part of a woman’s life is that…how little can a man know, when he observes it through black or rosy spectacles…’. Hence, the representation of the woman cannot be deemed to be objective in such a scenario. Authors such as Mary Carmichael (among others of the likes of Woolf, Austen and the Brontes, etc) attempted to another dimension to literature by portraying the oft obscured domestic life. Great novels had been written about splendid events like wars and catastrophes but seldom about the trivialities that one observes in a household or about the aspirations of common women. So, May Carmichael, when she intended to write about women, had to set out on an expedition to explore, understand and grasp the vanities, peculiarities, ambitions and insecurities of her own sex as well as to observe the other sex and the relationships between them. She wrote about two women, their friendship, their respective domestic lives and refreshingly, their shared ambition outside of domesticity.
I do not wish to promulgate a vision of books written by women, for women and about women. But, for a long period in history, we have gone without appreciating the complex and sensitive bond shared between two women which is not influenced by the men in their lives.
The great mind, I am convinced, is androgynous. The accomplished writer writes unconscious of their own sex. You do not read a great work of art and immediately conclude that it was the work of a man or a woman. Yet, if we observe the literary world around us, we would find numerous examples of gender being assigned to different types of literature and cinema. The great artist knows that men and women are the ends of the same spectrum, not opposing factions. If we see the truly prominent and lasting works of art, like Shakespeare, we would find that they have been the ones conceived by a mind unconscious of sex- the androgynous mind. (May be that is why there has been unending speculation over the Bard’s gender over the years.)
There is a great satisfaction in seeing the sexes as parts of a whole and none as an end within itself. The fully developed mind does not think specially or separately of gender.