Virginia Woolf is often credited for her extensive contributions to English literature and the transformation of the modern novel. Her feminist genius, however, becomes even more evident in her academic writings. Now, more than 90 years later, we need her insight more than ever.
Woolf was born January 25, 1882, the daughter of well-connected Victorian parents, who were deeply intertwined with the literary and artistic scene in England at the time. She was born to privilege, but the deaths of her parents and other family members triggered severe mental illness in early adolescence, and she struggled with Depression until her suicide in 1941.
Woolf’s family life in British high society and her experience of World War I were both seminal in her most famous novels — notably Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). In the years leading up to the war, she was a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of artists and intellectuals who were influential in the development of British avant-garde art and writing.
Woolf wrote adeptly and psychologically, using a style called “free indirect discourse” which allows the reader to encounter the characters in all their complexities, and move smoothly between conscious thoughts and external observation by an all-seeing narrator.
The rise of the novel in the 17th and 18th centuries was vital to the visibility of women in the Western Canon (albeit white, economically privileged women). Margaret Cavendish, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley were some of the first women writers to be celebrated and recognized by a public audience for their novels, which told complex and engaging stories. Woolf, however, using her captivating style, goes beyond the narrative. She writes of privilege, gender and formal British society, much like Jane Austen, but she dives further into the complexities of gender roles and the psychological condition of her characters.
The women in her novels, often mothers or wives, are dictated by strict social codes. They navigate an internal struggle between internalized misogyny and the desire for a fulfilling, independent identity. Transgression of norms, however, is met with disapproval — either subtle or outright — from her complex, questioning male characters.
Using a transformative and rule-breaking style, Woolf commands more respect and attention for female authors in the academic sphere. Her close observation and psychological analysis of gender is at the forefront in her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), which examines the restricted nature of feminine academic pursuits and the limitations placed on the female author.
The patriarchy is an oppressive force in writing and publication: “The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this [news]paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of the patriarchy” (Woolf 39). This power emanates from the highest position in writing — the male academic — as he tries to protect his seat of privilege from feminine authorship. Because almost all the writing Woolf could find on women was by male authors, oppression was inherent and inescapable. Woolf writes:
“Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. He is the power and the money and the influence… Yet he was angry. When an arguer argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too. If he had written dispassionately about women, had used indisputable proofs to establish his argument and had shown no trace of wishing the result should be one thing rather than the other, one would not have been angry either. One would have accepted the fact, as one accepts the fact that a pea is green or a canary is yellow… But I had been angry because he was angry.” (Woolf 39).
This aggressive argumentation is rampant in the current political climate, as populist, radically right-wing politics stifle the ability for women — and other social minorities — to self advocate. Factual evidence is often a casualty of populist politics, and Woolf confronts this head on. The political backlash that debases women and undermines feminist values comes from a place of anger and insecurity. Women writing as women, and not in relation to, or in comparison to men, destabilizes the system of privilege and value inherent in the Canon — and that is exactly what Woolf’s work does. Reading her work, and the work of other female and genderqueer scholars, we can continue that legacy of deconstruction and reinvigoration of academic and creative writing.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
Read, Panthea. “Virginia Woolf.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Virginia-Woolf
“Virginia Woolf.” The British Library. https://www.bl.uk/people/virginia-woolf
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Harper Collins, 1994.