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Women and Fiction by

Asked to speak at Cambridge before college women on the subject “Women and Florition” – for this was a lecture before it was a book – Mrs. Woolf confessed that the subject could encompass a great:
Women and fiction might mean … women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together …
But on reflection she saw that all she could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of women and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
Having so clearly indicated her argument, Mrs. Woolf even more clearly proceeds to maintain and illuminate it. And in the course of doing so she manages, however much she may pretend to limit her theme, to say a good deal about the true nature of women and of fiction. She says little that has not been said before; indeed, she sets out to prove a point that most intelligent people accept as truistic; but seldom has the point been driven home more cogently or embellished with wittier comment.
With the inherent taste of a novelist Mrs. Woolf chooses to speak through an “I” who is and yet is not herself and to enforce her argument through incident: lunch in a men’s college, dinner in a women’s college, a view of London from an upstairs window, a ramble among the books in her own library. This slightly fictional setting tends to impersonalize Mrs. Woolf’s attitude at the same time that it gives artificial personality to her remarks and breaks up a purely historical analysis with running comment – and with, it must be admitted, some highly irrelevant passages of description.
What Mrs. Woolf has traced, of course, are the reasons for the very limited achievements among women novelists through the centuries. Why did they fail? They failed because they were not financially independent; they failed because they were not intellectually free; they failed because they were denied the fullest worldly experience. Mrs. Woolf imagines what would have happened to a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare (who possessed all his genius) because she lived in the eighteenth century; she insists that, whatever her gifts, no woman in that age of wife-beating could have written the plays. She shows what did happen in the nineteenth century to the Brontes and George Eliot because they lacked full participation in life; even George Eliot, the “emancipated” woman, lived with a man prosaically in St. John’s Wood, while Tolstoy roamed the world and lived with gypsies; and “War and Peace” was as impossible for a woman to write then as “Lear” three centuries before.
But even within the limits of their own possibilities in past times, Mrs. Woolf continues, women did not find themselves because they wrote in deference to masculine standards or in angry defiance of them:
One has only to skim those old forgotten novels by women … to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by the way of aggression, or that by the way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was “only a woman” or protesting that she was “not as good as a man.” … It does not matter what it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself.
Thus the woman writer was corrupted by an alien standard of art; and Emily Bronte or George Eliot, writing in the accepted masculine style of their times, wrote by that much the worse. Only an exceptional Jane Austen wrote entirely as a woman, so that with less genius than Emily Bronte she achieved greater success.
Today, Mrs. Woolf continues, there is danger from another source. The woman novelist is nowadays sex-conscious; and the artist can no more be sex-conscious than sex-inhibited. The great creative mind must be androgynous; and Mrs. Woolf interprets Coleridge’s famous definition to mean, not sympathetic with the other sex (which effects a creative division) but harmoniously bisexual in comprehension (which affects a creative fusion).
Thus Mrs. Woolf has traced the position of the woman writer through the centuries, wittily finishing it off with contrasting pictures of men’s lives and women’s lives even today. We have summarized baldly, whereas Mrs. Woolf speaks for her sex with as much fancy as logic, as much wit as knowledge, and with the imagination of a true novelist. And she speaks for it well. Moreover, she escapes from an attitude of conventional feminism by really arguing in this book not for women but for artists. For, of course, all artists, whatever their sex, need, 500 pounds a year an a room on their own. It is only because women have had them so much less frequently than men that a special plea for them has a special force.
In making that plea Mrs. Woolf sometimes partly evades an issue. We cannot tell how much better Dickens would have written had he not struggled, or Meredith had he not wearily read manuscript for Chapman & Hall, or Balzac had he not sought feverishly to discharge heavy debts; but we do know that lacking means and intellectual freedom these men succeeded where women failed. We cannot tell how much better Hawthorne would have written, or Flaubert, or Hardy, had their experiences been more cosmopolitan; but we do know that great knowledge of the world is not necessary for great art. The premium mobile mist be genius itself. Jane Austen knew nobody and George Sand knew everybody, and Jane Austen was by far the greater and there you have it.
But in spite of a theme that is pretty self-evident and conclusions that are not always definitive, this book, the distillation of the crystalline mind, so gaily and freshly and yet forcefully written, says something. Many of the best things are said in passing – flashes of insight, succinct bits of criticism, the significant touches which always mark the writer who knows a great deal more than the one thing he is commissioned to discuss. Occasionally Mrs. Woolf is not above sacrificing the truth to wit, or impartial judgment to a tempting thrust. But nearly always, even at her most informal, she maintains an unfaltering poise, and permeates this book with that individual set of literary and critical values so clearly enunciated in “The Common Reader.”

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