“What if Shakespeare had a sister” posed Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) to her audience in her now-famous speech about women and fiction, published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own. “A wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.”
Shakespeare himself went to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin – Ovid, Virgil, and Horace – and the elements of grammar and logic. He was…a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen.
Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about the books and papers. … Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful and for that was severely beaten by her father…
Woolf continues to extend this rather bold, enticing portrait of Judith Shakespeare until there should be no doubt that this figure – imagined as she may be – would have been a talent comparable to her brother.
Had she his freedoms.
When Woolf was asked to speak at Griton College, Cambridge about women and fiction, she rather brilliantly focused on the woman who could have written. Our beloved Judith Shakespeare.1
“What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” a question that echoes today for many.2
When we read about poet A. E. Housman pacing the halls of Oxford to synthesize his poetry of longing, or John Keats loose in Venetian archives in search of “Endymion,” we must ask: would a woman have been allowed to do the same?
And if not, how does that affect her natural, innate gifts of artistry?3
All I 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 woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. … I am going to do what I can to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money. I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought which led me to think this. Perhaps if I lay bare the ideas, the prejudices, that lie behind this statement you will find that they have some bearing upon women and some upon fiction.
Woolf’s excellent metaphor of Judith notwithstanding, the depth of meaning is of A Room of One’s Own is lost without our tremendous empathy for what this must have meant to Woolf.
When she writes, “I am going to develop in your presence” what she means is: I will lead you on the path to knowledge that has been denied me and my kind all along.
Woolf argues that fiction, this act of indulging our true natures and unloading our deepest selves, is so personal, vulnerable, it must be safe, protected. Annie Dillard heartfully admitted that she couldn’t sleep in the same room her manuscripts.
Actually Dillard’s own writing experience illuminates Woolf’s meaning when she – Dillard – reworks her predecessor’s famous line: “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
A mind unimpeded, a consciousness that expands to the edge of the desk and no further. That is truly what it takes to write fiction. A need to empty ourselves of longing, need, and other mind-trampling things. Money is not money, it is ownership, property. Property in its own way leads to safety, security, and freedom.
It was a woman, Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested, who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night.
This may be true or it many be false – who can say? – but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.4
Room of one’s own becomes a metaphor for uninterruptible space and time. It becomes a metaphor for access, ability to enter the hallowed, enriched space of one’s own mind.
Longtime writer and explorer of identity and consciousness, Dani Shapiro once wrote: “Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censor, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us.”
The genius of Woolf’s work is not that she argues “She could have been something…” and then swats away counter examples like Austen or the Bronte sisters. (Although the fact that these women did exist and did write is one of the most resounding triumphs of the human race.)
The genius of A Room of One’s Own and the reason it endures today as a such an enormous metaphor despite the fact that property, voting rights etc. have improved, is Woolf asks us whether Shakespeare would have become Shakespeare if we left him innate talent but took away all opportunity.
What if William and Judith had switched lives?
We cannot know one another, argued Erich Fromm, we cannot know what it means to be one another.
In the words of Elie Wiesel who has written so much about memory and the limits of empathy, “Ours is not to know but to understand.”
Woolf leads us on that path to understanding.