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Virginia Woolf - A feminist reading of her work in the context of her life an the history of emancipation

Facharbeit (Schule) 2008 26 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Erörterungen und Aufsätze



1) Introduction

2) The situation before the war
2.1) The poverty of the female sex

3) Women’s Movement, Suffrage and Emancipation
3.1) Virginia Woolf’s involvement

4) The First World War and women’s new role

5) The nature of femininity and feminism
5.1) A difference in values
5.2) The woman as a ‘looking-glass’
5.3) The ‘anger’ of the sexes
5.4) Androgyny and the ‘unity of the mind’

6) Woolf’s female characters
6.1) A Room of One’s Own : Mary
6.2) Mrs. Dalloway: Clarissa
6.3) Orlando: A Biography

7) Female relationships
7.1) Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
7.1.1) Orlando: The longest love-letter in literature

8) Conclusion



1) Introduction

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Only if a woman has money and a room of her own she is independent enough to be able to develop to the full or else she will always be tied down by the conventions of her time and the society she is living in. Virginia Woolf’s quote, although referring to a certain situation, which can, however, also be extended to other aspects of life, shows in my opinion clearly her desire for female independence and freedom. This is probably the reason why she became one of the leading figures of the Women’s Movement during the so-called ‘second wave’ of emancipation in the 1970s in which Woolf was re-discovered as a feminist writer and early advocate of women’s emancipation.

In this essay I would like to discuss how far the assumption is correct that Virginia Woolf was a feminist writer and, if she was, to what extent she formulated her feminist thoughts in her work. To judge this I have chosen to analyse her arguably most famous essay A Room of One’s Own. Furthermore, I’ll also take a closer look at some parts of her well-known novel Mrs. Dalloway and of the probably less famous Orlando: A Biography, a text which can not, in its form and style be clearly defined, but has characteristics of a biography as well as those of a novel.

In order to actually understand Virginia Woolf’s true motives and her opinions on feminism, emancipation and the Women’s Movement as well as the Suffrage Movement, however, her work has to be set into the context of both, her life and the time she was living in. It is necessary to uncover the many facets of Virginia Woolf for she was a woman who was not easily understood. Often very different, sometimes even opposing, points of view on one and the same topic can be found throughout her work, a fact which can simply be explained by the natural changing of one’s perspective during a lifetime due to experiences made. However, it is also a fact which makes it difficult to ascertain a clear picture of this fascinating 20th century writer, who sought her own end in drowning herself in the River Ouse near her home Monks House in Sussex.

Many questions have to be asked and answers must be found, so that one can be able to at least come closer to what she believed to be the ultimate truth about women and the nature of being female. For example, how did Virginia Woolf’s lesbian relationship with contemporary writer Vita Sackville-West influence her? What effect had the First World War on the views of society and especially on the role of women in this society? And how did this in turn affect Woolf’s literature?

I will try to find answers to these and other questions though truth can not be found as it lies in the eye of the beholder and it is her choice to decide for herself what is true and what is not. Seen this way only Virginia Woolf herself could convey to us what were her initial thoughts. What we believe to know about her point of view by reading her texts is nothing but interpretation and guessing for Virginia Woolf already admits in A Room of One’s Own that “lies will flow from [her] lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for [us] to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.”[1]

2) The situation before the war

The situation for women before the war, that is the situation before the First World War, which was back then still called the European War for there had not yet been a second war of such proportions, was anything but good. In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf explores, with the help of her character Mary, the role woman played in society before the 18th century in order to find reasons explaining her complete absence from literature.

What she discovers is, although generally known, still disturbing and Virginia Woolf doesn’t hold back for if she would, she would miss out on something extremely important as only the one who dares to take a look into the dark depths of the past will be able to understand the present.

In a History of England she reads: “Wife-beating [...] was a recognized right of man, and was practised without shame by high as well as low [...]”.[2] Furthermore a girl was seen before marriage as the property of her father who thus chose her husband for her. If she refused to accept the marriage, her father had every right to beat her and lock her up without having to fear any protests being voiced from the side of the public.

Once she was married though, her husband was her new “lord and master” and if he did not treat her with respect there was no way out.[3] It was an exception if a woman of the upper or middle class could choose her own husband, so she was always dependent on her father’s good will and had to trust him to find a good husband for her, which was often a game of chance. Many fathers did not give the highest priority to their daughters’ well-being but were rather primarily concerned with how much influence they could win by arranging a good marriage for their daughter.

Women have been oppressed since the beginning of time and were basically made mere objects in the hands of men. Laws made by men made sure that anything in their eyes necessary could be done in order to keep everything the way it was.

A very peculiar fact is therefore the difference between the role of women in reality and the role women were given in the literature written by men as this was the only place where they existed. Virginia Woolf noted that “imaginatively she is of highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”[4]

Taking all this into account it would have been impossible for a woman before the 18th century to do anything, be it speaking her mind or writing great literature. To stress this fact even more Virginia Woolf starts following the tracks of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister and asks the question: What would have happened if a woman in Shakespeare’s time, the Elizabethan age, had had the same genius as the great playwright and poet and had decided to make use of it?

Other than her brother she would not have got the same education, she would not have been sent to school and she would not have learnt grammar and logic, two important tools for the exertion of one’s skills. Her parents would have confined her to the house where she would have had to take care of the household. There wouldn’t have been any free time for her to read and practise her mind and as soon as she was fifteen or sixteen she would have been engaged to a boy from her neighbourhood. If she had not wanted to marry him her father would have beaten her and locked her up in her room. She would have fled her parents’ house to London, to the theatre. She would have claimed that she wanted to act and men would have laughed at her for no woman could be an actress. At last the theatre manager would have taken pity in her and soon she would have found herself pregnant with the manager’s child and being so abused and her gift being so pruned she would have killed herself in a cold winter’s night lying now buried outside the Elephant and Castle.

This story holds, although completely fictitious, a lot of truth as it resembles, in less extreme ways, the story of Mozart’s sister Maria Anna who did indeed have the same genius as her famous brother but despite that, she is almost unknown because as a woman she did just not have the same options as a man in this era.

With obvious criticism scattered in irony Woolf discovers this as the reason for woman’s complete absence not only from literature but also from history and finds out as well about what she calls the ‘poverty of the female sex’.

2.1) The poverty of the female sex

When Mary Beton, Mary Seton or Mary Carmichael is strolling around the grounds of the University of ‘Oxbridge’ and when she sees how much money has flown into the buildings and faculties, which were not only endowed by men but were also founded to help their purposes and from which women were excluded, she starts wondering why not her friend’s mother, nor any of their mothers, had gone into business, had made a lot of money, which to leave to their daughters, and had not endowed a college or founded a scholarship which was “appropriated to the use of their own sex”.[5] She starts wondering why women are so poor and have always been.

One of the main reasons she comes across is the problem of childbearing. If Mary Seton’s mother had really gone into business at around the age of fifteen or sixteen, as was the usual age at that time, the thing is that there would have been no Mary.

Virginia Woolf is of the opinion that “to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children – no human being could stand it.”[6]

She therefore states quite plainly that with the conventions and customs of the time and without birth control it was absolutely unthinkable for a woman to work and earn money as she was far too busy taking care of her children and the household.

Another reason, however, was the one that women, even if they had had the possibility to work, could not have kept the money they had earned for the law denied them any property. All their income would have belonged to their husbands before the 1880s and it was for this reason that many women did not even think about going into business and trying to bring a change about for it would have been a fruitless work.

Virginia Woolf’s expression of the ‘poverty of the female sex’, which in Orlando she also calls the “dark garment [...] of the female sex”, does not, however, only refer to financial poverty. She also investigates the effects poverty has on the mind and thus the reason why there were so few achievements made by women, be it in literature or in other fields.[7]

Coming back to the story of Shakespeare’s talented but unlucky sister, Woolf acknowledges that a “genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring uneducated, servile people” and could therefore not have been born among women of the working-class.[8] But at the same time she believes that there must have been some kind of genius even among the working-class for otherwise there had never been an Emily Brontë. Her theory is that this genius passed by unnoticed because a “highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift [...] would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instinct, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.”[9]

3) Women’s Movement, Suffrage and Emancipation

To escape the conventions and restrictions of their time and to obtain more independence and freedom of speech women soon joined together in what is generally known as the Women’s Movement. Up to the present there have been three ‘waves’ of this movement which are also called the three waves of emancipation. By campaigning and gaining more rights women were seeking to emancipate themselves from men and the rule of patriarchy.

The first of these three waves took place during the late 19th and early 20th century and was mainly defined by the Suffrage Movement. Due to the fact that women were not allowed the vote and were even, by the Suffrage Reform Act passed in 1832, strictly forbidden to vote, many unions and associations were founded over the following years in order to take action and win the vote for women. Slowly the situation improved and after the Local Government Act in 1894 women were allowed to vote in local elections.


[1] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.5

[2] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.49

[3] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.49

[4] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.51

[5] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.24

[6] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.25

[7] Woolf, Virginia; Orlando: A Biography; p.153

[8] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.56

[9] Woolf, Virginia; A Room of One’s Own; p.57


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Virginia Woolf



Titel: Virginia Woolf - A feminist reading of her work in the context of her life an the history of emancipation