A little under 93 years ago, two remarkable gatherings took place at two University of Cambridge women’s colleges. You read that right: women’s colleges, for this was October 1928 and women were barely tolerated presences in places of higher education.
The speaker at both events was the novelist Virginia Woolf, who repeated her speech but with possible variations impossible to establish. Woolf called her talk Shakespeare’s Sister but it was never published as such; instead, it became an essay the following year, the now famous A Room of One’s Own.
Woolf had been asked to address the subject of Women in Fiction, which with her novelist’s skill she turned into a conundrum. Did it mean, she asked her youthful audience, “women and what they are like” or “women and the fiction that they write” or “women and the fiction that is written about them” or were they all “inextricably linked together and you want me to consider them in that light”.
Woolf said she rejected each of these readings because she would have been unable to offer either a conclusion or “the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you, after an hour’s discourse, a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever”. (As you see, her ironic faculty was never at rest.) Rather, what she was able to give was “an opinion upon one minor point: a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
From the purview of 2021, that seems an unremarkable statement of practical reality, the bare wherewithal and necessary conditions under which writing is feasible. But in Britain a decade after women were made eligible for parliamentary election and eight years after female suffrage, feminism was exhausted by those landmark achievements. So, Woolf’s deliciously underplayed statement – no “minor point” – had the effect of throwing a boulder rather than a pebble into the placid streams of English society and of Oxbridge academe.
A perennial puzzle
Oxford and Cambridge – featuring as “Oxbridge is an invention” – come under particular fire in the speech and essay. Woolf creates a fictional self, Mary Beton, who is at the same time herself, Virginia Woolf – a device that JM Coetzee was to use in his Nobel literature prize acceptance speech many years later. Beton/Woolf is harried by a college beadle (here, a garden warden keeping non-college persons and women off the verdant college lawns). Later, she wishes to visit the library to check an essay of Lamb’s but encounters “a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings … who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only permitted to the library if accompanied by a fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction”.
The paternalistic, patriarchal and misogynistic scene established, Woolf begins to pose uncomfortable historical questions. Of Elizabethan England, she asks, “For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” From this she moves to her great literary conceit in the speech: that “Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say”.
Unlike William, Judith is not schooled. No grammar, logic, Ovid, Virgil or Horace for her. In the manner of the time, she is faced with a marriage arranged by her father. She refuses. In the manner of the time, her father beats her; neither neighbours nor passers-by blink at the violence. So hateful is the prospect of forced marriage that Judith parcels up some belongings and sets off for London.
There, she hangs around the theatres but, of course, she is a woman and women are neither allowed to act nor thought capable of doing so. A stage manager shouts after her the deprecating comparison of poodles dancing and women acting. Over time, desperate, hungry, homeless, she succumbs to a loathsome actor-manager, who “took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so – who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? – killed herself one winter’s night”. It is a devastating denouement, with the shocking force that Woolf brought to her fiction, evoking the unflinching clarity of her novels Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
But, importantly, Judith Shakespeare is not dead. Woolf said on those two epochal October nights: “She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives, for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh… This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.”
Woolf was one of the greatest of Judith Shakespeares, and tragically died also by her own hand, drowning herself in the river Ouse near her home in Sussex during her last bout of mental anguish. But, just like Judith, Woolf lives in you and in me and in all who have read and will read her.