“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”
From the essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. The essay, published in 1929, is based on two lectures Woolf delivered at women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge a year earlier. The essay takes its title from the following sentence: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Woolf explores whether women, facing many social and economic challenges in a patriarchal society, are capable and free to produce great literature. During Woolf’s time, women were not encouraged to attend college and obtain a formal education. She cites Austen and Bronte who broke with societal norms: “Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that.”
In this passage, Woolf presents the chasm between how women are idealized in fiction written by men and how women are actually treated:
“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the 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 and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.”
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