Guest Post by Tony Grant: Virginia Woolf Made a Reference to Jane Austen

Dear Janeites and Other Readers:  I welcome today Tony Grant. He has just read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and asked if I would post his review. Tony for a time wrote a blog on Virginia Woolf called “The Novels of Virginia Woolf” – he is hoping to do more on there now that he is re-inspired! There are endless resources out there on Woolf (see below for a few links), but here Tony is giving his personal view of what he learned in reading A Room of One’s Own, and how it relates to Jane Austen.

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“Virginia Woolf Made a Reference to Jane Austen,”
by Tony Grant.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf was first published in 1929. Woolf was invited in 1928 to give a talk to the female undergraduates at Girton College, Cambridge on the theme of women and fiction. She came up with the title for her talk as, A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. The premise of her argument was that women needed a room of their own and time to write, provided by an independent income. Virginia Woolf suggested £500 a year.

Coincidently that was the same amount that an Aunt, who died in India, left Virginia Woolf in her will, allowing her to be independent of her husband. She was allowed time to think and write without the constraints of the straight jacket of wife, mother, and organizer of a great man’s home. She could afford a room of her own in which to write undisturbed. She argued that women writers in history had been far and few between because of the restrictions a patriarchal society put on them, a society that actively discouraged, insulted, and humiliated women’s abilities. Men thought that women were not capable of writing great fiction or write intelligently on any subject.

She references Aphra Behn, a playwright, poet and translator who lived in the 17th century, as the first woman writer to make money from writing. She goes on to explain that later in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jane Austen, The Brontës and George Elliot began to show what brilliant writers women can be, even if hidden behind anonymity or male pseudonyms. These few, early, great women writers were however, limited in their scope by their circumstances. Virginia Woolf’s hope is that a “Shakespeare’s Sister,” will emerge one day.

We are introduced to Mary Beton, her aunt who left Virginia the £500 per year inheritance and provided the means for her to become a writer; Mary Seton, a wife and mother who is constrained by her circumstances and has no chance of becoming a writer; Mary Carmichael, an author who does not write particularly well – her sentence structures are not those of Jane Austen, from whom she should have learned, but nonetheless begins to write about women in an extraordinary way from a woman’s perspective and begins to portray the subtleties of womanhood uninfluenced by a patriarchal society. These three characters represent three aspects of the lives of women.

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom at Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf argues that intellectual freedom depends upon the possession of material things (a room of one’s own and £500 per year), a good education and well-connected families. She thinks the education the poor receive will not raise them to equality with the upper levels of society. She decries that they will have no chance of their voice being heard. Women’s lives and the poor in society are a downtrodden second class group.

Nowadays there is a sort of worship and fan cult associated with Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf would be bemused and not understand this I think. Austen is a great writer, especially in exploring the relationships between men and women which is acutely highlighted in her writing because of the patriarchy of the 18th and 19th centuries.

But because of the constraints placed on by the male members of her family, no “room of her own,” and no independent income, Austen’s world was a very narrow world of drawing rooms. There was not enough global experience of women writers and women in other aspects of society, equal to that of men’s for Austen to build on. She was and is impressive for what she achieved, but she had her limitations. Austen was timid and protective about her writing. She didn’t experience life outside of a strict set of patriarchal boundaries. It does seem extraordinary nowadays there is so much fuss over her.

The aim for women writers, in the words of Virginia Woolf, is to become “Shakespeare’s Sister.” It must be said that Shakespeare did not have a sister as far as we know. What Virginia Woolf means is that in her view Shakespeare was the greatest male writer. He had the perfect balance of the “male-female” brain, creative and fertile with ideas derived from a wide experience of the world, male histories, male experiences and male writing through the centuries. If Shakespeare’s Sister had been able to become the female version of her brother, employing the “female male” brain alongside a wealth of women’s experiences in writing and society, we would have a female writer of equal brilliance and scope.

Virginia Woolf’s presentation to the Girton Undergraduates is nothing if not meant to encourage them all to become writers, not just of fiction but scientific treatises, histories, biographies, poetry, and more besides, because as Woolf states “books talk to books,” and with a rich history of women’s writing to draw on this “Shakespeare’s Sister” can finally emerge.

Jane Austen was a step along the way to the emergence of this “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Mary Carmichael, perhaps a pseudonym for Virginia Woolf herself, represents another important step along the way. They are only steps.

“Be yourself” is a slogan Virginia Woolf leaves her young female audience with. She describes what women need to do to become writers and become themselves: “They need to build their ideas and thoughts on those of other women.” She points out how near impossible it is to achieve that without an immense struggle and everyone doing their bit. Even ninety years later, Virginia Woolf’s treatise has a freshness about it.

Virginia Woolf’s writing shed, Monk’s House

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Thank you Tony for sharing your thoughts on Woolf and Austen! You can visit Tony’s regular blog “London Calling” here: http://general-southerner.blogspot.com/

Would love to hear your thoughts on A Room of One’s Own – do you think Woolf’s ideas remain relevant today? Do you agree that there was a dearth of women’s writing because of the patriarchal society and its subjugation of women? Since Woolf’s time there has been an ongoing effort to re-discover the early women writers that have been long forgotten, also a result of that subjugation, and many of these Woolf would have known nothing about. [You can visit the Library at Chawton House to read about many of these early authors: https://chawtonhouse.org/ – and especially the biographies and online novels].

Woolf references Austen in more than just A Room of One’s Own – she refers to Austen in many of her writings, and wrote several full-length essays – here are two.

  1. “Jane Austen” in The Common Reader (1925): http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300031h.html#C11
  2. Woolf’s review of R. W. Chapman’s 1923 edition of Austen’s novels at The New Republic (1924): https://newrepublic.com/article/115922/virginia-woolf-jane-austen

For some commentary on Woolf’s opinion of Austen, see:

  1. This essay in Persuasions 12 (1990) by Judith Lee on Woolf reading Austen: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/lee.htm
  2. Another essay in Persuasions On-Line 29.1 (2008) by Emily Auerbach, “The Geese vs. the “Niminy Piminy Spinster”: Virginia Woolf Defends Jane Austen”: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol29no1/auerbach.html

I could go on… – there’s a veritable goldmine of information on Woolf and Austen out there!

Further reading:

[Images from Tony Grant]

c2019 Jane Austen in Vermont

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