Wait! William Shakespeare had a sister? What can be the reason why we never heard about her? Who was she? Was she as gifted as her brother?
To answer such questions, one has to take into consideration women’s condition throughout history. Nowadays, efforts are being made to give people access to resources and opportunities in an equal manner, regardless of their gender. But we know it wasn’t always like this. Even now, there are still men who believe they are entitled to telling women how should they live their lives.
On every list of ”must read classics” there are visibly more male names than women names. How come? A woman is ”the most discussed animal in the universe”, as Virginia Woolf said. Yet, the amount of books written by her is limited. Why is the list dominated by males? It was said that the reason of this huge discrepancy is the ”mental, moral and physical inferiority” of women in comparison with their male counterparts. Really?
The best way to understand why women couldn’t write a word when every other men could is to hear the opinion of a woman. Virginia Woolf is the best choice one can make as she herself had to face the disdain of men who strongly believed that women should have no career whatsoever. And we speak here about the twentieth century. She wrote one of the greatest book on women and fiction in which she came with the idea that one needs to be financially free and to have a private room in order to be able to create a work of art:
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.
Why is money that important in the act of creation? Because once you are no longer a slave to it, you can finally have ”the freedom to think of things in themselves” and see everything without being negatively influenced by your frustrations.
Virginia Woolf’s explanation on why women never wrote books from the beginning of times is that they were always dependent on man regarding the expenses needed to be done. And since the world revolves around money and they had none, all they could do was to be humble and to submit in everything to men. This lack of financial freedom is responsible for taking women the power of choosing a career for themselves:
If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing;
However, if women had started a business as men did, there would have been less children born and no one would have taken care of their education and provided the warmth and affection they needed:
Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been—that was the snag in the argument—no Mary…People say, too, that human nature takes its shape in the years between one and five. If Mrs Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels?
Women always stayed home and took care of children. They helped boys grow into the fine men that ended up being great writers, merchants, lawyers, politicians, priests etc. A girl was bound to motherhood and household ever since birth and the thought of her pursuing a career was unimaginable. Instead of being seen at her true value and being praised for her huge sacrifice, she was almost insignificant in the eyes of men. Education was out of question for a woman as money would have been wasted on someone who had no right to own money and live like a human being. Those who knew how to scribble a few words were lucky and probably they came from a rich family. Therefore, how could be there any books written by women when they did not even know how to write? So, it was impossible for them to compete with men.
This is what women were doing everyday:
And even if they did know how to write, they had to face the hostility of the world who made them feel ashamed and doubtful they could ever write something. To make readers understand how poorly were women seen in the past, Woolf gives as an example the assessments of a highly educated figure from Cambridge, Mr. Oscar Browning who said that:
… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.
This is only one example, but a large number of people believed that men are superior by nature. Furthermore, she said that as the professor was someone important, his ideas were not questioned and those families who did not want their daughters to become artists used his words in order to discourage the girls from continuing on that road:
Let us suppose that a father from the highest motives did not wish his daughter to leave home and become writer, painter or scholar. ‘See what Mr Oscar Browning says,’ he would say; and there so was not only Mr Oscar Browning;
Compared to men, women had to work twice as much in order for their stories to even reach the readers, considering that no one wanted to read something a woman wrote after everything it was said about her intelligence. What Woolf highlights is that when a man wanted to write, he was let to do what he wanted, whereas a woman was not lucky to get the same treatment:
The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?
After being denied an equal chance of education, all a woman could do was stay home and become a good wife. All those books picture a woman as being intelligent, beautiful, powerful and influential, when in fact she was powerless, insignificant and forced to spend her entire life with someone chosen by the father and not by her:
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, 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.
I asked myself many times why did those girls had never revolted against those harsh rules from the beginning. Later on I found they did. And as a consequence of not being subordinate, they were ”liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion”. It was a necessity for them to obey and not fight if they did not want to be violently punished. No wonder women lived in fear and bitterness for so many years:
To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.
Therefore, Woolf’s opinion is that a woman born with a literary gift was the most miserable being in the world as she had to hide it and do something less captivating and motivating for her:
That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.
And you wondered why you never heard about Judith Shakespeare? Well, this girl was never sent to school and taught how to write even if her love for poetry matched her brother’s. Instead, she was taught to do small jobs around her father’s house untill she was old enough to be married off to a stranger and be treated worse than a servant. And if she wanted to seek her luck in London like her brother and go to a theatre and become an actress, she was laughed at and cast off. Only death would have been left for her. This is how Virginia Woolf saw the fate of Shakespeare’s sister, if he would have had one:
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 with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter—indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. 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 woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, loose-lipped man—guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last—for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows—at last Nick Greene the actor-manager 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 and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
It is true that no woman could have had Shakespeare’s genius, not because he was born being exceptionally brilliant, but because he was lucky enough to be born in a world who disregarded the genius of women without having indisputable evidence of their so called ”incapability”. Virginia Woolf outlined that one is not only born a genius, but he or she is also conditioned by some necessary factors, especially the material and the social conditions and insisted on Shakespeare’s case :
For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born to-day among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women…
I agree that it is impossible for anyone, be it a man or a woman, past, present or future, to have the genius of this great English poet, because people are different and they have their own ways of seeing things, making it impossible for two people to think in the exact manner. But that does not mean there would never be other geniuses in the world.
Women had no right to own anything, being futile to think of a room of their own:
to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
They were too bogged down with doing this and that around the house and time was a luxury for them. Only the rich ladies had time to sit and write, but they were too afraid of being considered peculiar and outcast for doing that or ”afraid of being called ‘sentimental’ perhaps” and her style too ”flowery”. Fortunately, women surpassed that fear and not only did they start to share their thoughts in writing, but they also started to consider publishing.
The first woman writers used male names, because they knew they will not be taken seriously and their words will be twisted no matter what as long as they were born the ”wrong sex”:
Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man.
With the women’s movement of emancipation, the balance of power somehow stabilized. What I mean with this is that the gap between women and men is not that evident as it was before. Most women can now do as they please, without having to ask for men’s permission. However, there still are parts of the world where women are killed by their own families, just because they dare to dream of a better life and run away from a toxic environment. I rarely think of the hardships they have to deal with on a daily basis, and even when I do it, I don’t do anything to help. And what’s worse is that I’m not the only one who is living a peaceful life, complaining about not having enough, while atrocities are taking place all around the world. How can people be so cruel to one another?
While I was reading in the library, I came across a passage in which the author said that she could not go to the library as she was not ”accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction”. I took a look around me and I realised for the first time that there were as many girls as boys in that room, and no one thought that there was anything wrong with that. We were all studying together in order to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, regardless of our sex. I wondered if any of those girls thought that they could not have done that were they born few centuries earlier. But I don’t think so! At least I didn’t think about that, untill Virginia Woolf pointed that out. The thought of living a life in which I could never read or write made me more grateful and pissed off at the same time. I was grateful because I could sit on that chair, at that table, with a book in my hand, as long as I wanted untill the closing time, and no one cared about me doing that without having a pointless letter or a nanny with me. My anger was (and still is) caused by the fact that other women were (and still are) not as lucky as me to get an education and eventually to have a career. There are still countries where a man can prevent a woman from working, as if she is not capable of making her own decisions.
Oh dear! The stupidity of some people…
What I like about Virginia Woolf is that she keeps a neutral tone throughout the book. ”A room of one’s own” is an essay that intends to encourage educated women not to feel intimidated by men and to find the courage to write. By doing this, they will not be marginalized and their potential masterpieces unjustly disregarded. According to the American literary critic Louis Kronenberger, Virginia Woolf did not write this essay for women only, but for artists in general:
Moreover, she escapes from an attitude of conventional feminism by really arguing in this book not for women but for artists.
She speaks for women because they are the ones who are not taken seriously and constantly criticised for their alleged lack of intelligence. She does not once say that, just because women were not given a chance to write, men should be treated in the same way as women always were. Also, she is aware that there are differences between the creativity of men and women which should be polished and cultivated, not concealed. Both male and female voices are unique, but instead of concentrating on how to create a world in which they can develop simultaneously, people fight to make them be alike:
But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men….Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?
What is more, people want to read the books that share their interests and which quench their thirst for knowledge. The values of men and women are very diverse, yet, the masculine values are again on top. And who decided that? The leaders who happened to be males.
When women started to write about their passions and feelings, the critics immediately labeled their books as being unworthy of their time, even if they were well written:
Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’…This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
The mistake that the women made was to give a damn about those critics’ opinions. But how could they not, when they had no chance to ignore them. The consequence was that their voices were spoiled in their attempt to make things ”right”:
The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism;
Someone who is repeatedly told that is not good enough will end up believing it and never achieve anything in life, except what they’d been told. Women heard for so long the phrase ”only a woman”, that they never questioned the reasons why they should be ashamed of it and afraid to change that statement.
At the end of her essay, Virginia Woolf tells women to have the courage to write about their lives without letting themselves be intimidated and influenced by men. By doing this, Shakespeare’s sister will finally see her dream accomplished, as there is a Judith Shakespeare in every woman:
She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, 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.
Her conclusion is that women can write as long as they are independent and find their own voice. What makes male writers great is not their intellectual, but their openness, determination and possibility to take advantage of life:
Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself. One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated, free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked. All this was admirable.
The reason why Virginia Woolf thinks it’s crucial for a woman writer to have her own room is because that means she is no longer someone’s possession and her mind is free to wander and to explore her universe:
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.
Modern women writers had to fight with labels and constant comparisons in a literary world dominated by men as well. They usually had to prove the worthiness of their stories and to make people see the discrepancy between their expectations of the female behaviour and the reality that every woman could feel into their souls. For instance, this is what Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal:
If I were a man, I could write a novel about this; being a woman, why must I only cry and freeze, cry and freeze?
Even if it’s been a long time since the Victorian Era, women still have to struggle to be recognised as complex human beings with a variety of strong emotions. Being a woman is still a burden even to this modern writer:
Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed…to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable feminity.
Furthermore, Sylvia Plath fears that with marriage, her creativity will fade away and her talent for writing will be wasted. A woman’s daily obligations did not include writing stories and poems, but taking care of her husband and children every day for the rest of her life. There seems to be no room for reflection and self-awareness:
I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day—spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free.
However, she never said she will choose writing over marriage and remain a ‘spinster’. Sylvia Plath was a person capable of loving deeply and she knew that once she would meet her soul mate, she would become a part of his identity and have no other interests, not even in writing:
I am afraid that the physical sensuousness of marriage will lull and soothe to inactive lethargy my desire to work outside the realm of my mate- might make me ”lose myself in him,” as I said before, and thereby lose the need to write as I would lose the need to escape.
After the marriage, she is no longer as contemplative as she was before. From her journals, one can clearly see how little she makes herself look in comparison with her husband. It seems that Sylvia needs her husband’s approval for everything she writes:
Wrote an exercise on mushrooms yesterday which Ted likes. And I do too. My absolute lack of judgment when I’ve written something: whether it’s trash or genius.
So what did I learn from this? That every type of confinement upon one’s mind or body can have a negative influence in the process of creation. Writers might refrain from speaking up their minds to avoid criticism and, as a consequence, their works are less valuable and unique. They should have their own spaces in which they can think without being constantly interrupted. Another important thing is that a writer should not be self-conscious about their sex and fall into the trap of proving which one is better, as there is something exceptional to both of them and there is no need for comparison.
It was proven that women can perform as well as men in anything given the chance, therefore, men and women should have the same rights and opportunities to experience life to the fullest.
People should all hear the tragic story of Judith Shakespeare, so that similar endings could be prevented and astonishing works of art not be forever lost.
Suddenly, the fact that I am writing here has never felt so good!