Woolf is calling for the creation of an as-yet-unrealized form of feminine literature, or the expression of poetry, which circumstances have denied women the creation of. Woolf’s descriptions are suggestive rather than proscriptive. I think her own emphasis on erudition is part of her desire to explain women’s literature in relation to pre-existing literary traditions:
“Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes…. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. …Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’… that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use?”
This notion of feminine art is difficult to reconcile with the excerpt from The Androgynous Vision, and Woolf’s call for an androgynous mind which “does not think specially or separately of sex.” (608) This state of being seems to presuppose an environment in which one faces no gender-based oppression (although this is not explicitly stated). Thus, it seems to remain impossible for women, but not for men.
“Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination” (600).
Woolf uses these adjectives “twisted and deformed” again when she discusses Jane Austen. The pressures and patriarcal structure of society limits the possibilities of the novel (when written by a women.) This is of particular interest to me because I am preparing an honors thesis proposal involving interviews of writers at Rutgers about how their voice has “developed” under the pressures of living in a gendered body and subsequent self policing. I think Woolf is examining how being systematically stifled (she eventually writes about being confined to a common drawing room) created a writing that lacks a certain agency and lends a “looking glass” view of life.
“Charlotte Bronte, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumble and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands…Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a properly natural shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Bronte, she got infinitely more said. Indeed since freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women” (Woolf, 606).”
Woolf’s argument seems to be that while it is understandable that women like Charlotte Bronte allowed their own oppression to infiltrate their narratives, it also was something that limited a text or novel and impaired the writer’s full potential of genius. This is why Woolf compares Bronte to Jane Austen, who wrote Pride and Prejudice with no hint of or influence from her own feelings of imprisonment or limitation as a woman. Instead, Austen worked within her own frame of reference instead of fighting or questioning it, as Bronte did by expressing her own longing for freedom. To Woof, this ability to craft and build a narrative that is free from limitations is essential to a writer’s “integrity”. However, I’m left to wonder if Austen can really be considered someone who was able to fully express herself when her work simply reflected her own world and world view, which was a limited one. As Woolf concludes, the social status and role of a woman could not avoid have a large impact on her writing, so mustn’t the same be true for Austen despite her “properly natural shapely sentence”?
“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?” (Woolf, 601)
There is a bitter taste to the pairing of these sentences. There is certainly a more biting tone to the latter especially with the accompaniment of the dramatic guffaw. However, the perceptions that Woolf depicts on the world’s attitude towards writing in general can be seen as equalized. The questions could be reversed and produce the same message: what’s the use of men writing when it makes no difference? What’s the use of anyone writing when it makes no difference?There is an underlying assumption that men possess the talent for writing because they can write if they choose, but the relevance of written creations from either sex is worthless. I recognize the misogynistic tone that Woolf relays above concerning the idea of women’s writing, however, what I can read beneath this layer of societal bullshit is that whatever anyone writes is not worth a damn anyway.