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The Problem of Shakespeare’s Sister: Virginia Woolf on Gender in Creative Culture

“To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire.”

Half a century before Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent meditation on “being a man” — the finest, sharpest thing ever written on the question of gender in creative culture — another woman of extraordinary intellectual acuity and penetrating prose turned the problem over in the wave of her own elegant mind.

In a passage from the 1929 classic A Room of One’s Own (public library), Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) presents a pause-giving thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had had a sister — that is, a female sibling of comparable talent and identical family background? It’s a question that applies as much to women in the arts and humanities as it does to women in science — for Galileo’s sister wouldn’t have fared any differently than Shakespeare’s — and one that, despite half a millennium of tremendous progress, addresses some of the most elemental forces animating modern society and shaping our lives to this day.

Woolf writes:

Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational — for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons — but were none the less inevitable. Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.

Gazing at the bookshelf empty of works by women from that period, and turning an eye toward George Eliot and George Sand, Woolf argues that even if such a rare woman had somehow bulldozed through the era’s barriers to female self-actualization, she would have likely gone anonymous or written under a male pseudonym in a culture where “publicity in women is detestable.” (In many ways, we still subscribe to the same limiting mythologies today.)

Illustration from I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!, a parodic 1970 children’s book by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. satirizing limiting gender norms

Woolf considers the effects of these social structures on the creative spirit:

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. But what is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation, I asked? Can one come by any notion of the state that furthers and makes possible that strange activity?

[…]

One gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement. A curse, a cry of agony, rises from those books of analysis and confession. ‘Mighty poets in their misery dead’ — that is the burden of their song. If anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle, and probably no book is born entire and uncrippled as it was conceived. But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, 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.

[…]

Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. 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? Here [psychologists] might come to our help, I thought, looking again at the blank spaces on the shelves. For surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

Feast upon A Room of One’s Own — which also contains Woolf’s enduring insight into the creative advantages of the androgynous mind — and complement it with Woolf on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist, the elasticity of time, how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.


Published December 29, 2015

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/12/29/virginia-woolf-a-room-of-ones-own-shakespeare-sister/

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