A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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Why does Woolf invent a sister for Shakespeare in A Room of One's Own? What relationship does this illustration have to women's writing throughout history? 

Virginia Woolf invents a sister for William Shakespeare to explore the gendered qualities of “genius” and to explain why woman did not write in the Elizabethan era. She relates this illustration to women’s writing throughout history by mentioning specific female writers, such as Jane Austen, but also by asserting that anonymous works were generally written by women.

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In chapter 3 of A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf tells the story of a character she created, Judith Shakespeare, the sister of the writer William. Woolf first provides the circumstances of Judith’s upbringing, which are very different from those of her brother. Following Judith to London, she imagines her efforts to enter the theatrical world in which William flourishes. Instead, Judith encounters numerous obstacles, becomes pregnant, and ends her life by suicide. Through this story, Woolf conveys how different men and women's lives were in the Elizabethan era. She sets up her story with her wish to address the “perennial puzzle” of why women did not write during that period, “when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.”

Woolf mentions an assertion by an “old gentleman,” possibly a bishop:

it was impossible for any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare.

While at first she intends to refute this statement, she decides that the bishop was right up to a certain extent:

it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for a woman to write the plays of Shakespeare, in the age of Shakespeare.

She contextualizes the story by saying that the conditions of women’s lives were “hostile” to the frame of mind that people need for creative mental activity. Woolf connects women’s writing in the sixteenth century to all eras of history by mentioning some specific female writers. She singles out Jane Austen and Emily Brontë and mentions well-known female writers, such as George Eliot, who used male pseudonyms.

Because women needed to disguise their gendered identity, Woolf sees anonymity as “a refuge for women.” She suspects that many works whose authors are unknown were in fact written by women:

Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

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