Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950
Adopting the tone and style of a speech, Woolf’s persona addresses an imagined audience of young women in college. She describes an imagined visit to a fictional women’s college (Fernham) in which she is entertained at dinner by a woman whom she calls Mary Seton and is given a history of the origin of the college. Woolf’s persona details the dinner in a subtly sarcastic manner: The soup is described as a weak broth, “a plain gravy soup”; the main course as a “homely trinity” of beef, greens, and potatoes; the dessert as prunes and custard, the prunes “stringy as a miser’s heart.”
Woolf first asks why one gender has been allowed access to the universities while the other has not. She asks repeatedly why women have been given few resources to provide for their education, while men have been funded in a comparatively lavish manner. She draws no conclusions in the text, but she implies that the difference is not based on anything except gender.
In the second chapter, Woolf imagines a visit to the British Museum, not having found a sufficient answer to her questions regarding women and fiction. This question now has reformed itself as the question regarding women and money and fiction. Woolf looks up the category “women and fiction” and expresses surprise at the tremendous number of men who have written on the topic. Some of these men had academic qualifications, but many had “no apparent qualification save that they are not women.” Noting that women have not historically written books about men, she lists the numerous subject areas in which men have written about women.
She suggests that most of these writings are useless, having been written “in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.” This distinction of emotional writing versus “incandescent” writing foreshadows the later discussions of Shakespeare’s abilities and her call for an androgynous attitude in writing. She offers a sarcastic Freudian interpretation of the misogynistic attitude she discovers in male writings throughout history, especially in her fictitious example of Professor von X’s The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. Once again, however, Woolf suggests that equality of the sexes—for example, in occupational areas—will not change the perceived differences in gender. She reformulates the question of women, money, and fiction once again, and she heads to the shelves of history books to search for a suitable answer.
In the third chapter, Woolf consults Professor Trevelyan’s History of England. She finds that women have little recorded history in this volume. The first reference occurs about 1470 and details the socially accepted practice of wife-beating. The next reference, about two hundred years later, confirms the status of women as property of men. Woolf contrasts these images with those of the female characters in fiction written by men, from Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Cleopatra to Clarissa, Becky Sharp, and Emma Bovary. While women in history were abused and without individual rights, she observes that women in fiction were never lacking in personality and character. Furthermore, the subject matter of the entire history of England concerns the social and public realms of male influence rather than the personal or family concerns that she suggests the female writer would have recorded.
She acknowledges that a woman of Shakespeare’s time could not have written the works of Shakespeare, but she argues that it would have been a matter not of gender but of opportunity. She then imagines what Shakespeare’s sister—a fictitious entity she dubs Judith—would have encountered had she been as talented as her brother William. “Judith” Shakespeare follows her aspirations for the theater and fiction writing in a manner similar to that of William, yet her life and art are stifled by the men she encounters. She ultimately kills herself out of frustration. Woolf further admires the writing of nineteenth century women in the light of their limited experiences and their lack of money even to buy paper or to have a room of their own.
In chapter 4, she expands on the difficulties faced by women writers. The profession was considered improper for women, and women such as Aphra Behn, who made a living by writing, were considered immoral. She notes that many women chose to write under a pseudonym, and she notes that these women had to write under adverse conditions. She praises the forerunners of modern novelists, such as Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot, although in Charlotte Brontë she finds that gender affects the integrity of her writing. The others show little anger or emotion in their writing, more closely approximating the unemotional, incandescent quality of Shakespeare’s writing. She says that these women writers are necessary to future women writers in the same way that Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Geoffrey Chaucer, and earlier poets were necessary to subsequent male writers.
Chapter 5 examines how literature written by men portrays women only through the eyes of men. Similarly, the world in literature written by men is portrayed only through male eyes, focusing only on what is important to men, such as war, sports, and so forth. All writers, however, must move beyond a gender-specific focus in order to achieve the unemotional tone she admires.
Chapter 6 broadens the discussion from gender and literature to gender and philosophy. Not only in writing but also in life in general, both women and men should try to achieve an androgynous attitude, to stop thinking of the genders as distinct from each other. If one achieves this unity of the mind, one can also achieve that incandescent quality of mind evidenced by the greatest of writers, exemplified by Shakespeare.