"Surely since she was a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of her life, she will soon give over this pretense of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (and as long as a woman thinks about a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking). And then she will write a short note (and as long as she writes short notes, nobody objects a woman writing either)"
I had read the above passage in Virginia Woolf's Orlando, and was immediately hooked. Orlando was the first novel of Ms. Woolf I had ever read and much too late in life. I had stayed away from her, fearing the feminist credentials of her, which are almost as famous as her writing is. However, Orlando was such an eye-opener. It is such a vast canvas over which the story is spread-out. She masterly tells the story, with a easy efficiency of a master who is totally in control of her craft. Orlando was of course followed by Mrs Dolloway and The Waves, all masterpieces in their own being. But the spread of the story and the nuanced, unafraid manner in which she wrote Orlando stands apart from any of her other work. No where will one find a patch of ink blot, not one slip of a pen- every word - smooth, sophisticated and nuanced.
The gloom, the dark sadness of a world of early Nineteenth century slithers through the pages of Orlando. The days are not very bright, the sky is not azure, the sky is dark, as if the rains are about to pour over. But Woolf is never sad, never disappointed. She fights, but is never shrill. She is analytical. Looking at the today's world where the symbolism has become so all-encompassing that even elections are being fought on symbolic gender equality, it seems so soothing and fresh. She writes so cleverly in A Room of Her Own, with so much control over what she writes. She never allows her narrative to become propaganda.
She describes her own world, in way only she could.
A wind blew, from what quarter I know not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so that there was a flash of silver grey in the air. It was the time between the lights when colors undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish..
She floats, rises above the world, and we, the readers rise with her, levitating above the world, we look at the beauty of the world, till suddenly we are stopped in our way. She then writes, ever so softly, without us noticing where the seductive pen of the brilliant writer is taking us, about how men are caught up in their own self-image and how women are the mirrors in which they see themselves. Virginia Woolf, refers to her inheritance which enables her to write. She then takes us to the world when there were few occupations available to women. She explains that could be the reason why we don't have female writers in the history. She also refers to the male writers and quotes how in the list of greatest of English poets there are few who were not rich. She does not let it go off her hands for a moment, never let it fall into the rhetoric. She writes- It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.
She points out that if one went only by the writing of the men, and the role of women in them, one would believe that women had a very important role in the society. However, she points out that the fact that no women wrote those stories, proves, on the contrary, that women, in reality, were relegated to a role of insignificance in the society. She imagines a character named Judith, fictional sister of Shakespeare. Assume that her sister was as gifted as Shakespeare himself was. In a society, where no reading and writing opportunity was available to women, what would happen to her. Woolf writes:
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.
Ms. Woolf traces the imaginary life of Judith and without melodrama ends it with a sadness that suddenly wraps itself about you that you almost lose your breath, when she writes- who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? She says - That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife with herself. It is not only about being a woman. She aptly mentions that writing in itself is not an easy profession. She writes..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 whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made. 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. ...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.
Such is the general state of the affairs, and it turns even worse for women writers. She writes- 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 chose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What's the good of your writing? Women writers were not only not encouraged they were considered incompetent. She draws a parallel to the view the world had towards a woman preacher, as she quotes Dr. Johnson- "Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on hind leg. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." The affection with which she mentions Jane Austen should be a benchmark for all women writers. She writes- Here was a woman about the year 1800, writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That is how Shakespeare wrote, I thought...when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare..
This book should be read by all the people who love reading and writing and see how far we have traversed from the time when women seldom wrote, and were seldom appreciated for writing when they did. This review is to open a window to this great book by a great writer, and as a tribute to women writers who have arrived in more ways than one, whether she is a JK Rowling, or Marta Moran Bishop, or Chitra B Divakaruni or Radhika Mukherjee.