If you go back around the time of Elizabeth you’ll realise every other man was very much capable of writing brilliant sonnets and songs. It took several decades for a woman (Aphra Behn) in English literature to come forward and start earning professionally from her writing (it was her only means of survival because all men in her family were dead). If you read about history of women you will hardly find anything till 18th century, excluding the royalties. Only historic mentions about middle class women are that that she should be tamed, protected, can be beaten by her father or husband if she is hostile, and should follow millions of rules to be an ideal woman. Isn’t it ironic that she is of the highest importance in fiction, but practically she was completely insignificant until last few centuries! She is the prose, dominates kings and their lives, some of the most poetic and inspiring words are written for her in the oldest of our litreature, but in real life she is absent from the history, she was slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring on her, and she could hardly read, was a property of her husband.
I find it a little absurd, that how were there no women capable of writing poems back then? What if, hypothetically Shakespeare had a sister, equally talented, equally creative and equally genius, could she have been the next Shakespeare? Lets see- On one hand Shakespeare was given the best of education, logic, grammar, litreature, languages, history, sent to the best of schools. He travelled places, explored his passion, joined a theatre where he held horses at the stage door and very soon got to work in the theatre, became a successful actor and writer. He had the time of his life, he met everyone, knew everyone, could go on streets or could go to the queen. On the other hand, his extraordinarily gifted sister stayed at home. She wasn’t allowed to go to school, there was no one who would give her the best of education, she cannot possibly go out without a male company. Even if she tried writing she was told to focus her attention on cooking or stitching. And even she wrote something she had to hide it or may be burn it because if they were found it will be nothing less than wreaking havoc. And as soon as she came of age she would’ve got married. But lets assume she was rebellious, and knew she could make something of herself in theatre. She had to run away to join theatre and nobody let her in, women were not supposed to be actors back then. Men laughed on her face, rejected, used, abused and ridiculed her. She had nowhere to go, no means to earn, nothing to live for. Her life would end as every Shakespeare tragedy does.
Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare, they say. And I think that’s very much true. No women could possibly write like Shakespeare at the time of Shakespeare. To write something so masterfully, women need that specific state of mind and opportunity, financial independence, that most men already had and the worst men had to face was indifference. It was not the same for women, with time they get bitter not because of the indifference but with the hostility they were constantly surrounded by, even their mind was not free to think for themselves. So when they wrote you could see the bitterness. Even though men could write things about women like incapable, inferior, weaker, dumb, shameless etc. if women wrote things about the other sex which are true but not complementary they were (and are still) called the arrant feminists. Society always did put more emphasis on which book has more importance, the book on war and politics is more significant than a book about woman refusing to marry.
Virginia Woolf’s essay “A room of one’s own” proves her thesis that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction (or any art really)”. The freedom to think intellectually comes from financial independence, it gives you liberty to call a spade a spade, it gives one the power to contemplate and a room to lock outside world gives you the power to think of oneself. If there’s anything I’ve read that best explains the situation of women through out the history it is this essay. Virginia Woolf wonders throughout her essay why there were more books written by men than women, she wonders how her female counterparts would have written differently if they had their own writing desk, and equal opportunities to go in to the world by themselves, she created a fictional character- Shakespeare’s sister to show us what women had to deal with back then. And there by she has created a beautiful and vital piece of art that would help everyone to understand what feminism really is and why we need it.
Few things in the essay that made my mouth drop are how women were not allowed to inherit any wealth, their income was solely the property of their husband. They were not allowed to walk on turf but only on gravel. There’s even an incident where the author herself is not allowed in the library without a male companion or a letter from the superiors (obviously men). Can you believe the audacity to tell one of the most prolific writer of our age that she’s not allowed in the library because of her gender? I cannot!
Although it’s been a century since this essay was written, several laws have been passed, lot of work has been going on towards betterment of women in our society, we are still not there yet. We’ll get there sooner or later. And till then Virginia Woolf advices women to stop giving excuses. She tells us that now is a different time, women are very much capable of carving their own path, earning their own money. The excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.
And may be then when Shakespeare’s sister is born again, and she will find it possible to live and write her poetry again. But she would come only if we work for her, in poverty and obscurity, it will all be worthwhile.
And to conclude this post with Virginia Woolf’s piercing wisdom:
Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.