I took to the world of letters pretty late, and one of the books which gently nudged me on this path was ‘Mrs Dalloway.’ It was a book I really enjoyed and I couldn’t help but marvel at the author’s ability to get under the skin of characters, and lucidly delineate their motivations and thoughts. Her approach referred to as ‘Stream of Consciousness’ gently draws you into the plot as Clarissa Dalloway goes about her day preparing to host a party.
While Mrs Dalloway remains a mesmerizing book, I write to share a few thoughts on another book ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ I realized that portions of the book were familiar since they are oft quoted in the context of feminism. Virginia Woolf (henceforth referred to VW) explains that in a sensitive topic such as gender ‘one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold,’ and her opinion I must say is surefooted and convincing. ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,’ suggests VW, since ‘intellectual freedom depends upon material things.’ The above holds true for all, irrespective of gender, nationality or any other classification and the fact remains that the living conditions of women have been significantly lower than that of men. Therefore participation of women in literary activities at a given point of time has been lesser than that of men. One will agree that to write one needs some privacy, and to write professionally, privacy and financial independence. An Englishwoman of the 19th century may seemingly have had more independence than a woman in the Indian sub continent, but she was second to the Englishman and her financial independence was restricted.
VW wonders why ‘no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.’ I can think of many male Indian writers from the 20th century (prior to 1970s) but one will struggle to name women writers (most that spring to mind being from the post independence era). Now one mustn’t forget that VW is writing this in early 20th century, with England as her landscape. Women have just secured the right to vote but their financial independence remains precarious and European society was largely patriarchal. An indirect result of the World War II was greater participation of women in economic activities hitherto unavailable to them, but until this period, the choice of occupations was very limited, the writer herself having dabbled in many odd jobs before discovering financial independence, thanks to an aunt who left her a fixed income of 500 pounds/ annum as inheritance. Somewhere in the book VW muses that she treasured this financial independence more than the right to vote for the ‘change in temper a fixed income brings about.’ It gave her the independence to write without having to worry about basic necessities. Also doesn’t one’s state of mind have a direct bearing on the quality and coherence of a literary output or output of any endeavor?
Two aspects discussed are the representation of women in literature and women as writers. The former is a paradoxical subject in context of European literature of 19th century and earlier, should hold true for Indian literature too. ‘Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.’ They were epitome of the heroic as literary characters but on the Shakespearean stage it would’ve required a man to play Portia.
Though a rare phenomenon in the 19th century, women writers did make their mark with the emergence of writers such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. It must have been a struggle for them to pursue their literary ambitions and it was not uncommon for women to assume pen names. Also by default the above two writers and other women writers of the 19th century dabbled in novels and the reasons suggested is that novel required lesser concentration and intensity, and that it was a developing art form ‘young enough to be soft in her hands.’ Of the two the latter reason does appears to be sound. The primary literary indulgence of the era was poetry and plays, with many established males writers. Classical literature, European plays of 18th century for instance, was known to have very strict rules in terms of form, place and time so the novel does appear to be a window of opportunity. And even if they did write poetry VW guesses ‘that Anon, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman.’ I can’t think of any contemporaries in India from the 19th century, but prominent women writers of the 20th century such as Mahadevi Varma and Sarojini Naidu did write some poetry.
This brings us to the interesting subject about the way women write. Have you as a reader felt any unique characteristic of literature by women? VW suggests there is. It’s something I may have felt at times but will struggle to put my finger on. There was something unique about my experience of reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘Pride & prejudice,’ a flavor different from Dostoyevsky, Eco and Pamuk, but I’ll need to introspect further to articulate it. ‘Good writing,’ VW says ‘has the secret of perpetual life.’ It’s something which stimulates the mind, engenders ideas and sparks trains of thoughts, and the little that I have read from VW’s stable has done just that. Orhan Pamuk says that the difference between a great book and a good one is that one will revisit the great one, and VW is a great writer on this account too.
Reproduced from http://versesontherun.wordpress.com/