January 26th, 2011
“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
How could I let Virginia Woolf’s129th birthday pass without discussing A Room of One’s Own and Emily Dickinson?
For those of you who have not read A Room of One’s Own, here is a bit of background. Published in 1929, it’s an essay based on lectures that Woolf gave at two women’s colleges in Cambridge. The bulk of the essay is about the problems faced by female authors (although disparities in education, sexuality, and a-hole Oxford dons are addressed as well). When I first read A Room of One’s Own, it was like a revelation. Some of it is dated, but a lot of the problems Woolf points out are not only still very current, but easily translate into all realms of the media.
The essay also relates a lot to Emily Dickinson. The title refers to Woolf’s belief that in order to be a successful writer, a woman needs an independent income and her own space. Learning about Dickinson’s biography made me realize just how lucky she was. Dickinson did not completely conform to Woolf’s guidelines: she did not make her own money and her letters show that even despite her isolation she was constantly surrounded by people. But she was still very fortunate. Her family had enough money that, unlike Sue, she never had to work outside the home. And as we saw in pictures, Dickinson had her own room where she was able to work tirelessly on her poetry and letters. This made her very unique for a nineteenth century woman.
A Room of One’s Own also highlights the importance of the support she received. Below is one of the passages that really struck me the first time I read it:
Let us suppose that a father from the highest motives did not wish his daughter to leave home and become a writer, painter or scholar. “See what Mr. Oscar Browning says,” he would say; and there was not only Mr. Oscar Browning; there was the Saturday Review; there was Mr. Greg—the “essentials of a woman’s being,” said Mr. Greg emphatically, “are that they are supported by, and they minister to, men”—there was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would have always been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.
Think of what Dickinson’s life would have been like if she’d been surrounded by people like Mr. Browning and Mr. Greg. She might not have gone to the Amherst Academy and would not have gone to Mount Holyoke. Had she not sent her letters to an editor as liberal and supportive as Higginson, she might not have continued writing. This isn’t to say that her life was some sort of feminist utopia, but she certainly received the type of support that Woolf found rare for women.
I’d love to hear what you guys think about Dickinson’s support system and writing environment, and especially from some former GynoModders.