Woolf, Virginia

Assigned: Woolf, Virginia. From A Room of One’s Own (857-65). Also read the editors’ introduction (854-56).

From A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Shakespeare’s Sister

1. On 857-59 (“Let me imagine, since facts…”), Virginia Woolf’s narrator Mary Beton imagines the career of Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith. (Shakespeare actually had one sister who survived to adulthood: Joan, who lived from 1569-1646; three brothers also lived to adulthood: Gilbert, Richard and Edmund; William and his wife Anne Hathaway had two daughters: Judith and Susanna.) What happens to Judith, and why? How does her fate show that “genius” is not above history and material circumstance?

Chloe Liked Olivia

2. On 859-61 (“I am almost sure, I said…”), Mary Beton invents “Mary Carmichael,” a novelist. What criticisms does she make of this fictional author? What is nonetheless promising, and even startling, about her work? Why was the novel the main genre for female writers from at least as far back as the eighteenth century?


3. On 861-62 (“But the sight of the two people…”), what, according to narrator Mary Beton, did Samuel Taylor Coleridge mean when he said in conversation that great minds are “androgynous”? What did he most likely not mean by it? What musings of her own about biological sex and the supposed “two sexes in the mind” (861) lead Beton to recall this assertion made by the Romantic poet? Why is Shakespeare an excellent example of this quality?

4. On 862-63 (“… I thought, taking down a new novel…” 862 upper middle), narrator Mary Beton picks up a novel by a male author, Mr. A., and tries to enjoy it, but can’t. How does she explain her boredom and dissatisfaction with the “male” style of writing that the novel embodies? In what sense does she suggest that this style, with its omnipresent and overpowering narratorial “I,” is in part a response to the success of the Suffrage Movement to win the vote for British women? How might Shakespeare’s thinking and writing have changed, according to Beton, if he could have met some twentieth-century women’s rights advocates?

5. On 863-64 (“What, then, it amounts to…”), narrator Mary Beton considers what she views as a fact of the modern era: “virility has now become self-conscious….” What does she believe to be the effects of this development in art, society, and politics? How does the work of the fictional critic “Mr. B.” (along with texts by Galsworthy and Kipling) betray the defectiveness of such virile or male-only writing—what quality or qualities does it lack? Why does this male writing fail to appeal to Beton and other female readers?

6. On 864 (“And in that restless mood…”), Mary Beton, writing in 1928, refers to the fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose rule began in 1922 and who would prove to be a key ally of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement in Germany during the 1930s. How does she characterize the aesthetic and literary effects of exclusively, self-consciously masculinist thinking in Italian politics and society during that ominous time? Based on what you know about the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, how might they be said to have brought a masculine “aesthetic” to Italian and German politics and society during the fascist era spanning the 1920s-1945?

7. On 864-65 (“However, the blame for all this…”), how does narrator Mary Beton drive home her claim that is it “fatal” to write solely as a man or as a woman, or for writers to “think of their sex” while they create? (865) Why does she to some extent blame not only reformers and indeed “All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness” (864) for what she considers the modern era’s hardening divisions between men and women?

8. On 865 (“Even so, the very first sentence…”), what exhortation about creativity does narrator Mary Beton offer women—and men—in her audience? Why do you suppose she uses the metaphor of sexual generation to describe the healthiest kind of creative act? Why, too, in her opinion, is anything written with “conscious bias” of one’s sex “doomed to death” in terms of its social or political effectiveness?

9. General question: Once you have read Virginia Woolf’s 1928-29 feminist classic A Room of One’s Own, how well do you think it holds up in light of today’s feminist concerns and ways of thinking about politics, society, and gender relations? For example, what would Virginia Woolf (or her narrator Mary Beton) perhaps think of modern “identity politics” in gender-related matters? Would she find it hard going today to advance her ideal of writing without emphasis on one’s biological sex? Why or why not?

10. General question: Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own about “biological sex,” but today we distinguish between the sex into which one is born, based on x and y chromosomes, and “gender,” which has to do with how one’s identity develops under the influence of culture. Is the analytical framework of Woolf’s narrator Mary Beton less effective because she does not possess this terminology, or does every age have its own appreciation for the distinction between sex and gender, even if they don’t explicitly demarcate it in the way they theorize gender relations? In essence, does the framework Woolf gives Mary Beton allow her to capture the full complexity of gender relations? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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