In the late 1600’s to mid-1700’s, women begin to speak for themselves. The earliest female writers were upper-class women, who wrote poetry in solitude. Although these women were not actively discouraged from writing as a middle-class woman might have been, she believes their poetry is limited by their bitterness over the status of women at that time. In 1661, Lady Winchilsea writes about the difficulty of overcoming one’s fear of the “opposing faction” ie, men. Writing from a place of victimization, she expresses a sense of defeat, frustration, and resentment. Despite her talent, uncultivated as it may have been, she was criticized by contemporaries and professional poets for even attempting to do something so far outside her station. As a result, she experience melancholy. The temperamental Duchess of Newcastle also wrote poetry; similarly, she had the passion and the raw talent, but since she wrote in solitude (without guidance or encouragement) her work falters. She too experienced mental health problems.
Since such women faced ostracism and mental health problems, other talented female writers would not even attempt to write creatively. The letters of Dorothy Osbourne show a talent for narrative. However, since she has internalized some of the criticisms leveled at female writers during her day she does not see the Duchess’ novels to be worthwhile endeavors, and would never attempt the task herself.
Although upper-class women exhibited uncultivated talent, it was up to middle-class women to vindicate women authors when they discovered that they could earn money by writing. Aphra Ben was the first female writer to make money off of her works; she was forced to rely on her wits when her husband died. It is significant that she actually made enough to live on by doing so. The fact that this was now possible discredited the criticisms of well-meaning parents and husbands, who would discourage daugthers and wives from writing because it supposedly limited their opportunities in life. She dismisses such parents/husbands as “whimsical despots;” they claim that these women would struggle to take care of themselves when they would likely rise to the occasion if given half a chance. In the example of Lord and Lady Dudley, she suggests such “concern” is really the result of the caretaker’s sense of vanity, not a sense of responsibility to a loved one.
By the late 18th Century, female authors/translators/essayists were prolific because writing had become practical. Instead of writing in solitude, masses of women wrote. Unlike in the 16th Century, the time of Shakespeare’s sister, a community of female writers and a tradition of woman-authored work had emerged with the work of Aphra Ben, and now was thriving. For the first time in history, female writers could refer to a literary tradition, as male writers had for hundreds of years previously. They could also support one another in their endeavors. Because of the foundation laid by writers such as Aphra Ben, it was not unrealistic for a women to earn a living as a writer by the early 20th century.
The material conditions of middle class women influenced their preference for the novel as a literary format. These women still didn’t have a place of their own. They worked in drawing rooms, and were constantly interrupted in their work. Therefore they chose a format that required less concentration than a play or poetry. Education and family responsibilities informed subject matter. Their training encouraged the development of emotional intelligence, and they readily observed relationships within their family life, so they wrote about what they knew. Jane Austen was comparable to Shakespeare in her expression of the human condition; unlike lesser (and earlier) writers, her circumstances are not directly obvious within the content of her work; she is not simply writing as a reaction to unfair conditions. If her work was limited, it was only because she lacked mobility.
Comparing Austen’s work to Charlotte Bronte’s, she claims Bronte’s is weaker because she explicitly explains her indignation about the limitations of her conditon as a woman. Jane Eyre laments her lack of freedom, and questions the men who would ask her to settle for a stifled existence that they would reject. Bronte is “in revolt against her lot” and she expresses her discontent through the character of Jane Eyre. Woolfe feels that this anger disrupts the continuity of the work, it brings in an editorial perspective that is inappropriate within the context of that work.
However, through this character Bronte accurately reflects the condition of women at the time; she realizes that her intellect was limited because she lacked the opportunity to engage in discourse with like minds, traveling and collecting experiences. Women such as George Eliot were criticized for living the vagabond’s lifestyle, while male writers such as Tolstoy traveled, explored, and lived in sin with impunity. She argues that if he had lived the secluded married life recommended for women, he never would have acquired the perspective necessary to create War and Peace. More often than not, women live this way, and thier work suffers for want of a broader perspective.
Novels are constructed of subjected experiences, and interpreted/judged by subjective readers – yet novelists with integrity can convince us that they are speaking of the Truth, even if the emotions/characters/situations/themes playing out in the novel do not resemble/confirm a reader’s biases. Novels with integrity allow us to perceive the greater Truths of which we are only vaguely aware otherwise. This is why novels such as War and Peace resonate strongly, while others come close to brilliance, but do not convince us of their truths entirely.
Sex influences the integrity of a novel when an female author, aware that she is writing of situations/experiences/characters that are not valued within our culture responds to such criticism within her work – either by conceding to opinions of women’s inferiority, or protesting that they are as good as men (this is reminiscent of what Ashley was saying about Nietzsche and the victim mentality). The subject matter and form of the novel necessarily puts a novelist at odds with conventional masculine values, and it is the task of that author not to concede to such values if they want to have integrity. By conceding or protesting, they are admitting that they are lacking; by ignoring the criticsm and writing their truths AS WOMEN, they act with integrity.
She seems to be arguing something different here than before on a couple of fronts – in chapter one she says artists are especially sensitive to criticism and require support; here she is advising women to ignore what others think. She also seems to argue that a transcendent, genderless perspective (like Shakespeare’s) is required to create works of true genius – but here she is telling women to write about female experiences without apology; later on she also claims that women would likely develop their own form of literature (like the novel) once they become more adept with literary techniques and develop their own. I think it’s not so much the “gendered” perspective that prevents women (and men) from achieving transcendence in their work – but the filter of emotion and animosity towards the other sex that prevent them from writing accurately about that sex or the world in general. They can write about injustice, but if that is all she can write about, her perspective is narrow and misses the mark of Truth. Women and men value different things, so their subject matter and form will differ. As long as women are always somehow apologizing for being women, or trying to be men, they will fall short of capturing Truth as they see it.
influence of sex on literature (Bronte) – novel has a looking-glass resemblance to life
– she uses the novel as a platform to air her own grievances (frustration due to being confined in the home when she would prefer to travel) – view of Truth likely to be bogged down by resentment and subjectivities
-ignorance – her fear and bitterness towards men evident in character of Rochester
-men and women have different values and experiences – so subject matter will differ. Because women’s values are not the norm, female authors often apologize for their inadequacies or try to prove themselves. Here lies the shortcomings of many female authors – they lack the integrity to speak of the truth as they see it, public opinion and the rewards of submitting to it be damned. In the face of pressure, it would have been difficult for women to have such integrity (back to the point about artists being particularly sensitive to criticism).
-lack of a literary tradition
Men have a strong tradition, but it is useless for a woman to try to appropriate their techniques because they think and percieve the world so differently. The techniques of men (sentences, particular literary forms) were developed for their own purposes; women need to develop their own tools in order to express their views. The novel was an effective format for women because it was so new – these writers could mould the novel into whatever shape they wanted. In the future, they would likely develop it further or abandon it altogether for more appropriate modes of expression.
The form of expression has to suit the conditions of the artist – so anything a woman will create must be precise and concentrated to allow for interruptions. Women also learn differently than men – lecture formats men devised might not be appropriate for women; men and women would also benefit from different work habits. Of course, the particular psychology of women had yet to be discovered by academics.