Our Sister, ‘Anon’.
… it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes… Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman…
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929.
One thing we must never do, it occurs to me, is to dwell in the wise woman selling herbs or in the witch being ducked. It may be that women writers had to flounder, to experiment, to fail, to try again and fail better, because we had no literary tradition behind us, and that what was behind us was in any case overwhelmingly male. To dwell on that and in that situation is to hamper our creativity. As Virginia Woolf says later in A Room of One’s Own, ‘the whole of the mind must lie open’. By dwelling in the wise woman and the witch I mean becoming shackled to the idea of ourselves as feminist writers. The end of feminism in literature is that there should be no more feminism, just literature. The expansion of this avenue of thought into a broader vista runs thus: that liberation cannot be piecemeal, and if women have claimed a place in literature that does not stop the world of literature being a world of privilege. The unprivileged exist. While they exist we, exercising our ‘freedom’, are in fact not free; we are as bound by chains as they are, and they must be liberated before we can consider ourselves truly liberated, before we can enjoy with significant comfort our place in the literary world. Moreover we can never think of their liberation as anything within our gift, nor our tradition as something they must build on. We may invite them to stand where we stand but we must not assume that they will want to stand there. They may be standing somewhere else already. They will flounder, experiment, fail, try again and fail better; they will attach an ‘ism’ to what they are doing and, one day, detach it again. The sum of my argument is that liberation is total and inclusive. It exists in a world we can’t see and won’t recognise when it’s here. Expect some turbulence on the way.