The narrator is disappointed at not having found an incontrovertible statement on why women are poorer than men. She decides to investigate women in Elizabethan England, puzzled why there were no women writers in that fertile literary period. She believes there is a deep connection between living conditions and creative works. She reads a history book and finds that women had few rights in the era, despite having strong personalities, especially in works of art. The narrator finds no material about middle-class women in the history book, and a host of her questions remain unanswered.
She is reminded of a bishop's comment that no woman could equal the genius of Shakespeare, and her thoughts turn to Shakespeare. She imagines what would have happened had Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister named Judith. She outlines the possible course of Shakespeare's life: grammar school, marriage, work at a theater in London, acting, meeting theater people, and so on. His sister, however, was not able to attend school, and her family discouraged her from studying on her own. She was married against her will as a teenager and ran away to London. The men at a theater denied her the chance to work and learn the craft. Impregnated by a theatrical man, she committed suicide.
This is how the narrator believes such a female genius would have fared in Shakespeare's time. However, she agrees with the bishop that no women of the time would have had such genius, "For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people," and women back then fit into this category. Nevertheless, some kind of genius must have existed among women then, as it exists among the working class, although it never translated to paper. Even if a woman surmounted various obstacles and wrote something, it would have been anonymous.
The narrator questions what state of mind is most amenable to creativity. She finds that creating a work of art is extraordinarily difficult; privacy and money are scarce, and the world is generally indifferent to whether or not someone writes. For women in the past, the conditions were even harsher. The privacy of a private room or vacations was a rarity. Moreover, the world was not only indifferent to female writers, but actively opposed their creativity. Over time, the effect on a budding female writer is very detrimental.
The narrator believes this male discouragement accords with the masculine desire to retain the status of superiority. Unfortunately, genius is often the most susceptible to the opinions of others. She believes the mind of the artist must be "incandescent" like Shakespeare's, without any obstacles. She argues that the reason we know so little about Shakespeare's mind is because his work filters out his personal "grudges and spites and antipathies." His absence of personal protest makes his work "free and unimpeded."
Lacking historical evidence, Woolf again uses her fictional powers in describing the plight of Shakespeare's sister. She first details all the factors that aided Shakespeare's natural genius: his early education; his freedom to leave his wife for London; his ready employment in the theatrical world; his ability to earn money for himself; his opportunities to explore other walks of life; his lack of familial responsibility. Judith, conversely, is victimized by a number of socioeconomic factors: lack of education; discouragement from reading and writing; absence of privacy; lack of employment opportunities in the artistic world; the burden of children.
The narrator again cites the looking-glass relationship between men and women: men rely on women's supposed inferiority to enlarge themselves. Beyond the socioeconomic factors described above, women writers have the additional obstacle of discouragement and disdain from their patriarchal society.
And obstacles, the narrator concludes, are poison to a writer's mind. She starts developing her theory that for a writer to attain genius like Shakespeare's, there must be no external obstacles, nor can there be personal grudges within the work. Only then can genius be "incandescent," yet another word choice that equates brilliance with light.
The modern reader may find Woolf's theories classist; indeed, the statement "For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people" would be met with furor if published nowadays. However, it is important to remember that Woolf believes that money and personal independence foster freedom of thought, and that poverty and its attendant ills inhibit such thought. Moreover, she admits that brilliance does emerge from the working class, albeit rarely.
Still, Woolf is clearly at odds with any kind of "protest" literature, feeling that it dilutes the "incandescent" brilliance of the writer. Many contemporary critics maintain that protest literature is the strongest kind of art, the only art that can truly effect social change. Indeed, much contemporary feminist and minority literature theory emphasizes protest as a means to reclaim voices historically drowned out by white males. Woolf will soon elaborate on her controversial theory.