The narrator reflects again that no women of Shakespeare's genius lived in Elizabethan times. More plausibly, an aristocratic lady of the time might have written something. The narrator believes that if such a lady wrote, however, fear and hatred would have been marred her writing. She cites the poetry of the noble Lady Winchilsea, which she finds stifled by its fear and hatred of men. Had she not been so consumed with these negative, imprisoning emotions, the narrator believes she would have written brilliant verse.
The narrator turns her attention to the Duchess Margaret of Newcastle, a contemporary of Lady Winchilsea. Both women were noble, married to good men, and childless. The narrator reads her verse and feels she suffers from the same personal grievances. Had she lived today, she believes, the lonely Margaret would have been a far better poet. The narrator contemplates Dorothy Osborne, a more sensitive, melancholy Elizabethan figure who wrote only letters, as a proper woman did, and not poetry. The narrator believes she had a great gift, but that her letters betray Dorothy's insecurity over her writing.
For the narrator, the writer Aphra Behn marks a turning point: a middle-class woman whose husband's death forced her to earn her own living, Behn's triumph over circumstances surpasses even her excellent writing. Behn is the first female writer to have "freedom of the mind," and the narrator believes she inspired other girls to follow her self-sufficient example. Unfortunately, the literary girls' parents frequently rejected these plans in the interest of women's chastity, and the "door was slammed faster than ever." Still, countless 18th-century middle-class female writers and beyond owe a great debt to Behn's breakthrough of earning money from writing. The earning of money, the narrator argues, goes far in eliminating the sneers against women's writing.
The narrator is confused why the wealth of women's writing in the 19th century offers almost exclusively novels after women had originally begun with poetry. She thinks about what the four famous and divergent female novelistsGeorge Eliot, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and Jane Austenhad in common besides being childless. Oddly, their middle-class status would have meant less privacy and a greater inclination toward writing poetry or plays, which require less concentration. Austen, for example, is known to have hidden her manuscripts when interrupted in her family's sitting-room. However, the 19th-century middle-class woman was trained in the art of social observation, and the novel was a natural fit for her talents. The narrator finds that the work of Austen did not suffer from her lack of privacy, nor was it wracked by hatred or fear. Though she thinks that Charlotte Brontë may have had more genius in her, Brontë has some hatred in her which disfigures her genius. Perhaps most among the foursome, she could have benefited from more money, experience, and travel. The narrator considers the varying effects the same novel can have on multiple readers. What makes a novel universal is "integrity," which she defines as truthfulness. Does the writer's gender impact her integrity? Looking at Brontë's work, the narrator feels that beyond anger and resentment, the fear in it leads to some degree of "ignorance."
The narrator also argues that traditionally masculine values and topics in novelssuch as warare valued more than feminine ones, such as drawing-room character studies. Female writers, then, were often forced to adjust their writing to meet the inevitable criticism that their work was insubstantial. Even if they did so without anger, they deviated from their original visions and their books suffered. The narrator finds it miraculous that in such a climate, Austen and Emily Brontë were able to write their books with such confidence and integrity. Only they ignored the sniping, critical chorus against them.
Furthermore, the early 19th-century female novelist had no real tradition from which to work. Though she may have learned some things from male writers, the narrator believes that "The weight, the pace, the stride of a man's mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully." For instance, there was no "common sentence" available for a woman's use, as the standard 19th-century sentence was fitted for men to adapt to their own uses. While Charlotte Brontë and Eliot failed with that sentence, Austen created her own "natural, shapely sentence" that enabled deeper expression. The narrator argues that the novel was the chosen form for these women since it was a relatively new and pliable medium. She wonders if women will come up with some "new vehicle" for the poetry within them. She ceases her remarks about the future of writing to question the effect of frequent interruptions on women's books.
Previously, the narrator gave the fictional-historical example of Judith Shakespeare as a woman whose genius was stifled because of sexist circumstances. Here, she finally gets around to discussing true historical examples of female writers, a topic she initially shied away from in Chapter One. First, she speaks of potentially incandescent brilliance ruined by personal grievances against men in the Elizabethan writers, then of genius that was more ably expressed by 19th-century women.
The turning point in female writers, as the narrator sees it, is the example of self-sufficiency provided by Aphra Behn, 17th-century novelist, playwright, and poet, whose works include the novel Oroonoko and the play The Rover. The narrator's selection of Behn as the most important female writer shows that Woolf is not, as her previous remarks may have implied, classist. Behn is middle-class, whereas the other women who wrote lesser works were all aristocratic. More important is that Behn has mostly fit the narrator's criteria for freedom of thought: she is not dependent on men for money. The narrator also thought it was best for the money to have been inherited, and thus eliminate the need for slavish employment. However, the aristocratic women, despite not needing to work for a living, are nevertheless indebted to their husbands or other men, and the money they keep goes to them. Behn is truly independent and, in fact, her ability to work for a living was what inspired the female writers after her.
The narrator also weighs in on the range of experience allotted to the women. Men are allowed more freedom, and their works often reflect this; Tolstoy, as the narrator notes, could not have written War and Peace had he been rooted in seclusion. The key to Austen's success in freedom of thought, she believes, is that though Austen was as limited in life experience as any other female writer, "perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not." Experience is crucial only if the writer desires to write about something well beyond his or her primary station in life.
The social novels of the four female writers represented are logical choices, then, but unfortunately the patriarchal atmosphere dictates that such novels are deemed less important than traditionally masculine novels about war and so on. Woolf has suggested throughout the essay that women must ignore men and write freely, and she may lead readers to believe that she feels men and women are equal in all ways. While she certainly thinks they have equal intelligence, here she concedes that men and women have different kinds of intelligence, different minds, and that they naturally write in different styles. Again, Woolf holds to her conviction that women should not simply rebel against the masculine "common sentence," but that they should ignore it, since it is of no use to them, and form their own style. Woolf herself has done this; she did not simply ape the new Modernist narrative device of stream-of-consciousness, but perfected the modified "free indirect discourse" in To the Lighthouse and other works. She is also known as one of the great English stylists, and her essays, especially this one, uphold this claim; witty, elegant, and focused, she, like Austen, found her own natural, shapely sentence.