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Written by Timothy Sexton
The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman’s life...when we can measure the way of life and the experience of life made possible the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.
Woolf is here referring to fact that the history of the woman writer is mostly hidden and silent in the form of actual published works despite the fact that women capable of writing were all the while doing so. They were keeping journals, writing letters, hiding diaries and otherwise keeping a detailed history of the secret solution to why long periods of time pass with little input from the feminine perspective. Discover the history of burdens and hardships placed upon being a woman and one discovers a history not published.
The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women…was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing.
It wasn’t necessarily that women were not poets and dramatists or other types of authors before the arrival of Aphra Behn. It was that what they wrote was usually published at their own expense or, if not, was purchased at a transactional value having more to do with gender than quality. Behn changed everything by becoming the first female writer to actually make a living in England off the income produced by her labor. And it was her lead which revolutionized the path of opportunity leading to the disparity in which almost every famous female writer in British history arrived after the turn of the 19th century.
Living as she did in the sitting-room, surrounded by people, a woman was trained to use her mind in observation and upon the analysis of character. She was trained to be a novelist and not to be a poet.
Woolf often displays a sociologist’s grasp of the evolution of history upon the literary aesthetic. Within this singular observation expressed in just two short sentences is the recognition of how time and circumstance had to evolve to find a niche most suitable to the demands and expectations place upon them. Unspoken here is the conventional romantic fiction of the Romantic male poet in a puffy shirt holding a quill while lounging on a rock or field patiently waiting for the muse to strike with inspiration unaffected by the domestic requirements of labor placed upon them by accident of birth. To wit: women had too much to do and too little time to do it in to pursue a literary genre so dependent upon patience and the arrival of inspiration. Women like George Eliot, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, by contrast, need not wait for inspiration when stories were playing out right before their eyes. British women merely needed to wait until the invention of the novel and parlor and suddenly the thunder of history would throw open a door. It is as brilliant an insight into the economics of history as anything Marx ever conceptualized and twice as brilliant as anything by Adam Smith.
The problem of art is sufficiently difficult in itself without having to respect the ignorance of young women’s minds or to consider whether the public will think that the standard of moral purity displayed in your work is such as they have a right to expect from your sex.
The topic here may be difficult for some to fathom due to Woolf’s densely intellectual command of language, so to put it more plainly what goes on here is the issue of repression. All writers, of course, are subject to the effects of repression in their writing resulting from societal pressures placed on what is suitable and what is not not suitable for public consumption, but the effect has always been more significant upon female authors. Especially during the Victorian Era, some very solidly grounded moral reservations were not just conventions and expectations but unwritten laws (and even some that were written) about subjects were suitable for women to write about. The repression in these cases were not universal; what could be slipped through the cracks of censorship by a male could never possibly be given such leeway if published by a woman. This helps explain why George Eliot and George Sand are actually women and why the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott all at one time or another published under a male pseudonym.
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