Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 101

Remembering Virginia Woolf.

By P. Mallika.

25th January 2007 marks the 125th birth anniversary of Virginia Woolf, a reputed British novelist, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth on the 25th of January 1882. Virginia was educated in her parent’s academy - unlike her brothers, who were formally educated. Virginia Woolf was regarded by many as a feminist, she herself deplored the term as she felt it suggested an obsession with women and women’s concerns. She preferred to be referred as a humanist.Virginia Woolf was regarded by many as a feminist, she herself deplored the term as she felt it suggested an obsession with women and women’s concerns. She preferred to be referred as a humanist.

Although she was regarded by many as a feminist, she herself deplored the term as she felt it suggested an obsession with women and women’s concerns. She preferred to be referred as a humanist.

Virginia was a signifigent figure in the London Literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Light House, Orlando and her very famous essay A room of ones own. She began writing professionally in 1905, initially for Times Literary Supplement. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf, a writer, civil servant and political theorist.

Virginia’s first novel, Voyage out appeared in 1915. Night and day in 1919. Jacob’s room in 1922. Her major novels include Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and the historical fantasy Orlando (1928). She was particularly concerned with women’s experience, not only in her novels but also in her essays and her two books of feminist polemic, A room of ones own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Her last work Between the Acts (1941) sums up and magnifies Virginia’s chief preoccupations: the transformation of Life through the art, sexual ambivalence and mediation on the themes of flux of time and life, presented simultaneously as corrosion and rejuvenate and symbolic narrative encompassing almost all of English history.

In 1917 she together with Leonard Woolf founded the Horgarth press. The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her step sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised. Her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods have been claimed as inducements of the sexual abuse she and her sister Vanessa were subjected to by their half brothers George and Gerald (which Virginia recalls in her autobiographical essays- A Sketch of the past and 22 Hyde Park Gate.) Throughout her life Virginia was plagued by drastic mood swings, which have greatly affected her social functioning and coloured her work and life, and eventually led to her suicide. At the end of 1940, she suffered another severe bout of depression from which she felt was unable to recover, partly due to the onset of World War II. On March 28, 1941 at the age of 59, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the river Ouse, near her Sussex home, fearing another breakdown.

As a birthday tribute to this distinguished woman, it is the duty of every woman to recollect what she has said about the progress of women. A Room of one’s own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in 1928. In this book A room of ones own, she very clearly condemns the subordination of women. This subordination, which she condemned 79 years ago, still exists in many ways. This proves how correct she has been. This book was written with supreme irony and sarcasm over the power –balance between men and women and it is commonly accepted that Virginia Woolf succeeds in convincingly getting her view across to the reader.

One can understand her feelings, reading the lines she has written angrily about an incident of going to a University Library. How, while she was about to enter, a kind gentleman said in a low voice, “ Ladies are only admitted to this library if accompanied by a fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction.”

She also explains how women were deprived of their basic civil rights. They could not earn money or possess whatever money earned. They were deprived of education, economic and all the social facilities. Thus they were poor and had to depend on their husbands. They had to marry young and safeguard their so-called chastity, cook, bear and rear children, in the spare time if they had any they had to mend their husband’s socks! Without their knowledge they become child-producing machines. She says that a woman had thirteen children by a minister of the church. Even now there are cases, where priests don’t practice what they preach! Women’s safety and prosperity are not considered at any time. It is the same still as it was in 1928. Women are not recognised as human beings. They are just logs. If they get anything at all, it is the title of “lawful wedded wife” where they have to slog and slave as wives.

In European countries women have slowly achieved some benefits like education, economic and social benefits. But in countries like India and Sri Lanka the situation is almost the same. Even the educated women face numerous problems like subordination at work places, dowry, economic exploitations and the male domination.

Some stories Virginia relates that women were beaten by their fathers for not consenting to the marriages proposed by them, the same thing is taking place in Sri Lanka even now. Women are beaten and even killed by their husbands and their fathers. As Virginia argues- why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? It is their unfair tactics to keep women under their domination. They talk about masculine superiority leaving the high qualities of women unrecognised. Once a very famous poet wrote that if he were to be born again, he wished to be born in a world where there are no women! I am sure that he will never be born, because he cannot be born without a mother!

Motherhood – a woman’s greatest glory is enough to admit and prove that a woman is by no means inferior to man. Not that man does not know this. It is that they want to maintain the privileges they enjoyed for centuries.

Virginia Woolf lived between two world wars. In her essay, Three Guineas, answering questions forwarded by an antiwar – society “ How should war be prevented?” she expresses her points very clearly. She was eager to tie the issues of war and feminism together in what she saw as a crucial point in history. She and her husband Leonard had visited both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The ideology of fascism was an affront to her conviction in pacifism as well as feminism. Nazi philosophy, for example supported the removal of women from public life.

Even today, we are in a worse war situation. Half the world is burning today- fighting for oil and soil. Women are used as suicide killers and their children are recruited as child soldiers! Women should be involved in talks how to prevent wars and children should be educated and not killed or taught to kill.

In the book, “A Room of ones Own” Virginia Woolf stresses that to be a successful writer, a woman needed space of her own in which to work and enough money to support herself. Without economic freedom a woman can never be free, to think and work as she wishes.

The essay examines whether women are capable of producing work of the quality of William Shakespeare, amongst other topics. In one section, she invented a fictional “Shakespeare’s sister” Judith to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because the doors were closed to women. Even today women’s writings are criticized by men. They take for granted that writing and politics are beyond women, which is not true. Some women could be proved that they are better politicians and better writers than men. They should be involved and not left out. Even if Shakespeare had a gifted sister, I am sure that she wouldn’t have been allowed to write so freely as he did. Virginia says that she did not write a single word (in her imaginary story).

In the same time that Shakespeare did a great service to English literature as a writer, poet and England’s greatest dramatist, it should be noted that he was very careful to maintain his male domination. We could have expected some thing more from Leo Tolstoy, who wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karina” and maxim Gorky, who wrote realistic novels like “Mother”.

To fulfil Virginia’s wish of obtaining equality for women, we as women must rally together and demand for our lost rights. If we work for it, Shakespeare’s gifted sister Judith will be born again with the same gifts like her brother and she will be allowed to write and express her views freely.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this