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Virginia Woolf(click to see video)
Click to watch a video mini-lecture biography onWoolf.
by George Charles Beresford, 1902
Originating in friendships established at Cambridge University, the Bloomsbury Group consisted of writers, artists, and intellectuals who influenced Modern British literature and art. The name Bloomsbury came from the neighborhood in London where several members of the group lived and worked. Their work and their lifestyles were bohemian and controversial, affecting modern views on feminism and sexuality as well as literary criticism, art, and publishing. The circle of friends now known as the Bloomsbury Group included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive Bell, writer Lytton Strachey, writer E.M. Forster, and economist Maynard Keynes.
In 1928, Virginia Woolf gave a series of lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges, women’s colleges at Cambridge University. A year later, she published a revision of her lectures as A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s premise that a woman must have “money and a room of her own” if she is to become a writer applies literally to becoming a career writer, but more broadly to the idea that women must have the independence and education to support themselves and the political freedom to assume such places in a society that gives preference to men. In speaking on this subject to women attending college, Woolf reminds them and future readers that women have had that right for only a brief time.
In one of the more well-known sections of her lectures, Woolf creates the fictional story of Shakespeare’s sister. What if, she surmises, Shakespeare had had a sister who was just as gifted and talented as Shakespeare himself? Would that sister, whom she calls Judith, have been able in the 16th century to become a writer like Shakespeare? Woolf tells a hypothetical story in which Judith attempts to follow her brother’s footsteps. Instead of being allowed to spend time reading and writing, Judith would have been beaten by her father and compelled to marry. She certainly would not have been allowed to attend school. Woolf describes Judith running away to London, where we know that Shakespeare himself had a successful career as an actor, the manager of a theatrical company, and of course a playwright. Judith, on the other hand, is unable, because of society’s restrictions on women, to do any of those things. Woolf’s hypothetical story is a reminder of what women have accomplished but also an appeal for women to continue to strive for equality.
Like Mary Wollstonecraft over 100 years earlier, Virginia Woolf was concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for women. One method of exploring this concern is the hypothetical story she writes in the “Shakespeare’s Sister” section of A Room of One’s Own. What if, Woolf asks, Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the English language, had a sister who was just as talented, just as intelligent as he? Would we now be studying Shakespeare’s sister just as we study Shakespeare? Obviously, her answer is no. Societal factors in the 16th century would prevent Miss Shakespeare from becoming a writer. Her natural talent would be useless because sixteenth-century society would not allow her the opportunity to develop it.
From what you’ve learned about the Romantic Period, the Victorian Age, and the early 20th century, would a woman in these three time periods have a different experience from Woolf’s hypothetical Judith? Provide specific evidence to support your answer.