Further thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Constance Fenimore Woolson:
One of my favorite passages from Woolf’s extended essay is:
One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, ‘Oh, but they [men] can’t buy literature too.’ Literature is open to everybody. . . . Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Woolson was deeply aware of how, like Woolf, she was locked out of the libraries and how the gates that led to the literary world had to be opened surreptitiously so that their squeaky hinges didn’t arouse the ire of the men guarding them. She helped to prove that literature was indeed “open to everybody,” even a middle-class Midwestern woman like herself with almost no literary connections. But she did have that middle name—Fenimore—that greased the hinges considerably.
Woolf’s comments about gender and literary tradition also got me thinking. She writes that nineteenth-century women writers
had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help . . . For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. [They] never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use.
Woolson looked to George Eliot as an important literary foremother, also Charlotte Brontë and George Sand. But the tradition behind her was short indeed. She augmented it with male writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne, her great-uncle James Fenimore Cooper, Bret Harte, and, of course, Henry James. It was Hawthorne’s and James’s female characters that gave her a sense of precedence, along with Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver. She didn’t have to create her heroines out of whole cloth.
In arguably the most moving passage from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf reflects passionately on “the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life,” meaning specifically ordinary women’s lives. Throughout Woolson’s fiction, she takes us behind the masks of women’s social stoicism and allows us to glimpse their silent, solitary, suffering. She (indirectly) tells us over and again, you think you know the woman you see sitting patiently by the front window or sitting next to you on the train, but you don’t. The “other” to whom we are introduced is sometimes a respectable middle-class spinster but more often a destitute widow or girl from the margins of society, in whose “infinitely obscure lives,” to again quote Woolf, Woolson found the greatest capacity for heroism. She would have agreed with Woolf that the life of the girl behind the shop counter deserved to be written a thousand times more than “the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats.”
In one of Woolson’s earliest stories, “Ballast Island,” about a solitary old woman who has exiled herself to an isolated island, that narrator writes of how “We all long to be understood.” But this was the fairy-tale version of true comprehension that she and her contemporaries were raised to believe in (and most young girls are still today): “only a rare, true love can penetrate the sanctuary where each soul waits for its interpreter, as the beautiful sleeper in the wood waited for the prince.” Yet, the prince never comes for Joanna, the old woman. Instead, a young couple comes along and draws her story out of her.
But more importantly, Woolson came along for Joanna. And she brought her readers with her. In Woolson’s own life, the prince never came either. Instead, she became the interpreter of others’ hearts. Nothing was more important to her than to understand and be understood. Unfortunately, that last part eluded her in her life.
The writer who would interpret the lives of ordinary people has to have access to other lives outside of her own. Perhaps the most important distinction between Woolson and her predecessors was her wide experience of the world. Woolf wrote, “we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Vilette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.” They were all more or less locked up at home. Not Woolson.
During her youth, she traveled widely throughout the Great Lakes region, and she spent much of the 1870s traversing the Reconstruction South. In 1873, she left her home for good and spent the next 20 years of her life on the road, the last 14 in Europe. There were even three glorious months in Cairo.
It was this exposure to the world that allowed her to create a literature beyond the domestic limitations of the women writers before her. With Woolson we begin to see the woman writer engaging the wider world, a development Woolf marks only obliquely. Had she known Woolson, she might have written a somewhat different history of the traditions of women’s literature.