Virginia Woolf on women’s literature and language

With great delight I read through Virginia Woolf’s mind (and heart)-enlarging collection of essays entitled On Women and Writing. Posthumously published (for the first time in 1979) this collection of twenty five essays contains her reflections on topics ranging from “Women and Fiction”, “Professions for Women”, “Intellectual Status of Women” to critical assessments of eighteen distinguished female literary figures, namely — Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Dorothy Richardson, amongst others — whom Woolf admired immensely.

But here is something that particularly intrigued me. Woolf, in the essay “Women and Fiction”, provocatively questions the conventions, indeed strictures, of writing of her time that were not necessarily suited to women. Sample the following excerpt where she draws our attention to certain sentence structure issues while recommending that women develop their own writing style:

To begin with, there is the technical difficulty – so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling – that the very form of the sentence does not fit her. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use. Yet in a novel, which covers so wide a stretch of ground, an ordinary and usual type of sentence has to be found to carry the reader on easily and naturally from one end of the book to the other. And this a woman must make for herself, altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it.

While it is well known that many of Woolf’s inquiries and ideas about gender fly in the face of how we continue to look at gender even today — that is mostly as a binary, rather than a spectrum — in the essay “Women Novelists” she says that a woman’s writing is always feminine; it cannot help being feminine: the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine.

Elsewhere, Woolf points out that self-censorship caused by the consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness is a common enough experience that results in impeding the success of women writers.


And finally, in her essay “Dorothy Richardson” Woolf pays a loving tribute to this lesser known literary star Dorothy Richardson, whose groundbreaking invention of the stream-of-consciousness style went on to inspire literary heavyweights such as James Joyce, May Sinclair as well as Virginia Woolf herself. She evocatively describes the stellar accomplishment of the author of The Tunnel and The Pilgrimage here:

[Miss Dorothy Richardson ] has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes. Other writers of the opposite sex have used sentences of this description and stretched them to the extreme. But there is a difference. Miss Richardson has fashioned her sentence consciously, in order that it may descend to the depths and investigate the crannies of Miriam Henderson’s [protagonist of Pilgrimage] consciousness. It is a woman’s sentence, but only in the sense that it is used to describe a woman’s mind by a writer who is neither proud nor afraid of anything that she may discover in the psychology of her sex. 

As a modernist writer Richardson was the first to be able to capture “the whims of everyday consciousness” as a powerful spiritual aspect both in literary content and form. And here’s how Woolf puts it:

Her discoveries are concerned with states of being and not with states of doing. Miriam is aware of life itself; of the atmosphere of the table rather than of the table; of the silence rather than of the sound.





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