In her famous lecture, A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf fully expressed her conviction that women could not have an opportunity for self-realization and obtain intellectual autonomy as writers unless and until they attained privacy and economic independence (“a room of one’s own”) aside from the men who controlled their lives. Her lecture also calls for a mass of information about women in the past to understand the plight of women and to use this information to advance the causes of women writers.
In this light, this paper focuses on Emily Dickinson, one of the women artists in the past who made a great impact on the literary world and whose life and work helped shaped current thinking about women in general and women writers in particular. This paper also describes the condition of women during the Victorian era, the context of Dickinson’s poetry.
A Lady Whom the People Call the Myth
Born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson led a privileged life with a financially comfortable and well-respected family in a deeply Calvinist New England community. Her father was a lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College, and also served in Congress. For most of her life, however, Dickinson spent much of her time secluded within her family’s home, writing poetry and helping to run the household. She sent numerous letters and poems to her intimate friend and sister-in-law. In all her poetry, Dickinson expresses her struggles with her faith, with her father, with mortality, and with the challenges of being a woman and a poet. She died on May 15, 1886.
While a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Most of her poems were posthumously published. Dickinson is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of American poetry, an innovative pre-modernist poet as well as a rebellious and courageous woman.
Due to her seclusion, Dickinson was referred to by many people as the Myth (Walsh 26). Her isolation has been variously pathologized and romanticized, overdramatized and idealized (Fuss 2). Critics who pathologize Dickinson interpret her withdrawal as a neurotic response to a range of supposed personal traumas such as grief over the loss of a secret lover, guilt over an illicit love for her brother’s wife, resignation over the demands of a tyrannical father. It has been suggested that Dickinson was a psychotic, and had avoidant personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive episode, schizotypal personality disorder, and social phobia (Fuss 3). She has also been perceived as agoraphobic, deeply afraid of her surroundings.
On the other hand, critics who romanticize Dickinson insist that she freely chose her seclusion, opting to sequester herself in her father’s house in order to assume the life of a professional poet. In this reading, the poet spent her life quietly rebelling against patriarchal culture, seeking asylum from the demands of domestic servitude that made writing all but impossible. Yet tributes to the poet’s independent spirit notwithstanding, commentators who read Dickinson’s withdrawal in a positive vein cannot resist wondering whether her attraction to a solitary life “may have arisen in part from a neurosis, an anxiety about being defenseless when ‘seen’” (Farr 24-25).
The poem The Soul selects her own Society is the classic formulation of Dickinsonian reclusiveness. Here, the speaker records her relation to society only in order to reject it, and the visual appearance of the printed text seems to reinforce that refusal, for what lies outside the poem has been erased: all that remains of any defining context is silent, invisible, blank. It is as if the speaker takes revenge on society by evicting all but a few of its symbolic ambassadors from within the frame of her writing. Nevertheless, the vocabulary the poet uses has an emphatically social nexus, and even refusal can be thought of as a form of relation, a social stance.
Dickinson has emerged as a powerful and persistent figure in American culture. As a woman, she is painted as a young woman in white, closeted in the upper rooms of her home, isolated not only from her neighbors and friends, but also from the historical and cultural events taking place outside her door. Dickinson’s poetry sometimes shows a terrifying existential awareness, exploring the dark and hidden part of the mind, dramatizing death. Yet she also celebrated simple objects. Her poetry exhibits great intelligence and often evokes the agonizing paradox of the limits of the human consciousness trapped in time.
Women in the Victorian Era
Dickinson wrote during the Victorian era – the era characterized by a Christmas with a large, happy family surrounding a table crammed with food as well as the dark and terrifying slums in Charles Dickens novels; Sherlock Holmes in London by gaslight; and country estates where laborers nodded in deference to the squire while ladies paid social calls and talked about marriage. The meanings associated with “Victorianism” are contradictory: on the one hand, the Victorian era is often used to describe exploitation and class division, sexual repression, hypocrisy; on the other hand, it is used to describe values of hard work and self-help, moral certainties about family life, and a wide variety of arrangements intended to solve public problems (Mitchell xiii).
The Victorian women had their own trials. Many of them were sickly and subject to “nerves,” not least because they wore up to 37 pounds of constricting clothing (Flanders 1). Women in the Victorian period who did not conform to the society’s norm were considered crazy, lunatic, and mad. Dickinson herself has been considered by many as crazy, having isolated herself from the society. In her poem Much Madness is divinest Sense, Dickinson gave her thoughts about how society was run. Specifically, she criticized society’s inability to accept non-conformist and expressed the belief that it was the majority who should be labeled as, “mad.” The poem suggests that the ones who are viewed as “mad” are really the most sane, while the “sane”, or those who conform to the society’s norms are mad.
As the era gives birth to new fashion, architecture, and literature, it conceives the notion of “ideal women”. Ideal women were described as those who could neither vote nor sue nor even own property. The female body was seen as a temple, which should not be adorned with any makeup nor should it be used for vanity such as sex. Women were but limited to rearing children and tending the house. Even at home, women’s power was mainly confined to social spaces such as the drawing room, a formal place for the important business of receiving callers and impressing them with status symbols (Flanders 1).Furthermore, both social customs and practical circumstances meant that women were less likely than men to attend school. Women did not need preparation for public life. A girl who would grow up to be a married woman like her mother could obtain her vocational training at home.
Despite being one of the few educated women during her time, Dickinson chose to live a reclusive and introverted life comfort of her home. On the one hand, many people view this as a sign of submission to a male dominated society. On the other, it can be viewed as Dickinson’s struggle against the oppressive system.
A Room of One’s Own
Woolf suggested in A Room of One’s Own that the female writer is always “an inheritor as well as an originator” (143). Her own legacy has crossed class and color lines in the feminist community. Using a Marxist-feminist perspective, Michèle Barrett applauded Woolf’s productive and still largely uncharted insight in her lecture that the conditions under which women and men “produce literature are materially different” (103). Tillie Olsen also uses Woolf’s text to meditate on the silences of marginal women. She explored not only gender as one of the “traditional silencers of humanity,” but also “class–economic circumstances–and color” (24).
Dickinson’s Tell all the Truth but tell it speaks for women writers who in every century have been inhibited both by economic dependence and by the knowledge that true writer signifies assertion while true woman signifies submission. According to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, women writers, such as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Emily Brontë and Dickinson “produced literary works that are in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible…levels of meaning” (73). Thus these women writers managed the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to patriarchal literary standards.
Creating the trope of Judith Shakespeare – the Bard’s mythical and gifted sister, who is beaten by her father, denied an education, sexually oppressed by the men around her, and never encouraged to hone her literary talents – Woolf intensely depicted how hegemonic patriarchal economic, educational, and social institutions dehumanized women. Woolf admired Emily Bronte and Jane Austen for writing with women’s language, state of mind, and themes – for writing as women wrote. Since men had long lorded over the genres encompassed by plays and epics with their straightforward, traditional, “masculine” style of writing, she argued, “The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her [woman’s] hands–another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels” (100).
Especially offended that male writers had previously avoided the discussion of women’s friendships, Woolf told promising women writers to put female solidarity at the core of their narratives. The author noted that men had in the past looked at only the women’s relationships with men. She considered it far less interesting and relatively on the surface compared to women’s deeper relationships with each other. She urged women to take pride in their emotions and develop the “female sentence,” a language more spontaneous and less rigidly rational than male structures. Woolf also stressed the importance of a female tradition for the woman writer: “we think back through our mothers if we are women” (99).
Women and the Future
Woolf concluded A Room of One’s Own with hopes of resurrecting Shakespeare’s voiceless sister: “She lives in you and in me and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed” (148). She envisioned the woman in the future who would write differently, “some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her” (101). Woolf also expected that women writers would need to break “the expected order” (119) to develop forms that are expressive of women’s lives. This was clearly reflected in Dickinson’s poetry, which defied the ruling literary conventions of her time.
Woolf also envisioned that 20th women writers would have the freedom to explore relationships between women – those women who in the past had “not only [been] seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex” (107). She suggested that women’s literature would possibly “be more concentrated, than those of men” (101), and would deal with new subjects. These are characteristics of the work of contemporary women writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, Wislawa Szymborska, and Doris Lessing.
While some of the descriptions of women in A Room of One’s Own are outmoded in today’s era where women have established their important role in the society, many of Woolf’s arguments are still relevant. Remnants of patriarchal educational, economic, and social institutions are still around, hindering the professional and personal growth of many women around the world. This is evidenced by the widening gender wage gap, the ever-present glass ceiling, prostitution, the view of the female body as a commodity in a highly capitalistic environment, and many more.