13.6.11

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Money

'Earn five hundred a year by your wits.'
Virginia Woolf
In an extract from her landmark essay A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf discusses the history of women's writing as an historical bid for greater financial independence:
Hundreds of women began as their eighteenth century drew on to add to their pin money, or to come to the rescue of their families by making translations or writing the innumerable bad novels which have ceased to be recorded even in text-books, but are to be picked up in the fourpenny boxes in the Charing Cross Road. The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women - the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics - was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at 'blue stocking with an itch for scribbling', but it could not be denied that they could pit money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write. For if Pride and Prejudice matters, and Middlemarch and Villette and Wuthering Heights matter, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour's discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing. Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Bront√ęs and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter - the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early to learn Greek. All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she - shady and amorous as she was - who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
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