Edition: Granada, 1977
Review number: 614
Woolf's extended essay on women and literature (based on talks given at Cambridge University women's colleges) is one of her best pieces of writing. Her basic argument is simple. The reason that there were so few top rank female authors before the twentieth century is because women have in general had hard lives. They have mostly been the ones principally responsible for bringing up children (not to mention bearing them in the first place), and they have been subject to male domination which has denied them such useful attributes for a writer as education, knowledge of the world and access to publication. (This is the point of the title, as Woolf expresses her thesis succinctly by saying that what a woman needs to write is a room of her own and a guaranteed private income.)
The argument could be applied equally well in just about every field of human culture: philosophy, science, fine art, music are obvious examples. In most of these areas, the pattern is similar, with a massive improvement in the representation of women at the highest level as the twentieth century has progressed. In fact, I think that in English literature, the most prolific and most reprinted authors are both women, though I would not give either many points for quality (I'm talking about Barbara Cartland and Enid Blyton).
The thesis doesn't necessarily hold literally in individual cases. One of the most successful authors currently writing is Joanna Rowling, and she wrote a large part of her first novel in cafes in Edinburgh because it was cheaper than heating her home - neither a room of her own nor a guaranteed income.
While there are certainly more top quality women writers today, the position they hold is still not as secure as that of male authors - one of the most prestigious league tables of twentieth century literature produced to mark the year 2000 was strongly criticised because it contained so few women (of 100 novels listed, there were only eight by female authors). This has led some feminists to try to exaggerate the importance and ability of writers simply because they were women (and similar moves have been made to champion the achievements of other groups which have not made a huge impact for the same reasons, such as writers from developing countries). Unfortunately, this does not have the desired effect and tends to bring ridicule to those involved. It is not a trap into which Woolf falls; she dismisses some of the earliest female poets who were basically gifted by amateur and untutored noblewomen with plenty of leisure. (A poor education is a serious handicap for a writer.)
Once women began to write (Woolf citing Aphra Behn as the first true female author in English), they changed literature. Men, Woolf says, had tended to write about women as sexual and romantic objects; even Shakespeare heroines are generally important as characters through relationships with men. Woolf suggests that women characters with interests other than marriage and family are a late nineteenth century phenomenon, but that is partly because she dismisses George Eliot for a different reason (effectively, because she stooped to using a man's name for the purposes of publication), and it seems to me that Dorothea Casaubon in Middlemarch is an obvious earlier example.
While not always persuading me to accept the details of it, Woolf presents her general argument very well. It is perhaps most strikingly expressed in the famous example she gives of a fictitious equally gifted sister of Shakespeare who remains uneducated, runs away from home to escape a distasteful marriage, is laughed at when she tries to get work as an actor, and ends up killing herself after being seduced by actor-manager Ned Greene.