Women, Writing and Silence: Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier and Me

 

I haven’t written much on the blog this week as I have been working on a new novel whose themes of women, storytelling and silence are fed by my reading and research into these ideas in the writing of other women. So, with the noise and distractions of the Bank Holiday weekend I thought this was a good time to stop fictionalising and return to thinking about women’s voices and women’s silence.  As I suggested in my last post, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is perhaps best described as what it is not: not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man. Such self-definition through negation is an interesting tool many women writers have used to question the value and authority of traditional definitions. But this approach can also work negatively to erase or at least blue the sound of women’s voices.  Perhaps one of the greatest examples in fiction of the woman who is identified by what she is not appears in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca.

There, the heroine of the tale is literally defined, by herself and by those around her by what she is not: this first person narrator has no name – all the reader knows is that she is not Rebecca, not the first Mrs DeWinter. When, near the climax of the novel this nameless figure hears her husband confess to killing his first wife – she tells him “Rebecca hasn’t won, Rebecca is dead, Rebecca cannot speak!” And in this moment calls to mind not only the central theme of DuMaurier’s novel but of many texts written by women writers whose works remind us to be suspicious of the stories of those who claim to speak for women – even if the speakers themselves are women.

Novels, histories, paintings in which women are represented by the voice or vision of another provide suspect evidence of real women’s experiences: We never get to hear Rebecca’s side of the story. Maybe Rebecca was a perfectly ordinary bored wife and Maxim was a jealous madman.  We can’t know because she can’t speak.

 But what if she could? What would Rebecca say? That Maxim killed her out of jealousy and paid off some retired doctor to spin a tale about Rebecca’s illness? The point is, we can never know – and so like the story that Woolf tells in A Room of One’s Own about Shakespeare’s sister Judith, we can only ever guess at what we might have discovered if women had been allowed to speak publicly for themselves. And what of the nameless narrator of Rebecca who colludes in the disappearance of the tale of Rebecca’s murder only to win for herself a grumpy distant broken down husband who must live in exile from the beautiful home now burnt to the ground?  Is this meant to be a happy ending or DuMaurier’s punishment for the narrator’s insistence upon the benevolence of her patriarchal husband, her refusal to acknowledge the violence he meted out to the wife who challenged him? DuMaurier’s disturbing vision offers both possibilities, and demands that we, as readers are left questioning our safe, romantic reading of the plot. Which is, I suspect, just how DuMaurier wanted it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Woman’s Sentence

Like Emily Dickinson, many other women writers have been concerned with the unspoken – with the silence of women’s voices in literary history.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” for example, we can see Mansfield’s attempt to describe the secret language of, and between generations of women. In the dreams of the story’s central character, Kezia we see surfacing the language of the symbolic and images of plants of birds and of other animals that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. For Kezia and the other women in Mansfield’s story, the symbolic replaces traditional discourse, and is their birthright as women.

The difficulty, both for the characters in Mansfield story and for her readers, is to find meaning in this secret code:  Kezia does not understand the fearful “It” she sees in her dreams – she only knows to be afraid.

Likewise in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There, Woolf discusses the the literal silencing of women’s words, voices and work in the western canon of literature.  In this text, Woolf is concerned with the lack of female “foremothers” upon whom the modern woman writer can rely for inspiration.

Woolf’s argument in this essay is that women writers can and should turn their exclusion to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

Just what might such a sentence might look like? On this topic, Woolf is less than clear, offering Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a Woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

In Woolf’s own fiction, and perhaps most especially in her fictional biography Orlando,  gender and the effect it has upon the mind of the writer is of central importance. But how far might a work like Orlando be said to cross the boundaries into women’s language, reliant as it is upon critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal forms such as the traditional biography, male literary and military history and even the male body? For Woolf and many women writers before and after her, the overwhelming demand to define oneself against what one is not (ie, Orlando may be best defined as “not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man; I know I am a woman because I am not a man, etc.) led to a kind of frustrating cul de sac of expression, but also to new forms of fiction informed by the symbolic, the rhythmic and by making use of silence itself to subvert meaning. But more on that soon….

 

Writer’s Diaries Part V: Louisa May Alcott: Dutiful/Devil

 

 

Now that I have submitted the first 10,000 words of my new novel to my agent I am back to my work on Writer’s Diaries by way of further brain stimulation. Like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Louisa May Alcott kept a diary throughout her life, and on its pages navigated her own split place in literary and familial history— as both the creator of dutiful daughters in The Little Women series and the pseudonymous author of sensational, subversive ‘thrillers.’ One major influence on Alcott’s writing life was her father, Bronson Alcott.  Bronson was, among other things, an educational reformer, and as Karen Haltunen argues in ‘The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott’ ‘the impression that Bronson expected children to convey with their bodies was the perfect repose of their minds […] he required his young students to sit perfectly still, without fidgeting or whispering.’   From infancy, however, Louisa, ‘presented a major challenge to her father’s educational theories […] Louisa was demanding, noisy and even violent’ . Just as Mr March in Little Women sees anger as the sin that will halt Jo’s pilgrim’s progress, Bronson constantly instructed Louisa in calmness, stillness and patience.  And while the fictional Jo March’s boisterousness bristled beneath her calm exterior, so too did Louisa’s own stifled energies need to find expression. 

Alcott found this release by secretly writing and publishing numerous sensation stories either anonymously or under the pseudonym AM Barnard. In tales with titles such as ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’, ‘Doctor Dorn’s Revenge’ and ‘The Mysterious Mademoiselle,’ Alcott escaped from the morality tales for which she had become famous (and through which she single-handedly supported her family) by writing tales of passion, incest, revenge, drug addiction and murder.    

Alcott once wrote that she’d rather be a ‘good daughter’ than a ‘great writer’ and the Little Women series compounds this image of Louisa as conforming like Jo March to the desires of her father.   In her pseudonymous thrillers, however, she avoided Bronson’s  policing gaze by writing not of feminine stillness, silence and governing one’s temper, but of powerful women with uncontrolled desires. Alcott’s journals offer enticing clues towards understanding this split-voiced fiction, as they witness the divide between her private desire and her public duty that was woven into fictions that seem otherwise irreconcilable: the passion, decadence and addictions of the characters in her thrillers are merely the dark reverse of the controlled and dutiful characters of her morality tales.

From the age of eleven to Alcott’s premature death at fifty, images of enclosure and intrusion (physical and moral) in the journals run alongside an anxious recital of financial wins and losses—in which none of her astounding successes ever silence her fear of not having enough to share. In an undated sketch of her childhood cited by Alcott’s first biographer, Ednah Cheney, Alcott noted that ‘[r]unning away was one of the delights of my early days; and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest. ’Louisa’s need for escape hints at the dynamics of their family structure and her relation to the moral surveillance of her father.

Writer’s Diaries Part IV: Virginia Woolf

In January 1920 while beginning work on her first experimental novel Jacob’s Room, Woolf boasted in her diary about her newfound technique: ‘the approach will be different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen;[…] I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance’ (Diary 2:13). By 1923, however, Woolf’s method was causing her distress, and after the success of Jacob’s Room, she struggled with her next novel, Mrs Dalloway: ‘I have almost too many ideas,’ she wrote. ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity, side by side […] ‘this is going it be the devil of a struggle. The design is so queer and so masterful […]’ (Diary 2:248).

The struggles Woolf gives voice to in her diary, her trouble with the ‘queer’ and ‘masterful’ narrative she is attempting,  highlight her overwhelming need to claim a place for herself in literary (and by extension, her illustrious literary family’s) history. As she would later proclaim in Three Guineas (1938), she believed that the ‘boldest mission’ of ‘Victorian sons and daughters’ like her was to ‘cheat the father, to deceive the father, and then to fly from the father’ (244).

As Woolf’s diaries make clear, her preoccupation with narrative structure was one such form of revolution. Thus her journal not only recounts experiments with form but also her negotiations of her family history that took fictional shape in novels like To the Lighthouse (‘the centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel’ [Diary 3:19]). Writing in her diary of her most experimental novel, The Waves in 1931, Woolf noted: I can give in a very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character. It should be done boldly, almost as caricature. […] The abandonment of Orlando and Lighthouse is much checked by the extreme difficulty of the form—as it was in Jacob’s Room.

I think this is the furthest development so far. […] It is bound to be very imperfect. But I think it possible that I have got my statues against the sky (Diary 3:300). As innovation in her narratives and the growth of her literary reputation surface as her most pressing concerns, Woolf’s diaries are both the battlefield on which she confronts, and the border between, those central preoccupations. On these pages Woolf pores over the divide between the self that keeps the journal and the one that creates her fiction.

In 1922 Woolf wrote ‘It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life […] one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character.’

 This idea that fiction-writing is somehow removed from life helps to explain a difference in voice between Woolf’s fiction and her journals. Woolf’s key figures, her public voice of sensibility, is wrought in images of the sun, waves, and mirrors in her fiction. Those same images are symbolic of the private struggles over identity and subjectivity we see in her diaries. The life Woolf records in these pages is for the most part critical reflection upon her place in literary and family history: both the queerness and newness of the narrative structures of her work and the distance she feels from ‘Virginia’— her public writing persona. ‘The truth is,’ she wrote in 1926, ‘one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes’ (Diary 5:357).

Writer’s Diaries Part III: Woolf’s Split-Voiced Self

 

‘A Sketch of the Past,’ the longest of a series of autobiographical sketches unpublished in Woolf’s lifetime, makes use of all of the central images of her fiction—windows, mirrors, waves and the sun. Her diaries, by contrast, rarely engage with those tropes. Instead, they serve to highlight how central was the business and the craft of writing to her sense of self, both as the descendant of a distinguished literary family, and as a writer of experimental fiction. On the pages of her diary, Woolf mediates between these two positions: what the critic Emily Dalgarno calls Woolf’s ‘resemblance to her lineage,’ and her need to forge a voice of her own.  Many of the earliest entries, written before her career successes, present Woolf’s reflections on other writers, both contemporary and canonical, listing books she should read, and offering mini-essays in the style of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, on those she has read.Later entries detail the publishing life: her deadlines, the work of the Hogarth Press, who is publishing what and the sizes of their print runs, her envy of friends and enemies when their books succeed and, often, her gloating when they do not.  Further pages are devoted to the reviews and the sales of her own books.

After the lukewarm reception given to Woolf’s second novel Night and Day in 1919 another preoccupation surfaces on these pages: structure. In the years that produced Woolf’s greatest modernist experiments (1920−1931) she used her diary to interrogate her groundbreaking techniques in light of her desires and ambitions.  In April 1919, Woolf noted what she wanted from these diary entries, stating ‘I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of  life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously, and scrupulously, in fiction’ (Diary 1: 231–2) Woolf’s breakthrough as a writer was soon to come, and was predicated on just this discovery:  finding a voice for the ‘loose, drifting material of life’ within her fiction.  This entry thus suggests the transformative power of her journal reflections and the divide the diary helped her to negotiate: on one side one loose and drifting life, on the other conscious and scrupulous fiction.

 

What inspires writing: The Hurricane

 

 

I have begun working on a new novel.  Don’t tell anyone.  Because they say that the moment you start talking about it you stop writing about it, and to some extent that’s true.  When my students ask me how to get published, I say “finish writing something good,” and I am not being facetious.  What I mean is that while most would-be JK Rowlings stand little chance of making a living as a novelist – they have no chance at all if they don’t finish writing something good.  It’s sort of like my sister said to me when my marriage failed.  “You might not ever fall in love and be happy in the future – but at least now you have a chance to fall in love and be happy in the future!” She was right.  You have to be in it to win it.  And the same with writing.  But where does the inspiration come from?  If Woolf and Mansfield used their diaries as “practice grounds” for their fiction, what do others use?  For me, an image comes first – right now it is the image of the life guard shack at Long Beach New York, slamming into the boardwalk during hurricane Irene last summer.  I had been to that beach the day before with my family, and was due to go to a wedding at a hotel on the boardwalk the night of the hurricane.  The hotel flooded, the wedding was postponed and thereby seeds of a novel were sown.  How they will grow, I have no idea, yet.  Or I should say I have lots of ideas, still.  And I should be writing them down now instead of telling them all to you.  Maybe this blog is becoming my Woolfian ‘practice ground.’

Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield

 

 

I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).

 

That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:

 

‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)

 

This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.

Women, Windows, Mirrors, Diaries

Bank Holiday Monday, and I had the first opportunity in some time to have a good long look in the mirror.  And what did I see?  What does the writer ever see – the disconnect between mind and body, between that other in the reflection and the me whose words long to scream out across the paper. So I sit down to write.

The figure of a woman standing in front of a mirror is a recurrent one in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and critic Emily Dalgarno has argued that such images are related to a childhood trauma that Woolf recounted in her 1939 memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In “Sketch,” Woolf recalls the “small looking-glass in the hall at Talland House” and the “looking glass-shame” she continued to feel, and links this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother in front of that hallway mirror.2  Dalgarno argues that that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction in which:

“the moment of becoming a female subject often occurs before the looking-glass.  Although many of her characters use the mirror to check their social identity, others glimpse the split between visual subject and object that brings subjectivity into play.  … the mirror scene in Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’ figures the process by means of which her fiction challenges and accommodates the ideology of patriarchy” . 

Dalgarno concludes that for Woolf, such mirror images reflect “not a face, but a structure in which the face is visualised in the context of its resemblance to its lineage” , and thus confront the split between subject and subjectivity – the felt divide between one’s public and the private self that is the central dilemma in virtually all Western women’s writing. 

For many women writers, diaries worked like mirrors, reflecting this split between self as subject and self as object – but they were also windows – framing and offering escape from, the split-voiced selves of the writers that composed them.  Moreover, in the major fictions of writers like Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Louisa May Alcott, we encounter not only mirrors but also numerous images of windows, open and closed.  If Woolf’s mirrors symbolise her characters’ resemblance to, and divergence from social and familial expectations, and Mansfield and Alcott were likewise concerned with the divide between their public and private selves, between family duty and artistic desire.   These concerns, I would argue, were first reflected on in their diaries and then reimagined, or reframed, into new forms in their fiction: into symbols of mirrors confronted and avoided, windows open and closed.   While the stories that Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott published are very different, their shared need to construct a written borderland between self-reflection and public revelation is striking. Their diaries functioned as transformative locations in which personal concerns became textual artefacts. As Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott turned from journal to storytelling and back again, their diaries enabled them to define their writerly efforts against the past, and transform the split they felt between their public and private selves into figurative discourse.

Towards the end of her life, there is a perceptible difference in Woolf’s tone in the journal, as its focus turns decidedly inward. In one of her final entries she considers this change:

I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’s sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope. […] I will go down with my colours flying.  This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in (DVW 5:357).

By such observance of both her public and private selves, and her negotiations of the division she felt between them, Woolf’s diary offers more than biographical fact or insights into the sources of her fiction: it was a mirror in which she could reflect upon her ancestry and her private desires, a frame in which she could contextualise her duties as a Victorian daughter and a public figure, and an open window that allowed her to transform these struggles into a symbolic language of subjectivity. For this reason her diaries stand alongside her novels as her flying colours, her statues against the sky.

Welcome to Writingwomen.org

Now all philosophers agree
That WOMEN should not LEARNED be
For fear that as they wiser grow
More than their husbands they should know.
Anonymous c. 1739

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.
Virginia Woolf, 1928

WritingWomen.org is an information sharing and discussion site devoted to the daily life of writing women, as well as to the history, practice, concerns, aesthetics, theoretical perspectives and life stories of such women from all cultures and time periods. I am a creative writer and an academic, and my own research expertise and personal interest is in American and British women writers in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. I have developed and now teach a course in this subject at Kingston University in London (see my short bio), and this site will become both a resource for my students and also a place for them to share their own work.

In addition to research-based academic writing, I also write creative non-fiction, poetry, and autobiographical fiction. And I am a woman. Over the last decade, I developed the department of Creative Writing and Kingston University and therefore have unique access to any number of well-known women writers. Likewise, in over a decade of teaching and researching English and American literature, I have come to know and learn from dozens of highly respected academic women. Over this period, many of these women writers, both creative and academic, have become friends and mentors, and I will to draw upon and share their knowledge and experience via this blog. Taking Virginia Woolf’s warning above as a guide, I hope to eradicate the anonymity and invisibility of women’s wisdom and women’s voices, by both sharing and listening to the words of my sisters.

Aim
The aim of the blog is two-fold and reflects these two different “hats” I wear when I am writing and thinking about writing:

The first is my “Creative Writer”hat:
Writingwomen.org aims to offer daily inspiration to those women who, like me, consider themselves to be writers – whether they are published professionals, secret scribblers or something in between.
Such inspiration will come in the form of wise words my students and I have collected over time from contemporary and historical writing women, including free access to podcasts of bespoke interviews I will undertake with many well-known women writers. I will also share a bit of my own daily writing practice and the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish short stories, non-fiction, poetry and literary fiction for commercial and general trade publishing.

The second is my “Academic Writer” hat:
Writingwomen.org aims to offer links to current, cutting edge research in the field of women’s studies, literature and history by, about and for women. Such information will come in the form of links to key influential and contemporary studies in these areas, and in podcasts and interviews with academic women writers. I will also share a bit of my own academic writing practice and offer insights into the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish academic writing with University Presses and peer-reviewed journals.
I look forward to hearing from you!