The quest for the woman’s self: Virginia woolf and the lives of the obscure

Abstract: In “The Quest for the Woman’s Self: Virginia Woolf and the Lives of the Obscure” Evangeline Shanti Roy reasons out why Virginia Woolf had a fascination for the unorthodox writing by little-known women, and how Woolf strived to resurrect them through her essays. Roy’s own discerning and insightful critical appreciation of Woolf’s critical analysis of such writers as Margaret Paston, Dorothy Osborne and Madame de Sevigne, etches out the sensitive self of Woolf in her quest to re-discover the women forgotten by history.

Keywords: female self discovery, oppressive discrimination, patriarchy, women’s writing through ages, women’s literary background, letter/diary writing, feminist criticism

Feminism in Britain originated with the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, feminists began to concern themselves with other things besides the vote. Virginia Woolf was one of the pioneering feminist theorists who attempted to define the female self. This quest for identity was part of her personal struggle to break out of the role prescribed by the British upper middle class patriarchal society to which she belonged by birth. She was interested in women’s social, economic and political emancipation only in so far as it contributed to the emancipation of the woman artist.

Woolf had spent her childhood and adolescence in one of the foremost literary families of Victorian England and was herself a victim of the silent but oppressive discrimination that was the lot of women of her class. Her eminent writer-father did not deny her wish to become a writer, but nevertheless the domestic environment that he headed was one that would stifle any genuine creativity in any but the most determined woman. The disparity between the rights and privileges of the sons and daughters of the family instilled a righteous indignation against the entire patriarchal system in the young Woolf. The fact that her beloved mother was an anti-suffragette who firmly upheld patriarchal values only further confused and frustrated the young girl’s quest for self-identity.

Having gained almost her entire education from the books in her father’s library, it was only natural that she should turn to literature in her quest for a female identity, hoping to get some valuable insights into the nature of womanhood from those who had skilfully probed the intricate depths of the human psyche. But she found to her dismay that almost all the books had been written by men and they revealed little about women. Her disillusionment at being let down by the source she had trusted comes out in her caustic comment that “It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald; but save in these respects, and in others where they are said to be identical with men, we know little of them and have little sound evidence upon which to base our conclusions” (Books and Portraits 28).

Literary production has always been to a great extent controlled by social environment. As Virginia Woolf remarks, works of the imagination “are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things” (Room 43). Living in a patriarchal set up which deemed them to be frivolous creatures fit only for managing a household and participating in an endless round of social and charitable activities, was not likely to encourage creativity. The irony of it was that the majority of women too subscribed to this view of themselves. Moreover women were denied a proper education and there was the prevalent prejudice against learned women who were considered to be somehow ‘unfeminine’. In these circumstances it is surprising that women wrote at all.

This was the reason why even an eminent writer like Virginia Woolf should suffer from a lack of self esteem and try to bolster her sense of identity by exploring women’s writing through the ages in order to find parallels for her own situation. As Phyllis Rose points out, “Her concern with the position of women, intertwined as it is with her sense of herself, informs the novels, which tend to state contrasting impulses toward the issues of selfhood” (Rose xiii). The resolution of the psychological tensions and conflicts within herself was a vital first step to the creation of literature.

Her critical essays constitute an exhaustive survey of women’s writing and they focus attention on the problems faced by the women writer at various times. She elaborates in her essay “Women and Fiction” that “in dealing with women as writers, as much elasticity as possible is desirable; it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides their work, so much has that work been influenced by conditions that have nothing whatever to do with art.” She continues to state that the answers to the questions we may ask about the nature of women’s writing are “to be found in the lives of the obscure” (CE II 142). Talent was subdued, distorted and sometimes even totally annihilated by social pressures. She hoped to unearth the factors that they fought against and overcame, or which overcame them. The young novelist Terence Hewet in her first novel The Voyage Out is Woolf’s mouthpiece as he tells Rachel, “Just consider . . . until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious unrepresented life” (258).

It was her desire to resurrect forgotten women of literary ability who ‘wrote’ nothing in the conventional sense, but whose talent nevertheless manifested itself in letters, diaries and memoirs which made Woolf delve deep into piles of obscure volumes. While attempting to trace the feminine literary tradition from its very origin, Woolf found that “strange spaces of silence seem to separate one period of activity from another” (CE II 142). In fact it is a “perennial puzzle” (Room 43) why no woman wrote a word of the prolific Elizabethan literature. The clue to the patchy nature of the feminine literary tradition, as contrasted with the male, lies in social history. But the information is hard to get at because history is the story of the male line and it tells us little about the position of women through the ages. To understand the reasons underlying the literary activity or silence of women in a particular period we should “ turn history wrong side out and so construct a faithful picture of the daily life of the ordinary woman” (CE II 142). Even biography fails us as a source because it dealt only with the lives of men before the eighteenth century.

The only reliable source material that she could find was in the writing traditionally done by women, namely letters, diaries, journals and memoirs. These were considered to be non-literary in nature and hence permissible. She cites the example of Dorothy Osborne who exclaimed “Sure the poor woman is a little distracted, she could never be so ridiculous else as to venture writing books” when the Duchess of Newcastle published a volume of verse, and continued, “If I could not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that” (CE III 60). Yet her voluminous letter writing bears ample evidence of her literary talent. It was her unquestioning acceptance of what society decreed to be proper for a woman which stood in her way.

Throughout her career Virginia Woolf continued to be fascinated with the unorthodox writing done by obscure women. This interest foreshadows that of recent feminist critics who have been searching similar sources in their attempt to discover a female literary tradition that parallels the male one. The use made by Woolf of these are two-fold. First, she uses them as source material for gaining knowledge of the background against which other more famous literary works were produced. Second, she scans them painstakingly, searching for the literary nuggets that lie hidden amidst mundane everyday trivia.

The essay entitled “The Pastons and Chaucer” which is the opening one in the first collection of essays published by her, namely The Common Reader, is a good illustration of the first category. Woolf uses the four-volume collection of The Paston Letters as a valuable means of understanding the fifteenth century background against which Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales. The Paston family had risen in life from being peasants to landowners. They now owned land and the huge Caister Castle and John Paston had to spend a lot of time at court in order to get his rights recognised by the king. On these occasions Mrs. Paston used to write long letters to her husband informing him about the state of affairs back home, “explaining, asking advice, giving news, rendering accounts” but there was no room in these “elaborate communications” for the “prattle of children, the lore of the nursery or schoolroom.” Woolf concludes that these letters were “for the most part . . . the letters of an honest bailiff to his master” (CE III 4) as all personal details were totally excluded. But, following the death of John Paston, priorities seem to have changed. His son Sir John spent more time and money on the pleasures of life. He cracked jokes in his letters, bought books and “sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There . . . he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming” (CE III 7). These changes bewildered and saddened his mother who recorded her displeasure in her subsequent letters. This passage is a good example of the way in which Woolf skilfully links Chaucer and the Pastons, and proceeds to set his work against the background of the England revealed in the Paston Letters, because, as she explains, “The state of the country, considering how poets go to Nature . . . is a matter of some importance” (CE III 8-9). She concludes her essay by saying, “it is easy to see, from the Paston letters, why Chaucer wrote not Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but the Canterbury Tales (CE III 17). Thus we see the consummate skill with which Woolf uses the letters to piece together details of the daily life of women like Margaret Paston and further use these findings to see Chaucer in the proper perspective.

Turning to the Letters of another forgotten obscure figure, Dorothy Osborne, Woolf remarks, “The art of letter-writing is often the art of essay writing in disguise. But . . . it was an art that a writer could practise without unsexing herself” (CE III 60). Osborne, in her letters to her lover, “gave a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public” (CE III 61). Her letters give us a vivid picture of the society to which she belonged and also bring the character of her lover clearly before us. Thus we find that the very woman who was so critical of the Duchess of Newcastle for publishing her writing, was possessed of a very high degree of creative ability, though she wrote nothing but letters. They project a clear picture of her vivacious and shrewd personality that enabled her to become the highly respected wife of an ambassador.

Madame de Sevigne whose fourteen volumes of letters span twenty years, is introduced by Woolf as “This great lady, this robust and fertile letter-writer, who in our age would probably have been one of the great novelists” (CE III 66). On reading her letters we find that “she seems like a living person, inexhaustible,” and elaborates that because of this quality we seem to know her better than “the brilliant Walpole . . . or the reserved and self-conscious Gray” (66). Woolf, the writer-critic, curiously asks, “how does she achieve this order, this perfection of composition?” as there is “no record of any painstaking effort”(68). She concludes that she must have been so imbued with good sense . . . that, when she took up her pen, it followed unconsciously the laws she had learnt by heart. . . . She was born a critic, and a critic whose judgements were inborn, unhesitating. She is always referring her impressions to a standard . . . She sums up; she judges. But, it is done effortlessly. . . . She is heir to a tradition, which stands guardian and gives proportion (CE III 68-69).

This summing up of the untrained Madame de Sevigne’s critical acumen reminds us of the usual assessment of Woolf’s own criticism as being instinctive but infallible. Woolf, in her characteristic way, has discovered a ‘mother’ in the tradition of feminist criticism.

Thus when we examine the conclusions drawn by Woolf from the letters of Margaret Paston, Dorothy Osborne, and Madame de Sevigne, we find that while the Paston letters were used to fill in the background of ‘great’ literature, the others were treated as literature in their own right.

The three-volume Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington is another forgotten book, in another genre, that Woolf uncovers as part of her probe into the lives of the obscure. She was a very extraordinary cross between a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement . . . shady, shifty, adventurous, and yet . . . so imbued with the old traditions of her sex that she wrote, as ladies talk, to give pleasure (CE III 129).

Woolf finds that “Throughout her Memoirs, we can never forget that it is her wish to entertain, her unhappy fate to sob” (129). She knew that a lady was expected to hide her sufferings and she strove to do so to the best of her ability despite “the suffering of a lifetime” (129). While in desperate straits, she earned money by writing letters for others, and also “ransacked her brains for anecdotes, memories, scandals, views about . . . anything that would fill a page and earn her a guinea” (133). Despite the shortness of her adventurous life and the impromptu nature of her writings, Woolf places her “in the great tradition of English women of letters”(130) and thus discovers yet another literary ‘mother’ for herself.

Virginia Woolf herself was a compulsive letter writer and diarist. Her collected letters run into six volumes and her diaries into five volumes. Both her letters and her diaries testify to her constant endeavour to evolve her own identity. Whether she is addressing her intimate friends and dear ones, as in her letters, or indulging in self-analysis, as in her diaries, the picture that emerges is that of a person obsessed with self-discovery. Despite her fame and public stature as a critic and novelist, it is indeed remarkable that throughout her life she continued to use the genres chosen by obscure women of the past to record her tireless self-probing. Apart from detailed accounts of the creative process underlying the stages in the creation of each of her works, these also reveal the stages of her voyage of self-discovery. In addition to these, a collection of autobiographical sketches written by her at various times has also been published. All these help us to understand the psyche of one of the greatest woman artists of Britain, but even more, lays bare the naked, sensitive self, seeking a tradition to belong to and discovering kindred spirits among the forgotten women of the past.


1. Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: OUP, 1978.

2. Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. London: Hogarth, 1965.

3. A Room of One’s Own. 1928. Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

4. Collected Essays.4 vols. ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1966-67. (referred to in the body of the paper as CE).

5. Books and Portraits. ed. Mary Lyon. London: Hogarth, 1977.

6. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. ed. Nigel Nicolson. 6 vols. London: Hogarth,1975-80.

7. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. London:Hogarth, 1977-84.

8. Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind. 2 nd ed. 1985. London: Grafton Books, 1989

Teaches at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. Awarded doctoral degree for her work on Virginia Woolf. Has published articles in various scholarly journals. Particular fields of interest are British and Canadian fiction.

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Evangeline Shanti Roy
Teaches at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. Awarded doctoral degree for her work on Virginia Woolf. Has published articles in various scholarly journals. Particular fields of interest are British and Canadian fiction.

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