Virginia Woolf, From A Room of One’s Own
And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important;” the worship of fashion and buying clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere an itself. Everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. The whole structure, therefore, of the nineteenth century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to scan those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was “only a woman,” or protesting that she was “good as a man.” She met that criticism as her temperment dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second hand bookshops of London. It was the flaw at the centre that had rotted them. She had altered her values to the deference of others.
But how impossible it must have been for them not to budge to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it, and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women that wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue-write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, like some too conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry, the criticism of sex; admonishing them if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentlemen in question consider suitable.: “…female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex.” That puts the matter in a nutshell, and when I tell you, rather to your surprise, that this sentence was written not in 1828, but 1928, , you will agree, I think, that however delightful it is to us now, it represents a body of opinion--I am not going to stir those old pools, I take only what chance has floated to my feet--that was far more vigorous and far more vocal a century ago. It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, “Oh, but they can’t buy literature too.” Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.