Adopting the tone and style of a speech, Woolf’s persona addresses an imagined audience of young women in college. She describes an imagined visit to a fictional women’s college (Fernham) in which she is entertained at dinner by a woman whom she calls Mary Seton and is given a history of the origin of the college. Woolf’s persona details the dinner in a subtly sarcastic manner: The soup is described as a weak broth, “a plain gravy soup”; the main course as a “homely trinity” of beef, greens, and potatoes; the dessert as prunes and custard, the prunes “stringy as a miser’s heart.”
Woolf first asks why one gender has been allowed access to the universities while the other has not. She asks repeatedly why women have been given few resources to provide for their education, while men have been funded in a comparatively lavish manner. She draws no conclusions in the text, but she implies that the difference is not based on anything except gender.
In the second chapter, Woolf imagines a visit to the British Museum, not having found a sufficient answer to her questions regarding women and fiction. This question now has reformed itself as the question regarding women and money and fiction. Woolf looks up the category “women and fiction” and expresses surprise at the tremendous number of men who have written on the topic. Some of these men had academic qualifications, but many had “no apparent qualification save that they are not women.” Noting that women have not historically written books about men, she lists the numerous subject areas in which men have written about women.
She suggests that most of these writings are useless, having been written “in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.” This distinction of emotional writing versus “incandescent” writing foreshadows the later discussions of Shakespeare’s abilities and her call for an androgynous attitude in writing. She offers a sarcastic Freudian interpretation of the misogynistic attitude she discovers in male writings throughout history, especially in her fictitious example of Professor von X’s The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. Once again, however, Woolf suggests that equality of the sexes—for example, in occupational areas—will not change...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
1. What is the role of tradition in the experience of a women writer? In that of writers in general?
2. What does Woolf say about the creativity that women have always expressed in non-artistic ways? (You might want to refer to her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, especially in the section "The Window," Chapters 17-19.)
3. What predictions does Woolf make for women's writing in the future? How do they look from our current vantage point?
4. Does Woolf think poems are superior to novels? Explain.
5. Why, in Woolf's view, did Elizabethan women not write poetry?
6. How does Woolf treat the question of the female body? What does she mean when she says at the end of Chapter 4 that "the book has somehow to be adapted to the body"?
7. Woolf is careful to acknowledge the unmeasured and immeasurable value of the labor women have traditionally done. Yet she also projects a future in which women will have access to all kinds of careers. Does Woolf come down in favor of one or the other of these lifestyles? What does she take to be the pros and cons of each?