A room of one's own
It was disappointing not to have brought back in the evening some important statement, some authentic fact.
Women are poorer than men because — this or that. Perhaps now it would be better to give up seeking for
the truth, and receiving on one’s head an avalanche of opinion hot as lava, discoloured as dish-water. It
would be better to draw the curtains; to shut out distractions; to light the lamp; to narrow the enquiry and to
ask the historian, who records not opinions but facts, to describe under what conditions women lived, not
throughout the ages, but in England, say, in the time of Elizabeth.
For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other
man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived? I asked
myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be;
fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.
Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete
by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers
that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings,
and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan’s
HISTORY OF ENGLAND. Once more I looked up Women, found ‘position of’ and turned to the pages
indicated. ‘Wife-beating’, I read, ‘was a recognized right of man, and was practised without shame by high as
well as low. . . . Similarly,’ the historian goes on, ‘the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her
parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being
inflicted on public opinion. Marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but of family avarice,
particularly in the “chivalrous” upper classes. . .
. Betrothal often took place while one or both of the parties
was in the cradle, and marriage when they were scarcely out of the nurses’ charge.’ That was about 1470,
soon after Chaucer’s time. The next reference to the position of women is some two hundred years later, in
the time of the Stuarts. ‘It was still the exception for women of the upper and middle class to choose their
own husbands, and when the husband had been assigned, he was lord and master, so far at least as law and
custom could make him. Yet even so,’ Professor Trevelyan concludes, ‘neither Shakespeare’s women nor
those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs, like the Verneys and the Hutchinsons, seem wanting in
personality and character.’ Certainly, if we consider it, Cleopatra must have had a way with her; Lady