Who is Shakespeare’s Sister?

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) created an archetype she called Shakespeare’s Sister

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” –Virginia Woolf

Yesterday in the New York Times article By the Book: “Her prose is sometimes poetry. Listen to this: “Fear no more says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.” And she’s such a compassionate describer of her characters with all their flaws. I hadn’t read the novel for years, and it was such a joy to revisit and rediscover it.” (‘Her Prose Is Sometimes Poetry’: Why Margaret Jull Costa Loves Virginia Woolf; New York Times March 4, 2021).

The New Yorker put it, “In Virginia Woolf’s case, the fact that she was a woman was a further aggravation. She belonged to a generation in which a woman had still to fight to be taken seriously as a writer. ” … With the exception of a description of an eclipse of the sun, which is as beautiful as any of the best pages in her novels, and an occasional comment, usually rather malicious, on people she knew, these selections are devoted to her thoughts upon the work in hand. Like every other writer, she was concerned about what particular kind of writer she was, and what her unique contribution could and should be. ‘My only interest as a writer lies, I begin to see, in some queer individuality; not in strength, or passion, or anything startling.’ ” (A Consciousness of Reality, The New Yorker, W. H Auden, March 6 1954).

To delineate her background: Virginia Woolf was considered one of the most important modernist English writers among 20th century authors. She experimented with and used stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

Woolf was born in South Kensington, London, into an wealthy family. She was the seventh child in a blended family of eight, including Vanessa Bell, the modernist painter. The boys in the family received college educations, while the girls were home-schooled. They studied English classics and Victorian literature. The family’s summer home in St. Ives, Cornwall was a formative influence in Virginia Woolf’s childhood. In the late 1890s, she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, and it became the origin of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927).

Woolf attended King’s College London, where she studied classics, history and met early reformers of women’s higher education and the womens’ rights movement (1897 to 1901). Her brothers were educated at Cambridge, and this was an influence on her, as well as her access to her father’s vast library. Her father was the one who encouraged her to write, which she began doing professionally in 1900. Although she was resourceful and well-educated, Woolf had several mental breakdowns and was institutionalized for throwing herself out of a window after her father’s death in 1904. She eventually died by suicide in 1941.

Woolf was one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for “inspiring feminism.” Her writings were translated into more than 50 languages. A large body of literature is dedicated to her life and work, and she has been the subject of plays, novels, and films. (Source: Wikipedia)

Virginia Woolf wrote the essay A Room of One’s Own; published as a book, it described her ideas and theories on women writers, and whether they would eventually be as acknowledged as men. She created a descriptive and powerful archetype whom she calls “Shakespeare’s sister.” She described this fictional woman–hidden in the background behind her brother’s greatness–as not yet born but that the potential for her to someday exist is preeminent.

Virginia’s Woolf’s Story Within a Story:

Let me imagine, since fact are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably,–his mother was a heiress–to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin–Ovid, Virgil, and Horace–and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right.

That escape sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practicing his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the street, and even getting access to the palace of the queen.

Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home.She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter–indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of marriage. He would give her a chain of bead or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not yet seventeen.

The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like here brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager–a fat, looselipped man–guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and woman acting–no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted–can you imagine what. She would get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction . . . upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways.

More on this tomorrow . . . Lilith

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