December: The Woman's Page

In twentieth-century newspapers, ‘The Woman’s Page’ was devoted to childcare, cookery, housework, knitting, fashion, hairstyles, and makeup. It was for wives to enjoy after husbands had done with the news and sport. The Woman’s Page was a textual extension of the Gilded Cage. That was not something where women were happy to be held, even in 1900. Then the popular song was: ‘She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, /A beautiful sight to see, / You may think she’s happy and free from care, / She’s not, though she seems to be.’

Inside and outside gilded cages, women had been writing their own pages for as long as they had been able to write. For the English language, how long was that?

Julian of Norwich is said to be the first woman to write in English. She was born, it is believed, in 1342, and she died, it is thought, in 1416. It is most unlikely that she was the first woman to write English, but her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is the first work known to have been written by an English woman. Its date is given as 1395. That means that a work known to be by a woman does not enter the record for nearly eight hundred years after works written by men began appearing in English.

Julian spoke up late in the day, we might say. Women before her were silent because no one taught them to write. Outside elite groups and religious groups, English girls were not taught to read before the eighteenth century. And, once they started reading in large numbers, it was not expected that they would write books. Still less was it expected that they would publish them.

Julian’s name is not insignificant. She has been known as Juliana of Norwich. Her name may be derived from the Church of St Julian to which she was attached, and Julian was a name taken by women as well as by men in the Middle Ages. But it is salient that our first woman writer’s name is so nearly that of a man.

When women first came to publish, they often adopted a man’s name. That practice is called pseudandry: Greek for ‘false-man’. But before we look at pseudandrous women, it might be well to consider the case of Judith Shakespeare.

Judith Shakespeare is not a pseudonym; it is a fiction. She never lived, but had she lived and had she been born the twin of William Shakespeare, with the same intelligence and the same talent, what might have been her story? Judith, says Virginia Woolf, would not have been given the same education and opportunities as William and she would probably have died in childbirth before she could have written anything. Judith Shakespeare is one with the spectral figures evoked by Carol Ann Duffy in The World’s Wife. Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Sisyphus, Mrs Faust and other imaginary women are given voices by Duffy, but those voices only serve to make their historical silencing deafening.

As sad a silence is that of women who wrote books but did not attempt to publish them. How many were such we cannot know, but Jane Austen, our greatest novelist, came close to being one of them. In the event, she published anonymously. By so doing, she denied herself one of the writer’s great joys: seeing her name in print. But, it would have been a joy mixed with anxiety. The point, as Virginia Woolf says of Austen, is that ‘One must be a lady’, and it was not ladylike to publish.

George Eliot was not, in the eyes of Society, a lady, but, when she came to publish, she resorted to pseudandry. Mary Ann Evans knew that her work would not be taken seriously if she had called herself Mary Ann Evans so she called herself George Eliot. One critic explained her pseudonym as encoding the admission to ‘GeorgE Lewes I Owe iT’ - George Lewes was her partner. The pseudonym does not work as any kind of anagram, but people wanted to believe that behind every successful woman writer there was a man. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte published as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Of course, women did publish under their own names, but then women’s name are those of their fathers and their husbands. A Miss or a Mrs was readily tacked on. Elizabeth Gaskell is regularly called Mrs Gaskell. Charles Dickens is rarely called Mr Dickens.

By the end of the twentieth century it was unusual for women to resort to pseudandry, but in recent years Joanne Rowling has done it twice. In 1997, she called herself J. K. Rowling on the cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She was advised by her publisher that boys did not like to read books written by women. Girls would read books written by a man or a woman so it was best for sales to use initials. That advice worked. Harry Potter books have been read by millions of boys as well as girls. But if the publisher is right, and it is a publisher’s job to know these things, it means that the ancient prejudice against hearing the woman’s voice remains alive among males, and it is somehow the more sinister that it is boys not men who won’t buy books by women.

In 2013, Rowling resorted again to pseudandry for the publication of her first detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. She had good reason not to use the name ‘J. K. Rowling’. That, she knew, would make the book an immediate bestseller. She wanted truly to test its merits. But why call herself ‘Robert Galbraith’ why not ‘Roberta Galbraith’?

In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf has a great deal to say about women writers, and, by implication, she has a great deal to say about women readers. She was the common reader of her title. It is easy to say that she was a very uncommon reader, but her point was that she was writing for a non-specialist readership. She was not writing for academics, publishers, reviewers – professional readers, largely male. By the 1920s, the common reader was as likely to be a woman as a man. When it came to Woolf’s own major genre, the novel, the majority of readers had been women since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Though criticized by minsters and moralists, novel reading was an activity in which women were encouraged to engage. It was private and cheap. It did not make them drunk or pregnant.

Woolf published The Common Reader under her full name, Virginia Woolf, but at no point in its essays does she say that she is a woman. Frequently, she writes explicitly as if she were a man. Talking about John Evelyn’s Diary and the peculiar distance that he maintains from the suffering of the people he describes, Woolf says: ‘Allowing for his discomfort, there is enough discrepancy between his view of pain and ours to make us wonder whether we see any fact with the same eyes, marry any woman from the same motives, or judge any conduct by the same standards.’ It would not be right to say that Woolf is pretending to be a man. She is demonstrating that she knows the conventions of publication and journalism. She is showing that she can do the job as well as any man. Behind that demonstration of manly convention, there is womanly anger.

Adeline Virginia Stephen, as Virginia Woolf had been named at her birth in 1882, had known the frustrations of a Judith Shakespeare. She had revered and feared her father. On 28 November 1928, she noted in her diary that Sir Leslie Stephen, had he lived, would ‘have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable.’ Victorian daughters were sacrificed to Victorian fathers.

Victorian sisters were sacrificed to Victorian sons. In 1903 when she was twenty-one, Virginia wrote to her brother Thoby to express her anger that he had been sent to a good school and a good university while she had had a woeful home schooling: ‘I have to delve from books, painfully & all alone, what you get every evening sitting over your fire & smoking your pipe with [Lytton] Strachey, etc. No wonder my knowledge is but scant. Theres nothing like talk as an educator I’m sure. Still I try my best with Shakespeare.’ On her own, she followed her brother’s curriculum, arranged to have herself taught Latin and Greek, and she read astonishingly. But it was not until she was in her twenties that she able to get the intellectually challengingly conversation that was her brother’s element. It was not until she was in her forties that she one day realized that she was more intelligent than the brilliant Lytton Strachey.

Woolf saw the intellectual needs of young women sacrificed to the domestic demands of mothers and fathers. She went to Cambridge to say something about that: ‘I am back,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women—that’s my impression. Intelligent eager, poor; & destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine & have a room of their own.’

What Woolf said at Girton became her best known essay: A Room of One’s Own. Without that, said Woolf, a woman could not become a writer. Very true, although Austen wrote her novels on a small table in the drawing room and Gaskell wrote her novels on another small table in the dining room. Woolf probably knew that, but she also knew that what extraordinary human beings can do has little to do with what the rest of us can do.

The United Kingdom’s Representation of the People Act received the Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. At that date privileged women, like Virginia Woolf, householders and over the age of 30, were given the vote and in the political forum a voice. It took time for that vote and voice to become an accepted part of the national life, for it to become as commonplace for women to vote and voice as it was for men to vote and voice. A commonplace room not a gilded cage was the place for women’s pages.

It is sobering to think that Julian of Norwich, the first English woman known to have written a woman’s page, had a room of her own for she was an anchoress: ‘a Christian person who lives in strict physical separation from secular society’. She lived, wrote and died in a walled-up cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich. Today, Julian’s cell of her own has been ‘rebuilt on its putative medieval foundations’. Anyone who wishes to make a pilgrimage to Norwich to this place sacred to English literature might want to do so on 8 May, her saint’s day. Let us hope, in Julian’s words, that in 2019: ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bhattacharji, Santha. ‘Julian of Norwich (1342–c.1416).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography: www.oxforddnb.com, 2018.

Christian History Institute. ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Christian History Institute Magazine (2018): christianhistoryinstitute.org.

Duffy, Carol Ann. The World’s Wife. London: Picador, 2017.

Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling. London: Hachette, 2013.

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love: Shewed to a Devout Ankress. 1395. Edited by Roger Huddleston. Westminster: The Newman Press, 1952.

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. London: Penguin, 1966.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

Shaffer, Elinor, and Catherine Brown, eds. The Reception of George Eliot in Europe. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. London: the Hogarth Press, 1925.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diaries 1915-1941. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. London: Oakshot Press, 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters 1888-1941. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. London: Oakshot Press, 2016

Youde, Kate. ‘Victorian Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell’s Home to Re-open to the Public.’ The Independent (28 September 2014): /www.independent.co.uk.

 

For the full bibliography for Women and the English Language, please go to http://www.englishproject.org/women-and-english-language-bibliography

For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj

The English Project’s 2019 Postings. ‘The Woman’s Page’ is the last of the English Project’s posting for 2018. Expect to hear more from us on 1 January 2019. Meanwhile enjoy Christmas, Eid, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Hogmanay.