Rejection is not new, as John Keats, had he lived today, could verify. Stung by harsh criticism of his work during his short lifetime of only 25 years, the following words (not even his name) are etched on his tombstone in Rome’s Protestant cemetery:
‘This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who on his deathbed in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. February 24th 1821.’
I only discovered this whilst reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, which are essays containing the speeches she gave to students at Girton College, Cambridge in the 1920s. The main subject matter of these essays is Women and Fiction, but as you can see she does deviate somewhat…
Virginia Woolf stated that for a woman to be able to write fiction, she must have a room of her own and £500 per year, which of course was a lot of money in her time. Her aunt had left her this selfsame legacy and she had a room of her own, but she bewailed the fate of females from a lesser social class. These women were poor and controlled by men, reduced to being mere servants and childminders and had no time whatsoever to themselves and no chance of ever writing a poem, let alone a novel.
The middle classes fared rather better, although Jane Austen had no room of her own and had to hide the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice under a blotter for fear of being ridiculed. Charlotte Bronte complained of having to mend stockings when she wanted to travel all over the world. Female authors such as these met much criticism in their lifetimes and the Bronte sisters even had to publish their work using male pseudonyms to have their writing taken seriously.
Noblewomen had the time and money to write poetry, but even Lady Winchilsea was not happy writing poetry, controlled by men stopping her from doing what she wanted to do, and knowing she would be laughed at and satirised as a ‘blue-stocking’ if her poetry came to light. Noblewomen were expected just to write letters, not novels.
The essays are quite fascinating, and the book, a classic, was actually free on Amazon. The lives of women have improved now to the extent where many female authors do have their writing taken seriously, but still many are passed off as lightweight for writing about what they know… family sagas, relationships and romance.
I would agree with Ms Woolf that women do need a good income and a space for them to write in peace, ideally without domestic interruptions. Wordsworth was notorious for entering his house by the back door to avoid ‘domestic issues’. Quite often these days women, like myself, earn an income by working and writing novels in their spare time. However, women today will write whatever their circumstances if the urge takes them. Yes, many might be rejected by agents and publishers, but at least they have the strength of mind to carry on regardless.
Did a room of her own and an income of £500 per year make Virginia Woolf happy? No it didn’t; she drowned herself in 1941 after suffering another bout of mental illness. However, she left a wonderful body of work that will be read for decades to come. Do have a read of her Girton essays if you have some peace in a room of your own! A recommended 5 star read.