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« The Novel: A Product of the Middle Class | Main | Anger and Fiction »

Woolf and Imagined Women

In the third essay of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, Virginia Woolf takes an imaginative turn from her research into the question of women in culture and the arts to tell the tale of what would have happened had Shakespeare a sister, Judith Shakespeare, who was as equally talented as he.

Woolf sets up an entire life: the fictional Judith lives in rural England, is not able to study at a school with her brother, and so suffers a fully different fate. "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."

Woolf imagines Judith soon engaged to a local boy, a "wool-stapler." She doesn't love him. Her father is kind--but forceful. Marry him she must. The family has no choice. So Judith packs her bags and runs away to London to be an actress, to write plays as her brother does. But she can "get no training in her craft." A kindly theater manager takes pity on her--Woolf even gives him a name: Nick Greene. But Judith soon finds herself carrying his child--and so kills herself and now "lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses stop outside the Elephant and Castle."

As Woolf writes: "[W]ho can measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught in a woman's body?"

There's more to the essay, but perhaps we should stop here for Ferrante's sake. Olga, the central character in the novel, also imagines a women with a parallel destiny: the so-called poverella, that figure from her childhood, the one her mother mentions as she sews with the other women. The poverella is made up of "words between sorry and warning, when you don't know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing." (As a side note, I also ask you to think about the word "nothing" in the book--about its force and meaning. Is it a throw-away? Or is it in fact nothing--that is nothingness, the absence of anything, the black hole of nihilism. If so, the spurned woman is indeed left with something--that is, nothing.)

In DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, the poverella enters the narrative at key moments, predicting and even taking part in Olga's narrative arc, much as Judith Shakespeare's fate ultimately shadow Woolf's own suicide (although Woolf of course was not pregnant at the time).

We'll want to talk more about this imagined woman in the novel--because ultimately, she shapes and controls Olga's fate.

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