. . a respectful allusion to George Elliot. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like. or it might mean women and the fiction that they write. or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them. or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. In the voice of Mary Seton, Woolf goes on to lament that she can offer no refined nugget of wisdom for the students to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever (Leaska 169-170).
On the first of these accounts, a great difficulty, for Woolf, arises in even knowing about women and what they are like. In her narrator’s trip to the British Museum Library to find out, a pivotal discovery is that nearly everything written about women has been written by men. Besides the dry anthropological accounts that might give someone a
sense of the puberty rituals of south sea islanders, everything in the library is highly slanted and derogatory. All non-fiction works that take up the woman question seem angled at exposing her purported moral, mental, and physical inferiority. All fictional works seem to deal in extremes, painting woman as either goddess or seductress, virgin or
whore, the center of creation or something less than human. And all of the fiction written by men, show women in relation to men, and reveal little or nothing about the relationship of women with other women.
When she turns her attention to fiction written by women, she finds of course that the history of female authorship and the English novel is very short, hardly granting one the moorings of a strong tradition. What’s more, most of the early female novelists seem to be hampered in their genius by streaks of resentment, even outrage, at the treatment
of women and the lack of equality, so that their full attention is never turned toward the development of their characters. instead, the narrative seems thinly autobiographical and broken by the woman author’s inevitable urge to be either conciliatory or defiant–or both
at turns–toward perceived male critics. For Woolf, this self-consciousness–quite valid in the earlier centuries of the English novel, when men held all positions of authority and authorship was not considered a woman’s province–creates an undue burden and contraint that prevents most any woman writer from achieving her full artistic potential. She sees only Jane Austin and George Eliot as even beginning to realize their full creative potential, as they hide manuscripts from polite company, in Austin’s case, or hide behind a masculine pseudonym, in Eliot’s.
Woolf paints a vivid portrait of how an author even as skilled as Jane Austin, still had to work against the extra burden of the all-confining assumptions of patriarchy–not only the nasty attitudes of male critics with a ready-made assumption that women should not be involved in the finest work