Women and Fiction: Virginia Woolf, my students and Me

AROOIn Virginia Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” first published in 1919 she famously wrote:
“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.”
As I begin a new year of teaching my Writing Women module at Kingston University I am reminded of the revolutionary power of these words and the manner in which these words (as Woolf once said of the £500 a year inheritance that allowed her to afford to be a writer) “unveiled the sky to me.” Just as this legacy of Woolf’s “spinster” Aunt Caroline endowed the young Virginia Stephen with a sense of potential and purpose – the ideas Woolf proposes in “Modern Fiction” encouraged a generation of women writers to challenge preconceived notions about what “the proper stuff of fiction” might be. From Katherine Mansfield to Jean Rhys to Daphne DuMaurier, Iris Murdoch, Germaine Greer, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith and more – women’s literature has often rewritten the rules not only about what can be said in fiction, but how it can be said. And not just fiction either. Poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Jackie Kay, bell hooks (again), Sharon Olds and memoirists like Rachel Cusk, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Joan Didion others wrote scorchingly directly about their lives, their bodies, their families: about what a women’s life looked like and felt like and sounded like from a clear-eyed, unsentimental perspective. By doing so, each of these brave writers provided those of us who come after with a tentative roadmap through “varying, unknown and uncircumscribed spirit” of life, forging tiny gaps in “semi-transparent envelope” and letting in a little light.

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Woolf concludes “Modern Fiction” by repeating, “’The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.”
As this new teaching year begins, I look forward to the breaking and bullying, honouring and loving of women’s writing to come. As I sharing some of the light of women writers of the past with my students, they in their turn will be contributing to the blog with their own research, reading and unique perspectives on what life looks like to them, renewing and assuring the sovereignty of women’s fiction. I can’t wait.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. I love the way that the new ‘modern fiction’ is breaking boundaries as Woolf and her fellow writers once did. I’d like to discuss in class what writers we think are currently doing this in 2015!

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  2. Posted by deniseborille on October 1, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    This is quite an inspiration to all those writing and/or studying fiction. Thanks for posting! 🙂

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  3. Posted by Salma AlTabari on October 1, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    I often think about women writers who have paved the way for generations after them. It truly is fascinating how differently the bar is being set by each generation of women writers.

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  4. I definitely agree with the comments made on how female writers have changed what can be said, and can only imagine how much more it could be changed if all aspiring female writers had a voice strengthened by Woolf’s ‘£500 a year’.

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  5. Posted by Wafaa Sirokh on October 4, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    I completely agree. I think Woolf’s writing is inspirational and makes you to want to enter and explore new levels of writing, literature and ideas that haven’t been touched before. My mind spirals with a million ideas in one go as I’m reading.

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  6. Posted by Lukas on October 5, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    How would you say Woolf’s statement of ““’The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist” relates to women’s writing? Are there things that are proper or improper for women’s writing?

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  7. Posted by Eliza on October 5, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    The end of this blog post really interested me – the word ‘sovereignty’ in particular. After reading Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, there is a sense in which the word ‘sovereignty’ in relation to women’s fiction is really important, if I understand ‘sovereignty’ to mean a state in which an individual is able to govern themselves. Perhaps this is the only state where real experimentation in literature can happen.

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  8. Posted by Kirsty on October 6, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I really love the idea of “’The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist”. When critiquing work, we often think of it in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or whether we liked it or not, and we’re brought up being taught, in the simplest manner, how to write ‘good fiction’ and what this good fiction is (you can’t end with this idea, and you mustn’t do this too much), until you start learning about theory (feminist, marxist, postmodernist…), and how there’s so many different ways to analyse minute details, and entire pieces of work. It’s interesting to see the idea of there not being anything you shouldn’t or can’t write about, that there everyone’s interpretation of something is worthy of being written!

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  9. Posted by Eva Maere on October 6, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    When Woolf writes: “everything is the proper stuff of fiction” it implies that you can write whatever you feel, think, any perception you have, and that it is all the proper stuff of fiction. Nothing is wrong. But she also says that if fiction came to life “she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her.” The way I understand this is that fiction wants to be critiqued, broken up and analysed, because in this way it is given new life, new meaning, by the people who interpret and analyse it – “her youth is renewed”.

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  10. Posted by Natalie Brown on October 6, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    The idea that the writer is always, to some degree, conforming to plot themes that are already so revered in the reader’s mind, is interesting. Where does the element of rebellion to a theme come from; in the life and mind of the writer, or in the shift in conventions and life itself? If everyone were able to appreciate the complexity and sincerity of real life reflected in fiction, would it be as enjoyable to read and as relatable?

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  11. Posted by Christie on October 6, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    In terms of ‘rewriting the rules’ of what can be written, I like that Woolf proposes a move on from what she refers to as ‘materialistic’ writing, i.e. a move away from ‘matter over mind’ in literature, and writing about ‘unimportant things’. Woolf reinforces this idea of writing for the sake of writing in an extract from her essay, ‘The Death of the Moth’ in the Feminist Literary Theory Anthology (page 75): She speaks of ‘killing’ the ‘Angel in the House’ – this being a personification of the influence of patriarchal society upon women – and suggests that to write in the submissive, ‘sympathetic’ and ‘tender’ voice that is expected of females in patriarchal society, is to give the impression that you do not ‘have a mind of your own’. Thus, as Woolf ‘kills’ this ‘Angel’, she instead writes ‘spiritually’, rather than ‘materially’; she expresses her mind rather than writes for the sake of writing and earning a living.

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  12. Posted by Phoebe Deans on October 6, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    I think its important to consider that even still, new ‘modern fiction’ women writers are appearing to challenge preconceived notions of fiction and the way it is written – for example Caitlin Moran, a contemporary feminist, in her novel How to Build a Girl.

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  13. ‘The proper stuff of fiction’ written by Woolf, implies that nothing is taboo and the idea that women writers feel that they can discuss any facet of the female life is encouraging and extremely courageous as from history we can see that many female writers and their work disappeared over time even though they were quite prestigious in their own right. The fact that we still live in a patriarchal society for the most part just illustrates the importance of the history of women writers for the women writers of today and I would love to see a module developed on the women writers from the 1840’s onwards who have paved the way for the present day writers.

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