Several years ago, I rediscovered a piece of writing by Virginia Woolf that affected my life a great deal; it is from an essay titled “A Room of One’s Own” and contains a reference to ‘Shakespeare’s sister.’ I have had a lifelong love affair with Shakespeare and I felt I loved this mythic sister as well the first time I read this short essay by Virginia Woolf when I was in college. In “A Room of One's Own,” Woolf expresses the frustration of women writers who were not allowed the schooling let alone the recognition of the men of their eras. She creates Shakespeare's sister, a woman who would have had the same creativity and ambition as her brother Will, but would not have had the support he was given. With his innate abilities, she would have lacked the training to write his works, for her family would not allow her his schooling. She would run away from home and attempt to find her creative outlet in the real world. In her frustration, she would eventually kill herself.
A period of rereading Virginia Woolf a few years ago with my daughter, brought Shakespeare’s sister back to me.
“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young- alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and the Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity , as I think, is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so-I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals-and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while. (Virginia Woolf)
When I read this, about six years ago, I was a blocked writer working as an editor. As I read it, I was over come with a great grief and guilt, because I was not writing at all. I had read “A Room of One’s Own” as a young woman in college with high ideals, and great plans; fully intending to spend my life as a professional writer, dedicating my self to the resurrection of Shakespeare’s sister. Like so many other women before me, that was not the way things had turned out. I hadn’t written much for a long time, I had let my gift go dead. As I read the ending of this piece where it says: “As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while,” I was devastated.
My mother has had the idea for some time that working as an editor is counterproductive to writing. I never really felt that was true, if it affected me at all in that way, it never seemed to be anything major. But my mother would keep saying, “I wish you wouldn’t spend all your energy on other people’s poetry; that you would write your own.” It was a thought that was planted in my head. I went through a two-three year period when I didn’t write at all. ‘Well,’ I’d occasionally think bitterly, ‘I sure didn’t do my part for poor Shakespeare’s Sister. If it was all up to me, she’d be buried twenty feet deep opposite the Elephant and the Castle’ Then, about two years ago, I came across the same section from Woolf again. The quote came up on the computer when I was looking for something else. I read through it once more and suddenly I saw something that I had always read right over before, without ever really seeing it. Words jumped out at me and I suddenly understood them in a way I had never really understood them before. “Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.” Suddenly I looked at the words . . . many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed . . . and I started to cry. I cried because I suddenly realized that those woman who couldn’t be there that night because they were washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed are exactly the same women whose poetry I read, write reviews of, make decisions about and send for publication. Virginia Woolf was talking to and about mother’s who were struggling to raise their families and find themselves as artists as well. I suddenly realized that I have been doing huge things for the resurrection of Shakespeare’s sister, though I may not have been writing myself. I have offered publication to hundreds of poets who would not have had it other wise. I have helped them be briefly both - Shakespeare’s Sister and Mother. And with these poems that I truly handle with such concern and care, I have passed on poetry to be read by thousands and thousands of other women, some of whom may otherwise not have been touched by poetry in their daily lives at all. I came to realize that I had been doing something extremely important to make Virginia Woolf’s vision become reality.
Since that time, I walked through the doors of The Soul Food Café, sat beside the moonlight water garden and broke the block that had bound my words for so long. I write poetry again now and offer it with thanksgiving to the Muse and the cause of Shakespeare’s Sister, but I have also realized that there are many parts to be played in nurturing her back to life.
Virginia Woolf was prophetic. In the fifty years after she wrote her essay in 1928 things changed dramatically for women in the world of literature, and that change has continued for the last twenty-five years. Though perhaps we still have not reached total equality, the days are definitely gone when a woman had to hide her writing under her sewing as Jane Austen did. Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin could become George Sand today if she was so inclined, but she wouldn’t have to do it in order to be published. They say Emily Dickinson wrote more than 1700 poems and only ten were published during her lifetime, but of course, ten published poems was wildly successful for a women in the mid 1800's. Today more than half of the state Poet Laureates in the United States are women.
Woolf gave voice to a world on the brink of change. Woman’s participation in art and literature would not be acknowledged until it was accomplished by women free to move and think and read and write. Beneath an age old cloud of patriarchal dominance, a future generation of woman waited who would finally accomplish what Virginia Woolf dared to dream of. Today in a large portion of the world, women are free to seek education, to write, to speak, to think, to behave as they will.
Those of us who are heirs to this legacy have inherited a literary and artistic world vastly superior to that of our sisters who came before us. It is now incumbent upon us to be sure that we leave something as good or better for our daughter’s and our granddaughters, and that we work for these freedoms to become obtainable to all the women of our world. I actively support Arts and Literature Education in the schools, especially for girls and women and continue to do everything in my power to support and promote women writers and artists in every way possible. I owe this to my daughters. I owe it to Virginia Woolf and the other courageous women who blazed a trail and left a better world for me. I owe it especially to Shakespeare’s Sister . . . and to Mozart’s Sister; to Michelangelo’s Sister and to Monet’s. When they are allowed to speak, to paint, to compose, to write, the world will be a richer place for it; in the end it will be humanity who will benefit.
Edwina Peterson Cross ©November 2003