Prospero’s Daughter

Women, writing, and the question of privilege.

Illustration by Eleanor Davis.

Illustration by Eleanor Davis

Excerpted from The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

What conditions are necessary for women to produce great literary work? Virginia Woolf ’s answer in A Room of One’s Own was, to begin with, down-to-earth, practical, material. Women need an income and time and space to themselves in order to write—metaphorically, 500 pounds a year income and rooms of their own. When Woolf was writing, in 1927, married women had only had the right to own property since the year of her birth. So women, as a class, were poor, and Woolf believed that their poverty affected their creative power in subtle as well as obvious ways. For one thing, they were not educated as well as men. If they were lucky, they might attend the women’s college at Oxford or one of the two women’s colleges at Cambridge that existed at that time. But even there they would see, from the austerity of their own surroundings and the splendor of the men’s colleges, what relative value their society put on their minds and the minds of their brothers. This, in turn, would affect their self-confidence, and more than anything else except talent, self-confidence is what an artist requires, a belief that what you have to say, or the vision of the world that you feel it in yourself to convey, is important.

Here the argument shifts from the economic to the psychological underpinnings of creativity. The sense of self and entitlement to speak were very tenuous in Virginia Woolf herself, and of course she was writing autobiographically. Although her father was a learned man and something of a philosopher, he was a classic Victorian patriarch who did not believe that his daughters should be educated. Their brother went to Cambridge, but Vanessa and Virginia Stephen were made to stay at home and run their father’s household, until he died and they were freed to live their own lives. Virginia never quite recovered from the unfairness of her domestic servitude, the sacrifice of her potential, as she saw it, to that of the male side of her family, and this psychic wound was the source of a sustaining combativeness, just as Dickens’ childhood trauma of being made to work in a blacking factory instead of going to school shaped his life in its sympathies and resentments.

In an unforgettable section of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagines a sister for Shakespeare, an equally gifted sister, named Judith. Will is sent to school. Judith stays at home and is uneducated. He becomes a playwright in London. She, Cinderella-like, becomes the household servant. When her father produces a husband for her, she runs away to London to be a playwright like her brother, or an actress. But she is laughed at: Women can’t write; women can’t act. A playwright named Nick Greene takes pity on her, which means he sleeps with her and gets her pregnant. In despair, Shakespeare’s sister ends her own life. What presents itself in some part as melodramatic spoof is an autobiographical, compensating fantasy: Why am I, Virginia, not as great as Shakespeare? Because I have been hounded, confounded, and driven to stifle my own talent. I am not Shakespeare because I’m his sister.

If I were writing an update of A Room of One’s Own today, I would try to create a character to match Shakespeare’s sister. I would create a more entitled woman, someone with even more advantages than Virginia Woolf could imagine when she was writing in 1927. I would call her Prospero’s Daughter.

My Prospero’s Daughter lives in England—for me, an imaginary kingdom where everyone is articulate and witty, where women can have titles, where literature is the national sport. Exiled to this island by evil usurpers in his native land, Prospero brought with him his family traditions of respect for knowledge, love of art and music, and philosophical skepticism. He was a powerful wizard with the great gift of being able to explain his wizardry on television. He and his wife had four daughters. Miranda was the oldest. With no boys in the family, Prospero treated her as though she were his son. From the time she could talk, he took her education in hand. He started playing chess with her when she was 4 years old. A gifted mathematician, Miranda was treated as special, her father’s heir, until she went to the university. This was the early 1960s, and for the first time she encountered remnants of the world Virginia Woolf had written about, including women instructors who had been trained to believe in their own inferiority. Miranda studied math with a woman who told her she would try to have her reassigned to a man because women weren’t as good at math as men. Horrified, Miranda ran to a pay phone and called her father. “Is it true,” she asked, “that women can’t do math?” “That’s rubbish,” he said. But the damage had been done. Her relationship to math now became tentative. She moved into another field, history. The years of her education passed, and she started to teach and write. She wrote an original work and got an excellent teaching position. She fell in love with another historian and they married, but competing at the same job was hard, and they divorced. She raised their child alone, married again, and had two more children.

Now, although life was pleasant, it got very hard for her. She was teaching and writing. She was bringing up three children. When they were babies and toddlers, she was always exhausted. She had to get up in the night when they did. She didn’t get enough sleep but still had to go to work the next day. Yes, she had child care, but it was always failing for one reason or another. Yes, she had help in the house, but it was never enough, and also, the help needed supervision and instruction. The children got sick. New arrangements had to be made. And always, there was laundry to be done, food to buy, food to cook, a messy household to live in, pathetic efforts to tidy up, classes to prepare, meetings to attend, newspapers and magazines to keep up with. Then the demands of the children became less physical: There wasn’t diapering or so much laundry, but there were lessons to take the children to, performances at school to attend, teachers to talk to, doctors to be seen, and, as always, food to be bought and prepared, clothes to be shopped for. Most important, there were the relationships with the children, listening to them, answering them, directing, reassuring, and understanding them, containing one’s anger at them sometimes, advising, encouraging, and guiding them—in short, bringing them up, hoping and trying at the same time to keep a living relationship with her husband.

Twenty-five years go by, endless and laden as they are being lived but seeming like a moment in retrospect. The children are gone. Now Miranda finds herself with lots of time, and she knows how to use it, accustomed as she is to squeezing the most out of every minute. She sets to work and writes brilliant books that no one but she could produce. She is seventy, but still in full swing. Her marriage is good. Her children are thriving. She is Dame Miranda. The only discrimination she has encountered in her life has been because of her gender, but she has lived a full life despite it. Her biggest problem has been balancing the demands of family and work. But this, although she doesn’t complain about it—she would never have given up the joy of having children, the satisfaction of family life—is a big problem, the problem that a new version of A Room of One’s Own would address. The main burden of family life still falls on women. Prospero’s Daughter solved the problem by superhuman energy and by readjusting the life cycle, putting some of her creative work toward the end rather than the middle of her life, using productively the later years we often think of as leftovers. If you look at her life from the outside, you would say she was privileged, but she doesn’t feel privileged. She feels overworked—until suddenly she has acres of time. It’s far from being the gross servitude of Shakespeare’s sister, but the burden of family is now the central issue of women and creativity, whether the creativity is expressed in novels or interior design schemes, litigation or business plans, cupcakes or algorithms.

Motherhood and their personal lives affect the professional lives of women who are writers as much as they do the professional lives of women who are bankers or lawyers, and it goes beyond balancing the time demands of family and career. Such women as Jodi Picoult may write novels that flow naturally from family life, and they may be very successful in some ways but wish for more respect. Another writer, Grace Paley, might feel the claims of family and community so strongly that she writes much less than her fans would want her to. Another Daughter of Prospero might foreswear children, find a nurturing husband, and write prolifically. Joyce Carol Oates took that path. Toni Morrison had race to contend with as well as gender as a factor in keeping her from getting the respect she deserved. It took a public demonstration on her behalf and a protest against her failure to be given prizes before the prizes were prised loose and started to come to her as regularly as she deserved.

One common way of suppressing respect for women writers is to accuse them of privilege. What should we call this? False populism? Bait-and-switch class warfare? Women, who might well be considered a class in themselves, are attacked for belonging to the middle class—or, even worse, the upper class—by male critics who are themselves usually middle class but speak as though they were working a 12-hour shift in a steel mill. The woman writer enjoys a privilege which offends them. Her focus on family and relationships seems trivial. Her way of getting at truth seems indirect and banal. Her feel for the specific detail verges on an obsession with brands.

Jonathan Franzen considering Edith Wharton provides a good example. Her wealth is off-putting to him. It constitutes a problem in sympathy. “No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did. Although she was seldom free of money worries, she always lived as if she were.” Like a husband whose wife doesn’t appreciate how hard he works to make a living for her, Franzen frets that Wharton lived as if she had no money worries, although she did have them. “Privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage.” Privilege, however, is in the eyes of the beholder. Many of us see a male writer like Hemingway as privileged, in his freedom to live as he chooses, to experience what he wants, to fish, to fuck, to fight, to write, whatever, while Hadley or Pauline or Martha or Mary takes care of getting dinner on the table, the laundry done, and the children put to bed. So far as I know, no one has ever raised the issue of privilege as an obstacle to appreciating Hemingway, Henry James, John Cheever, or Gore Vidal. Privilege was exactly the issue Virginia Woolf was getting at in A Room of One’s Own and later Three Guineas—male privilege.

Respect may come. We will become more accustomed to authority in women and the forms it takes—greatness not being incompatible, for example, with wanting to have one’s hair done twice a week. I can imagine a culture in which self-deprecating men make tiny distinctions while women make connections between matters large and small and ponder the big questions that affect societies, even if they address these issues in a style incompatible with older ideas of dignity and seriousness. The one thing I suspect will not change is that men are not likely to start reading women’s books. Fortunately, this is a matter for the unacknowledged legislators and not for the elected ones.

Reading is almost always subversive. From the time you read the next night’s fairy tale under the covers by flashlight when you have already had your bedtime story from Daddy and are supposed to be asleep to the time you are an adult reading junk, hoping no one catches you at it, reading is private; that’s the most seductive thing about it. It’s you and the book. Women’s reading will respond to women’s needs. Men’s will respond to men’s. And if men never begin to read fiction by women, well, as my mother always said to comfort me when I didn’t get something I wanted (and it never failed to work), “It’s their loss.” We’re all better off for enmeshing ourselves with what we are not, and that may best be done in love, but fiction works, too.

Excerpted from The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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