The web of women writers is strong and enduring. Once we begin to notice and tap into it, it grows and becomes even more activated. Some women writers have been quite deliberate in their work of adding to and exposing this web. We call these women hubs within the network of connectedness.
See our piece about the web of women writers: Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers
These hub women hold more bulk in the web. Many women writers can trace an energetic root back to them. To name an initial few:
Ursula K. Le Guin
Zora Neale Hurston
Toni Cade Bambara
These women writers deliberately set out to mentor other women, reveal the writing of other women, keep other women’s names and stories alive. They amassed large bodies of work that evolved even further when they actively engaged in social justice, adding writings about feminism, racism, and inequity to their own canon and thus the canon as a whole. As they began to take up more space in the ecosystem of the web of women writers, their hubs or networks became larger, continuing to grow and expand with time as their works receive energy back from women writers of all times and places.
These hub women of the web of women writers can be likened to Elder trees in a forest, creating large centers of information which provide mentorship and resources to many:
“Elder trees . . . are keystone species in many ecosystems. Among many indigenous and folk peoples it is said that the Elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused. . . . The connotation of the word is that of wisdom and the ability to teach and help the young of the community, to shape their knowledge, behaviors and relationships to other members of the community” (Buhner 183).
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is a writer of such largess and this particular post focuses on her. As well as her own literary career, (she is the author of 14 books), and along with her husband, running their own publishing house: Hogarth Press, she was committed to the work of women writers as a whole.
In the small book, Women and Writing, which I have owned and referred to for 30 years, she writes about Margaret Cavendish (1624-74), Aphra Behn (1640-89), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), Jane Austen (1775-1817), Charlotte (1816-55) and Emily (1818-48) Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), George Eliot (1819-80), Christina Rossetti (1830-94), Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), Katherine Mansfield (1890-1923), Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) and more.
Woolf was not afraid to be publicly in support of women and labeled a feminist (unlike many of the other women writers of her time) and “from the beginning of her professional career, Virginia Woolf took that hackneyed phrase “Cherchez la Femme” [seek the woman] as a reading mantra in the review and essay assignments she accepted. This, not her encyclopedic knowledge of English literature and her familiarity with French and ancient Greek, set her apart from her fellow reviewers”(Gill xviii).
Woolf grew up middle class but, because of the financial losses of her father, and the remaining inherited wealth going to her brothers, was left with little money of her own. She had a small stipend which she speaks of in A Room of One’s Own (1929), her feminist tome about women’s need for independence, both financial and otherwise. This stipend was not enough to afford her the writing life she desired. That, she had to create for herself.
Woolf was not sent to university, which she coveted and longed for. Gillian Gill author of Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World reports that Woolf’s mother was firmly against educating women. She was absolutely committed to the archetype of the angel in the house—women as waiflike ephemeral beings with no needs of their own who are happy being servants to their family— and in spite of their obvious intellectual abilities, fully expected her two youngest daughters, Vanessa and Virginia, to continue on with this role she had so carefully prepared them for.
See our piece about the Angel in the House: Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf’s “Angel in the House” and what it takes to be a #NastyWoman
By her mother Woolf was never allowed to go to the women’s college that may have been available to her; by her culture she was disallowed attending the college she wished to; reserved for men only. She was what is called an “autodidact,” self-taught, and though many say that led to her original thought and ground breaking achievements, she never saw it as an advantage. Had she a choice, she would have gone to the men’s-only Cambridge.
Eventually Woolf secured a position writing for the “Times Literary Supplement, a rare achievement for a woman of her generation. By 1910 her reviews and essays were earning her enough to pay off her doctor’s bills and acquire not just a room but a vacation home of her own in the Sussex countryside”(Gill xviii).
She was able to support herself with her writing and from this position, she made an intentional effort to review, explore, and expose the work of women writers before her. She was friends with many women writers of her own time, and also decidedly reviewed books by them, as well as projected into the future by deliberately writing for those who would come after her. In her two feminist treatises, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas she reaches towards us, women writers of her future, hoping we will pick up the gauntlet and continue on with the fight.
“Rare in her generation, Virginia Woolf valued the contribution of women to the English literary tradition as much as we do today. From childhood she immersed herself in the work of writers of the past, and as a prolific reviewer and essayist she liked to choose books that allowed women’s voices to be heard. She saw herself as a link in a chain of women writers, and this pride in tradition was a spur to her authorial ambitions. At the same time, she knew better than most the enormous obstacles that even the greatest women writers of the past had faced, and saw with clear eyes the sadness, often amounting to tragedy, of their lives”(Gill xii).
Woolf had strong role models, two “aunts” who were professionals and a mother who took herself seriously and worked hard for the life she believed in.
Her mother, Julia Stephen, as well as being a dedicated and successful angel in the house was also well known for her charitable work in the community. She excelled at taking care of the sick and the dying and exhausted herself doing just that. All of it was free or what we would today call “volunteer work.” There was never a plea or request that went unanswered of her. She even wrote a pamphlet on how to care for the sick and taught others how to do so. She delivered baskets of food and household goods to those in need and was busy working morning to night on behalf of her family and community. Julia died young while Woolf was still in her teens, leaving her and Vanessa to tend to their father which they did, often begrudgingly, until he died nine years later.
The two “aunts” of Virginia Woolf who had achieved professional fame are her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) a professional and well known photographer and Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), her “adopted aunt,” the sister of her father’s first wife. Thackeray Ritchie (the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray) was a well-known writer of her day and visited Virginia’s home often as she was growing up.
“Anne Thackeray Ritchie was aware of the number of good women writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose books were out of favor. She wrote a series of short biographies in an attempt to make sure these women were not erased from the annals of literature. Her efforts where often in vain, but a generation later, Virginia Woolf would take up the same challenge with much greater authority and lasting effort”(Gill 100).
Julia Margaret Cameron was Woolf’s great-aunt whose daughter, according to Gill, gifted her a camera at the age of 49. Cameron learned how to use it and went on to become a famous celebrated photographer mostly known for her portraits and ability to capture the essence of personalities in a unique and compelling way.
In 1926 the Hogarth Press published Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Women, with introduction by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry. The book, dedicated to her great-aunt whom she’d never met, was Woolf’s chance to bring greater exposure to Cameron’s work as well as come to know her better herself. She went through letters and papers of her mother’s family and created the introductory essay, learning a lot about her family’s history and connection to India as she did so. But she never learned what was only revealed in 2000: that her great-great-grandmother Thérèse, who ended up settling in Paris, was part Bengali. It seems that the generations of women on that side of the family knew of this fact but never passed this information on to Virginia’s generation as they were all wanting to appear 100% English. There were many compelling stories passed down about Thérèse, who lived a very exciting and high class Parisian life, but it appears many of them were untrue and created to hide the truth.
The women of this line of Woolf’s family were powerfully strong and intimately connected and remained so after marriage and children. As did, in spite of struggles in their relationship, Vanessa and Virginia.
“Like Thackeray Ritchie, Woolf would write essays and reviews that delved deep into the work of women writers of the past, even as she connected to creative, unconventional women in the present, such as the writer Vita-Sackville West, the composer Ethel Smyth, and the theater director Edy Craig. Unlike Thackeray Ritchie, who lost her beloved sister, Minny, at age thirty, Virginia always had Vanessa, and as a writer and painter the Stephen sisters cross-pollinated through their lives”(xxii).
Gillian Gill, author of Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, has a PhD from Cambridge University and currently lives in the US where she has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale and Harvard. She is the author of biographies of other accomplished women, including: Agatha Christie, Mary Baker Eddy, and Florence Nightingale.
Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World is a fabulous exploration of Woolf’s world through her most intimate relationships.
Woolf was cognizant of the hidden web of women writers and the power it offered. Hearing about the death of one of her contemporaries, Stella Benson, she notes in her journal that the “web” of “thinking stuff” was diminished at her loss:
“I was walking through Leicester Square . . . just now when I read “death of Noted Novelist” on the posters . . . it is Stella Benson. . . A very fine steady mind: much suffering; suppressed; — there seems to be some sort of reproach to me in her death, as in K[atherine] M[ansfield]’s. I go on; and they cease. Why? Why not my name on the posters? . . . . A curious feeling, when a writer like S.B. dies, that one’s response is diminished . . . . My effusion — what I send out —less porous and radiant— as if the thinking stuff were a web that were fertilized only by other people’s (her that is) thinking it too: now lacks life”(Barrett 27).
In many ways the work of Nasty Women Writers carries on the work of Virginia Woolf in exposing, promoting and giving space and time to the writing of other women of all times. Like Woolf we are committed to exposing and unerasing the long line of women before us as well as spotlighting and supporting women writing now with a nod to the future. We hope the women yet to pick up the pen find us in their search for foremothers, and both learn from and are inspired by them.
For the web of women writers is indeed alive, and while possibly the “thinking stuff” is for a time diminished in the loss of one, it continues, gaining further energy and enhancement in the ongoing work of the many and those to come.
There are not many women writers of the English Language who have not heard of Virginia Woolf. There are not many feminists worldwide who have not read or seen references to her work.
Woolf holds a vast network of writers in her hub. One prominent woman writer who holds a vast hub of her own in the web and was hugely inspired by Virginia Woolf is Toni Morrison. I thought I recognized Woolf’s call to women writers to free themselves from the “male gaze” in Morrison’s call to black writers to free themselves of the “white gaze” so I was not completely surprised to learn that Morrison had written her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. But more on that in another post as news of the hidden web of women writers is revealed and grows.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Featured image from a painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell
Barrett, Michèle, ed. Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing. HBJ, 1979.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Lost Language of Plants. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2002.
Gill, Gillian. Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt New York 2019