In presenting her theory, Virginia Woolf has a distinct advantage over the average feminist theorist, for she can weave her questions and thoughts about women and fiction in an almost lyrical prose. As a reader, though, one cannot be fooled by her “flowery” narrative, for like her hypothetical Mary Carmichael, she “provides a superfluity of thorns” when she asks pointed questions like, “What is a woman’s role in fiction?” (137)
Zooming into a work of fiction from one Mary Carmichael, Woolf hopes to understand women’s contemporary fiction after an in-depth examination of her predecessors. Before even cracking the spine of Life’s Adventures, she muses that “books continue each other…and I must also consider her – this unknown woman – as the descendant of all those other women who’s circumstances I have been glancing at.” Her words imply a duty upon Carmichael not only to live up to the standard of her literary ancestors, but also to continue this perhaps universal narrative. Is this a fair obligation on the author? Is a male author expected to keep pace with or revolutionize Shakespeare, Dickens and Whitman? Whether the pressure is gender-specific or not, Woolf perceives Carmichael’s struggle beneath it. Immediately, she is taken aback by her prose, questioning its “terseness…short-windedness,” and why “she is heaping on too many facts.” (137) It’s true, Woolf seems to smirk. Carmichael does feel pressure, and her attempts to conquer it only make its presence more obvious.
Woolf, however, is intrigued by Carmichael’s portrayal of characters Chloe and Olivia. From briefly pondering on the potential sensuality of the relationship (“Sometimes women do like women”), she begins to examine what roles exactly do women play in a work of fiction, wondering “where two women are represented as friends.” Save for very few exceptions, Woolf concludes that women are exclusively “shown in their relation to men.” How tragic to keep half the population from both expressing their creativity and being creatively expressed in the works of others. What a narrow viewpoint, remarks Woolf: “…how little can a man know [of a woman’s life] when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose.” No wonder man fears the mysterious woman, for he clearly learns so little about her from both truth and fiction. (138)
Turning the situation around, Woolf wonders what would have become of literature had the same principle been applied to male characters:
“Suppose…that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer. We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Ceasar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jacques…” (138)
If one wrote about a man as one would a woman, the art of literature to become nothing more than that of the tawdry, two-dollar novel one finds in the pharmacy. Why are women so limited in the roles they play fiction? According to Woolf, “literature is impoverished…by the doors that have been shut upon women.” Simply put, a woman is limited in fiction because she is limited in real life. She is the wife, the mother, and for the “dramatist…love was the only possible interpreter.” (138)
To consider this apparent dearth in a woman’s fictional characterization is to warm to Carmichael’s hypothetical prose. Her sentences may lack “Jane Austen’s…shape,” but in characterizing women as more than the deviation to man’s default, she progresses the universal narrative that appears to exist, and honors her proverbial foremothers, regardless of “whether she has a room to herself.” (137, 138)