Shakespeare’s Sister Still

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“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” These are Virginia Woolf’s words from a series of lectures she delivered at Cambridge University in October, 1928. They were published In 1929 as  A Room of One’s Own. 

In later decades, “Shakespeare’s Sister” found a life of its own as an excerpted essay* in various anthologies. My own discovery of Woolf’s work was over three decades ago, and I am grateful for her transcendent sentences.

Woolf creates her imaginary Judith Shakespeare within William Shakespeare’s generally accepted circumstances. As is often true, similar circumstances are no guarantee of similar outcomes even when one’s mother is an heiress, as was true for William and the imaginary Judith.

The grammar-schooled William “was, it was well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre” (p. 8).

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While William’s stage career began by “holding horses at the stage door,” it wasn’t long before William was center stage, “living at the hub of the universe.” He even managed to meet the queen.

Judith, equally curious and imaginative but not schooled—no  Horace or Virgil for her—did learn to read and even found a book or two, perhaps even one of William’s, until she was found out by her parents.

“They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter… [They] told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers” (p. 8).

Yet, Judith went on reading and started scribbling a line or two as she was near a marriageable age, seventeen. Upon discovering that she was betrothed to a “wool-stapler’s son, [she] cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father,” which did not produce the desired results in Elizabethan England any more than it does in the 21st century.

Father Shakespeare then offered Judith “a chain of beads or a fine petticoat…there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart?

“The force of [Judith’s] own gift alone drove her to it. [She] let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London…she had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s…she had a taste for the theatre” but she was sent away from the stage door (p. 8).

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Actually, Judith was laughed away by the stage manager who told her “no woman…could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight?

“[Judith’s] genius was for fiction and [she] lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways…for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face” (p. 9).

Judith was turned away, time and again, until an “actor-manager” took pity on her and her dreams of theatre. Soon, Judith was with child and without marriage.

Sadly, Judith killed herself “one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads…that, more or less is how the story would run…if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius” Woolf conjectured, almost a century ago (p. 9).

In 2012, we are still asking: “…who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body.”
*All excerpts from “Shakespeare’s Sister,” by Virginia Woolf are from Eight Modern Essayists, 5th edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

ROW80 Wednesday Word Marking:

My word total for January is 8250 with my goal of writing at least 250 words per day; in February, I began writing in 30-minute stretches to focus my writing and the word total for the month is 9814;  in March, my current word total is 3838.  My total Round of Words so far is 21,902, which is a raw total, meaning a lot of free writing/brainstorming yet meeting my goal of writing consistently. I generate an additional 1200 to 2000 words per week as blogs, fiction, and nonfiction.

Bob Mayer’s Idea and Conflict Workshop is life-changing, and I mean that sincerely. I can honestly say I have not been this excited about writing in years. There is true joy in my work.

“Once More to the Lake”

E B White (Wikipedia photo)

“Once More to the Lake” is a 1941 essay by E.B. White in which he returns to a Maine lake, revisiting childhood memories that are “precious and worth saving.” The essay is among the finest ever written; here  is my favorite paragraph in any writing anywhere:

“It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness. The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden…. Peace and goodness and jollity.”*

Always, White’s words return me to the lake that is my life, no matter when or where I am.

This time, it is 1985, on the last day of the last year I taught at the University of Wyoming. Alone, I sit in an empty classroom, with its beige, cracked-plaster walls—the rows of laminated desks stretched into an elongated square—I am 33, giddy in my belief that I am leaving teaching to write,  whatever it may mean. By 1989, it means part-time teaching in a college outreach program for a trio of towns in southwestern Wyoming—less than 3,000 total population—whose “jollity, peace, and goodness” still occupy me. With these students, I write in restaurants, in classes, in homes, returning again and again to White’s lake. It is the richest writing of my life with a Parker fountain pen—the cheapest but best my money can buy—scrawling in spiral notebooks of red covers and silver spines in the low light of a scrawny chandelier until 1991.

Some 21 years later, my writing unpacked, I return with White once more to the lake.

*“Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White in Eight Modern Essayists, 5th Edition, St. Martin’s Press, New York: 1990 (page 83).

ROW80 Wednesday Word Marker:

Since January 2, I aimed for writing 250 daily words that I could keep—as blog posts, fiction, or nonfiction–so far, I have approximately 7500 words.

“It Tells You.”

“You don’t tell it. It tells you.”  I included these two sentences in my reply to a comment on last Wednesday’s post, Goal-Gazing. The discussion was around writing and what it evokes in us, from the slough of despond to joy and every emotion in-between. All agreed writing is worth it.

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Hours beyond the blog and out of the electronic ether entirely, the sentences return to me, just a tad tenacious. They belong to Joan Didion and are from her 1976 “Why I Write” essay.

“It tells you.”
“You don’t tell it.

I’m used to sorting and shuffling through my mind for “lines I like” but of late, I find my recollection is not always the original order of occurrence. I consult my well-used copy of William Smart’s Eight Modern Essayists, fifth edition, a resident of my writer’s bag until the end of the 20thcentury, now a bookshelf retiree to ease its spine.

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I open the book to a heavily underlined passage from Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women,” her 1931 speech to The Women’s Service League:

“…for it is a very strange thing that people will give you a motor car if you will tell them a story. It is still a stranger thing that there is nothing so delightful in the world as telling stories…” (Page 12).

I consider finding the part about the Persian cat but I turn pages instead, remembering I may forget what I started. Didion’s one-line paragraphs return, as if on cue, but with the additional phrase of nota bene (note well), and I remember that the phrase precedes the paragraphs. 

“It tells you.
“You don’t tell it.”

At that point, I reach page 241 and read: “the arrangement of the words matters…[it] tells you what is going on in the picture.” I have believed this all my writing life—still do—moreover, Didion’s two, one-line paragraphs were a mantra for me—still are–nota bene to self.

Rhythm of ROW80 Sunday Scheduling:

  • Alternating short fiction, novel, and blog posts as daily writing
  • Doing the Tao with Dyer
  • Nepo morning meditation continues