Most writers ask themselves – at some point in their lives, every now and again or all the time – why they write, what or how they (should) write, what they gain but also lose by writing, whether writing is fun or torture, what drives them to write but also what tears them apart, how they are to relate to their ideal and real readers, what is the link between fiction and reality, their real lives and those imagined, for themselves or their characters …
This is one of those lists that can be continued in perpetuum or ad absurdum, take your pick.
It is inescapable and rid with pain, yet important: some of the most interesting literary and philosophical reflections have emerged by confronting it.
A prime example is Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own written in 1929 but still topical today. It deals with the subject of women and fiction by way of the example of Shakespeare’s sister.
Did Shakespeare have a sister?
We don’t know.
We know so very little about Shakespeare – we even do not know whether he was actually his own author.
His wife was supposedly Anne Hathaway, she was older than him, bore him three children, but it is unlikely, or so it is claimed, that the sonnets that celebrate love’s desire and mourn its loss were inspired by her. All we know about Anne Hathaway was that she was bequeathed only the “second-best bed,” what many have read as indication that she was second rate, as a wife, a woman, or an author’s inspiration.
Considering this, if Shakespeare’s sister did exist, it is better she went unnoticed.
Shakespeare’s sister, by the name of Judith, is a fictional creation by Virginia Woolf. This does not mean she never existed in reality. All it says is that she definitely existed in fiction.
Virginia Woolf imagined Shakespeare’s sister while preparing a lecture on women and fiction, an ambiguous subject: “The title women and fiction might mean … women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together.” (p.4)
Women have inspired men all through the centuries serving “as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (p.35) and it is for this reason they also figure so frequently in fiction written by men. But unfortunately, this function of mirroring comes with a price tag, namely that of presumed inferiority, “for if they [women] were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge.” (p.36)
In the Elisabethan age, for several centuries before and for some thereafter, women were indeed inferior since they had no access to education – and that is also why “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (p.46). Therefore, had Shakespeare a sister – and don’t forget her name was Judith – she was for certain doomed to inconsequentiality, much like his wife Anne, regardless of the fact she might have been both beautiful and gifted. In actual fact, it is better to imagine she was not gifted, because had she been a genius, yet been granted no access to the tools for harnessing her gifts, as that was objectionable on grounds of principle and morals, she probably would have ended up “gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.” (p.49)
The fear to be mocked or be misunderstood runs deep. Even when women did begin to write they had trouble emerging out of anonymity. They were still “at strife against [themselves],” possessed by “the desire to be veiled.” (p.50) This desire hides a deep-seated fear and sense of insecurity, and is still very much alive, which is why women writers are today still not as prolific or imaginative as men. They are still perhaps using writing mainly as a form of self-expression rather than art, and still unable to forget that they are women, that is to say a gender category which is sociologically defined. But, so Woolf, “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (p.103)
Hence, the importance for women of a room of one’s own, over a period of several centuries, on the road to self discovery and beyond mere self expression
Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, was Virginia Woolf’s demon – her creative inspiration and the source of her doubts. Many a times she thought she had ‘gone crazed’ and eventually she ended up killing herself.