Monday, January 28, 2013

CB Redux: Virginia Woolf Is My Homegirl

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

Once in a great while, I make quick surveys of the creative, political, intellectual, and philosophical forces of the known world who were also Cheap Bohemians.

Where better to reboot this effort with a tribute to the woman who made the phrase "money and a room of one's own" the battle cry for generations of us? It's Virginia Woolf's birthday today, and that makes it a very good day.

Go to the source and read the 1929 book based on her lectures to the women of Newnham College and Girton College at Cambridge in October 1928. You'll come away with a solid grasp on just how pragmatic and blunt (and wickedly funny) Virginia Woolf was in matters fiscal and creative:

"Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference."*

But here is why I really love Virginia Woolf: Her unflinching, unsentimental, wholly human admission that having money feels fantastic even if your aunt has to buy the farm for you to get it:

My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay. The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two — the vote and the money — the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important. Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kinder garten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks....whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off, fear and bitterness go.**

* Woolf is speaking of all writers here. She qualifies this in women's case a paragraph later thusly: "The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility."See this link for a beautifully readable online volume of this talk.
**The aunt, like the 'I' narrating these lectures, is fictional. Woolf made this subversive choice for a number of reasons, not least of which was to welcome fiction into the panoply of truth-telling arts.

Fear and bitterness are still the portion for many women--artists and other creators--and for men and women who had the misfortune to be born poor. Virginia Woolf was not the last to speak of the corrosive connection between financial want, economic dependence, and creative silence; Tillie Olsen would soon take up the cry in her stunning book Silences. How many voices are lost every day to the crushing want of money, the demands of soul-destroying, bone-grinding work? To say nothing of the way we devalue the only work that is utterly demanding and routinely done for free or far too little: raising and teaching children.

As for me, today I am lucky. In the bedroom I share at this moment, with barely enough money to get home from this family vacation, I listen to three little girls aged six to eleven bicker behind me in preparation for a family show, rooting through my luggage for suitable clothes, including necklaces and bracelets.

"So are you going to appear as a human or as a god?" asks one.

"First I'm going to appear as a god," says the other. "And then I'm going to announce that I'm going to a Goodwill store."

I know exactly what she means.

[image via Wikimedia Commons. You can buy the shirt here.]