The Androgynous Mind and the Art of the Ordinary

Project 1929: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

After contemplating, for a hundred pages, the distance between women and men, Virginia Woolf goes to the window of her London flat and sees a young man and a young woman coming together on the street and getting into a taxicab together. This chance sighting suddenly changes the course of her thoughts:

For certainly when I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co–operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness? And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co–operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought.

The “androgynous mind,” Woolf says, “is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Like the mind of Shakespeare.

Virginia Woolf delivered A Room of One’s Own as a series of lectures in October 1928, and published them a year later, at the end of a decade that brought significant changes in the lives of women in England. World War I had destroyed an entire generation of the best and brightest young men. After the war, women outnumbered men by about 60-40. Unmarried women had made permanent inroads into the workforce during the war, and had begun earning degrees at Oxford. At the end of the war, women had earned the right to vote, and soon began to enter Parliament.

The 1920s brought with them a new sexual freedom that often found controversial expression in novels like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1927). The protagonist of the latter novel, a girl named Stephen Gordon, wants to be a boy, adopts a masculine style of dress (much as Hall herself did), and falls in love with other women. The groundbreaking lesbian novel provoked an obscenity trial in England in 1929.

The Twenties brought with them a new “androgynous” style, best exemplified by the popular short “bobbed” hair for women. “A new type of woman had come into existence,” James Laver writes in A Concise History of Costume, “The new erotic ideal was androgyne; girls strove to look as much like boys as possible. All curves—the female attribute so much admired—were completely abandoned. And as if to give the crowning touch to their attempted boyishness, all young women cut off their hair. The bob of the early nineteen-twenties was abandoned for the shingle, which made the coiffure follow much more closely the lines of the head…”

In A Woman’s Place, 1910-1975, Ruth Adam writes about “the Amazons of the nineteen-twenties, who smoked cigarettes in public, drank cocktails or beer, and called each other bi-sexual (or sexless) names, such as Bobbie, Billie, Jackie, Dickie, Ray, or Jo…” There seemed to be a general interest in the blurring, or crossing, of gender lines—or in collapsing gender into androgyny.

Virginia Woolf’s remarks about the androgynous mind (“the normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co–operating”) are interestingly parodied in Dodie Smith’s comic 1931 play Autumn Crocus, in which a man explains what he considers to be the basis of modern marriage:

The duty of every healthy male is to find a suitable mate—who, by bringing the necessary feminine attributes naturally omitted from his ego will complete that ego, enabling it and its female counterpart to vibrate in plastic rhythm—united yet individual—in dual unity with the harmonic cosmos…

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf opens a novel by a male author and finds cast across it “a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’”—the shadow of the male ego. She finds the same flaw in Jane Eyre; Charlotte Brontë pleads to be recognized, and her self-assertion shadows and distracts from the story. But the androgynous mind—the mind of Shakespeare and Jane Austen—is incandescent. It dissolves ego rather than projecting its shadow. About Jane Austen, Woolf writes:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought,…and when people compate Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

Woolf’s thesis is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” but here is Jane Austen, writing in the family sitting room, listening for the squeaky hinge that tells her that someone is coming to interrupt her work.

“But perhaps,” Woolf suggests, “it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely.”

At the end of E.M. Delafield’s 1927 novel The Way Things Are, the protagonist, Laura, finally comes to see herself as she is:

The children, her marriage vows, the house, the ordering of the meals, the servants, the making of a laundry list every Monday—in a word, the things of respectability—kept one respectable. In a flash of unavoidable clear-sightedness, that Laura would never repeat if she could avoid it, she admitted to herself that the average attributes only, of the average woman, were hers…

But how difficult, Laura reflected, to see oneself as an average woman and not, rather, as one entirely unique, in unique circumstances…

It dawned on her dimly that only by envisaging and accepting her own limitations, could she endure the limitations of her surroundings.

Laura struggles, in other words, to match her gift to her circumstances. E.M. Delafield, like so many women novelists of the twentieth century, wrote in the tradition of middle-class domestic fiction, a tradition that can be traced back to Jane Austen. They created art out of limitations, an art of the ordinary, on a few inches of ivory. The novels are filled with “the things of respectability,” the things of ordinary middle-class life, against which the female protagonists struggle and, in the midst of their struggles, occasionally experience moments of incandescence.

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