Saturday, October 24, 2009

In memory of Mankind, or A Room of One's Own

Can Beatrice compose as well as Dante
Or Laura ever up the ante?
I taught women to use their voice
How, now, do I still the noise?

(tr. by Alexander Anichkin)

Today marks a sad anniversary in the history of Mankind. Eighty years ago A Room of One's Own, Virginia Wolf's feminist manifesto, was published. It marks an important milestone in abolishing Mankind and turning it into Humankind.

Woolf  (photo top right) argued that to be able to work creatively on a par with men women should have time, space and financial independence. The book influenced generations of women and was instrumental in changing attitudes to their place in society - both among women regarding themselves and men in the way they treated women. 'A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction', she wrote, which is liberating. But she also wrote: 'Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size'. Which contains antagonising grains of the battle of the sexes.  

In her own life Virginia Woolf was extremely successful in instilling the new principles. Her husband Leonard (bust on his grave in London, photo below) was at the centre of Bloomsbury set, one of the most productive and influential groups of writers, artists, critics and academics in 20th century England. It included philosopher Bertrand Russel and John Maynard Keynes. Leonard Woolf, with others, organised Hogarth Press, which published  Virginia's books among others. Woolf often returned home after a busy day running the publishing house only to find Virginia and her friend discussing the latest poem by T.S.Elliot, editing their reviews – and not paying the slightest attention to Leonard.

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own may not be the strongest declaration of women's rights, nor the first, nor the last. But the way she argued the case, especially the economic side of it, I think,  made it impossible for men to claim any superioriy or ascendancy over women. Mrs Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton would not have happened had it not been for the lines of thought opened on this day 80 years ago. 

In the same generation as Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) Russia produced an equal genius, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966, top left photo), described by the Oxbridge don Dimitri Obolenski as the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century.  Late in life, at the height of her fame she wrote the Epigramme (1958) which I present here in an English translation open for criticism and comments (the opening quatrain of this post).

Note: this is a small thank you to American blogger Languagehat who translated Bunin's Book after my request.

Russian language version of this article is here.

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