Tuesday 8 October 2013

Virginia Woolf missed a trick with Shakespeare's Mother: Juggling Babies and Books

A shorter edition of this piece was published in the New Statesman on 5/10/13

Eighty-five years have passed since Virginia Woolf delivered a series of lectures to young women students at Cambridge, which formed the basis of her famous feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.” To aid her argument that women required a distinct physical space in order to write fiction, to attain distance from the demands of the patriarchal family unit, she created the character of Judith Shakespeare. The bard’s fictional sister was just as innately talented as the famous playwright but restricted by a lack of education and the social expectations of her day. Even though it is still not a level playing field, the twenty-first century has witnessed the proliferation of many talented Judiths in all fields of the arts. Examination statistics indicate that young women today are consistently outperforming their male peers at school, in a reversal of the conditions that saw Woolf herself denied a formal education. However, what if Woolf had chosen not to focus upon Shakespeare’s sister, but looked instead at his mother? What if Mary Arden had been an unfulfilled creative genius, her mind brimming with characters and storylines as she went about the business of raising her family?

It may seem anachronistic today to resurrect the old debate about female creativity and motherhood. No one now doubts the abilities of women to achieve the highest accolades in literary and artistic fields. Since Woolf illustrated the extremes of the debate in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, women know they don’t have to belong to one camp or the other. They do not need to choose between being the “artist” (Lily Briscoe) or the “mother” (Mrs Ramsay.) In fact, many push themselves to do both simultaneously, succumbing to expectations that women will achieve at every level in their professional and private lives. Luckily though, the pressure to accomplish this effortlessly, without complaint or hiccup or smudged mascara, is being challenged. Feminist writer Debora Spar’s new book attacks the myth of the superwoman, saying that women can’t have it all and shouldn’t expect to. Of course this is something of a first world problem. I’m not trying to claim writing mothers as a persecuted minority, or overlook the fathers that write and raise healthy, happy children on their own. Likewise, I’m aware that there are many more significant discussions to be had regarding literacy, class, ethnicity and expectations. I’m simply interested in returning to the scenario presented by Woolf in the 1920s and widening it a little to examine whether this debate is ever really redundant.

Woolf attempts a compromise by suggesting her heroine, Mrs Ramsay, is an artist by dint of her creative nature. As a mother, nurse, wife and hostess, she constantly brings people together and forms the glue of family life. She personifies the Angel in the House as Woolf’s own mother did, before her premature death at forty-nine, worn out by caring for others. Post-Impressionist Mark Gertler said a similar thing about his own mother, Golda, a warm East End Jewess whom he described as the only “modern artist.” Yet while there is an art to living, a real value in creating a warm, nurturing home, it isn’t really a substitute for producing the discernible “works” that the literary or artistic mind craves. Thus, it is incumbent for writing mothers today to find their own personal balance, through the careful allocation of resources and the support of partners, family and friends. Woolf didn’t have children and her arguments didn’t include the dilemma of the creative mother with several young ones to care for. The descendants of her Cambridge audience may have absorbed her message but they are still treading a fine line between meeting the needs of their families and seeking artistic fulfilment. Back in 1898, the promising young artist Edna Clarke Hall, commented on her struggle to carry on painting after her marriage, that “a women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.” This is just as true, in 2013, as it was then.

So how do women do it? Having written and published four books, plus a number of articles, reviews and running a blog since the birth of my first son in 2010, this is a question I am often asked. My answer is that I have become a very focused, opportunistic writer; I compose on the kitchen table whilst my toddlers rampage about me, writing a paragraph here and there before I head off to change a nappy or play a game of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Ironically, I always have to be Emily, never Thomas.) I don’t have the luxury a room of my own but somehow I have managed to find a writing “compartment” inside my head. Things get stored in there and ripen, until the time that I can dash to the keyboard and bang out a few hundred words. It isn’t easy and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of my husband, who will take the boys out for a few hours on the weekend or over to the park when he gets back from work. I think I’m very lucky in this respect and it made me wonder about the decisions other writing mothers make; the sacrifices, allocating and balancing time, the ambition and possibly, the guilt. Managing the transition from Judith Shakespeare to Mary Arden is not easy; I asked some other women how they’d gone about it.

Almost unanimously, the twenty-first century mothers did not find that juggling their writing with their family life came easily. Many were able to achieve it only with the support of others or by reorganising their lives. Joanne St Clair, author and founder of Naked Raver, found that following a tight timetable helped, which prioritised different people at different times, according to need. Before that, she says, “it seemed that childcare naturally came as my responsibility, hence my writing got pushed to the side.” By working with a series of short time slots, she and her family have found the “best balance with all the resources we have.” Features writer, blogger and PR consultant, Fiona Scott, ensures that she and her family do at least one thing together a day that gets them out of the house, such as a walk or trip to the park. It is maintaining this family closeness whilst your mind rapidly races through your next chapter that can prove difficult. Of course, writing can take months, even years and does not yield instant result. “Overnight success” is never an overnight phenomenon. Fiona rightly stresses the need for planning and hard slog, which sometimes necessitates working for free to establish an author’s name, as I've done on many occasions. While the difficulties facing writing mothers are very similar to those experienced by all working parents, even the established writer must expend considerable time on work that does not result in a pay packet.

Writing mothers have to take the long-term view. Historical biographer Debra sometimes notices that her mind wanders into the fifteenth century when she is with her children but she knows they are happy and healthy and will benefit in the future from their mother being fulfilled. Royalty blogger Samantha felt the same but balanced this with a sense of responsibility to herself. Likewise Emma, a fantasy and horror novelist, suspects she is not the same dedicated mother before she started writing but takes a pragmatic approach to family life, wisely realising that her children won’t remember the house being untidy or their mum being tired but will recall a house full of “magical stories” and proudly tell their friends and teachers that “mummy writes books.” Katharine, who used to be a university lecturer and now writes historical fiction for young adults, made a conscious choice not to spend time on the traditional female obligations of cleaning, grooming or shopping, in favour of making her daughter proud. She is able to discuss her characters and plot lines with her eight year old, who plans to illustrate her mother’s books one day.

Ultimately, writing mothers have made a choice and they know it. Their dilemmas are very similar to those of all working mothers, yet as Rebecca, a TV writer and PhD student acknowledges, she is “lucky to be paid to do something I enjoy” and believes it important that she has a creative outlet. Even when this choice can lead to financial difficulties, writing mothers want their children to benefit from their talent and the example they set provides the family with a sense of hope, a vision of hard work and high aspiration. Samantha sees writing as providing something that fulfils her creativity and will leave a legacy for two sons. She feels a “sense of responsibility” given the misogynistic presentation of women’s roles in the media and hopes to break this cycle by example. These women are driven by passion and a compulsion to write; as Katharine admits, “I find myself doing it when I’m not looking.” Amid all the struggles it necessitates, we persist because, in the words of blogger and businesswoman Helen, we “love it!” It is this drive that connects female artists and writers of all eras.

The lives of Woolf and her sister, the post-modern artist Vanessa Bell, provide an answer to the comment “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” voiced in To The Lighthouse. Still rightly revered as a giant of modernism, Woolf’s reputation is still stronger than Bell’s, whose life encompassed motherhood as well as art. Even though Vanessa’s life was made easier by the presence of nannies, she was a devoted parent and this necessitated some juggling when her three children were small. A century ago, childcare was shared between the mother and hired help, in varying proportions from the middle classes upwards. Today, child minders and nurseries play invaluable roles in the lives of working mothers, particularly for those who are single. Also, the nature of writing, the flexible, freelance aspect to it, means that it is often relegated to the status of “a hobby that pays well” and squeezed in around the shared workload of partners. Most of the women I spoke to fitted their writing around their children’s routine, before they woke in the morning and after they had gone to sleep at night. Others fitted it in whenever and wherever they could; Kerry writes on the train to work and in their lunch hour, Joanne uses a walk as an opportunity and piles of notebooks can be found all round blogger Vicky’s house.

Woolf’s writing evokes the image of her and her sister as young women, dressed in their late Victorian gowns, standing at an easel or desk in their converted Bloomsbury nursery. Woolf, a major figure of literary modernism, was first published by her brother-in-law’s firm, Duckworth and company, before beginning the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard. The changing nature of self-publishing and cheap, widespread access to the internet has facilitated women’s writing in a way that was unthinkable to Woolf’s contemporaries. Katharine draws support from online groups and for historical researchers, like myself, social networking sites and electronic texts provide an interface without which our work would not be possible. Still, the publicity alone requires commitment and time; Kerry describes herself as “taken aback by the amount of self-publicity required.” However, the lack of career opportunities for arts graduates makes freelance writing a really valuable alternative for working mothers and even those wishing to return to established careers can find their post-child lives are no longer compatible. Helen had worked as an analyst but having small children just didn’t make it a feasible career. Those who can write are increasingly adapting their lives and taking to their keyboards. My career wouldn’t have been possible without the internet; Woolf’s room of one’s own is now unquestionably a virtual one.
Women’s determination to carve out spaces to write also springs from a conviction that female fulfilment is important, and significantly different from work for work’s sake. I know exactly what Joanne means when she describes writing as her “medicine,” of the need to do “what burns within” and give expression to “an essential part of who I am.” This isn’t to be confused with selfishness. Writing has a place in these women’s lives which is often flexible according to the needs of their children; it brings them the benefits of a mother who has found a creative outlet, as well as setting the examples of dedication and hard work. In Helen’s words: “writing has given me the freedom to be the mother I wanted to be.” Woolf’s debate of 1928 focused on the Judith Shakespeares of her world; the women like her who strove to write and paint in the face of opposition from those wishing them to fill more conventional roles. Factor children into this equation and it remains relevant even when we may think this battle should already have been won.
Many thanks go to the busy mothers who took time to share their thoughts with me:
Helen Neale of www.kiddycharts.com
Kerry Barrett, author of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (October 2013) www.kerrybarrettwriter.wordpress.com
Joanne St Claire, author and founder of www.thenakedraver.com
Fiona Scott of www.mumsinmedia.co.uk 
Vicky of  www.singlemotherahoy.blogspot.com
Samantha Arbisi of www.deadroyalty.wordpress.com
Rebecca Ellis
Debra Bayani, biographer of Jasper Tudor


  1. What a beautiful article, Amy. Yes, children are happier when their mothers are fulfilled. You've made some great points and made working mothers everywhere feel a little better!

    1. Thank you Jacqueline, it's not an easy tight rope to walk :)

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