In Virginia Woolf’s essay with this title, she reflects on what Shakespeare’s fictitious sister would have written had society not barred her way with obstacles. She concludes that in order to write fiction, a woman must have money and a room of her own.
We know that Jane Austen wrote her novels in the dining parlor and had to put them aside when company came to visit. Would she have written more if she’d had her own room? We also know that her fame was mostly posthumous. In her day, society frowned on women who departed from their assigned roles, and many women chose to write under male pseudonyms: George Sand, George Eliot. Even in today’s permissive climate, women often use initials rather than first names to facilitate acceptance: P.D James, J.K Rowling.
Well, Mozart actually did have an older sister, Anna Marie known as Nannerl. Her proud father would exhibit her as a prodigy and after Wolfie was born they both performed as wunderkinder. She sometimes got top billing. But as time went on, Leopold Mozart lavished more and more attention on his son. After a while, he discouraged Nannerl from composing, and would not teach her harmony or how to play the violin. She was reduced to giving piano lessons to pay for Mozart’s expensive travels. Understandably, she became depressed and ended up destroying her compositions.
Felix Mendelssohn also had an older sister called Fanny who had outstanding musical talent. She too was prevented from pursuing music professionally. Her father explained that “for you it must only be an ornament.”Only a handful of her works appear in print.
Marie Braquenard was one of four women Impressionist painters. Morissot, Cassatt and Gonzales were the others and recently The Museum of the Legion Honor in San Francisco showcased their paintings. Braquenard was married to an artist in ceramics and had to share his studio. Her husband Felix disapproved of her painting and forced her to quit. Fortunately she had already produced more than forty works.
Camille Claudel was a sculptor who worked with Rodin and shared his studio. They also had a tumultuous love affair. Rodin treated her shabbily and she became clinically depressed.
All these women lived in a male-dominated world where women’s choices were restricted. Women in some places of the world are slowly achieving the independence to which Virginia Woolf aspired, but progress is slow and in some areas of the world, there is no movement forward at all.
In some places, progress has been reversed and even in the U.S., limitations on women’s health and reproductive choices are pushing women backwards.