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Jane De Gay

In ‘Why Art Follows Politics’, published in The Daily Worker in 1936,

Virginia Woolf remarked on a change in the conditions for creativity in

the late 1930s. She wrote that the artist’s studio was now ‘far from

being a cloistered spot where he can contemplate his model or his

apple in peace’, for it was ‘besieged by voices, all disturbing, some for

one reason, some for another.’1 She characterised the developing political

crisis in terms of auditory disturbance or interruption, including

the noises of radio news; the voices of dictators addressing the public

by megaphone in the streets, and public opinion, which, Woolf wrote,

called for artists to prove their social and political usefulness. In

extreme political systems, artists were forced to compromise and use

their work for political purposes – to ‘celebrate fascism; celebrate

communism’ – in order to be allowed to practise at all.

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Jane De Gay

Virginia Woolf made a seminal contribution to feminist literary

history and provided the discipline with some of its most memorable

quotations. In A Room of One’s Own, she urged her audience of

female students at Cambridge University to ‘rewrite history’ by

seeking out figures neglected by conventional (patriarchal) histories

in order to trace a female tradition, a concept she described as

‘thinking back through our mothers’.1 She sketched how such a

tradition might look, tracing a line from Lady Winchilsea and Aphra

Behn, Fanny Burney and Jane Austen through to George Eliot and the

Brontës, considering how the conditions of these writers’ lives

affected their work, and also looking at how gender might influence

their use of language and choice of genre. Behind Woolf’s historical

sketch lies an imaginative attempt to reclaim lost origins: Woolf notes

that there was no female Shakespeare because conditions in the

Renaissance would have made it impossible for a woman to write for

the theatre. She creates an imaginary starting-point for her history by

sketching a fictional biography of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, whose

life could only have ended in failure and suicide. Woolf concludes by

urging her audience to imaginatively reclaim these lost origins in their

own writings