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Virginia Woolf's Feminist Historiography in Orlando

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

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