Authorship as an Act of Feminism: Virginia Woolf and Olivia Sudjic

Note: I am perhaps not the best person to be writing this given that I identify as non-binary rather than as a woman but I rationalize this because there isn’t really a lot of essays about the challenge of writing outside the gender binary (and feminist writers tend not to leave a lot of space for these identities) so I think it is still acceptable for me to put forward an argument on this topic.

The accessibility of writers and other public figures through the internet has brought to the forefront issues that remain over the way women writers are viewed. Misogynistic abuse, or comments over the appropriateness of women addressing various issues in their work can now be directed to authors which brings feminist back to the forefront after a period where the public may have considered these issues solved. Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy, published an essay about the experience of female author which joins a tradition of women authors addressing their positions. Virginia Woolf wrote and delivered a paper about female authorship to the National Society for Women’s Service in 1931. These are texts separated by a great deal of change in the feminist landscape but due to the influence of other factors in Sudjic’s essay Woolf’s treatment of the topic stands as better suited to the well being of today’s women writers.

Both Woolf and Sudjic have chosen particular ways of framing their commentary on being a woman writer but there are very different implications to those devises. Olivia Sudjic brings her argument out of her experiences as a writer in residence in Berlin – a time when she experienced crippling anxiety that rendered her not only unable to write but also unable to function in her everyday life. She builds this experience of anxiety into a comment on the challenges of female authorship and ultimately concludes that her anxiety is what enables her to write, not just in general but with a “strong female I” that works against patriarchal expectations. She has chosen the experience of anxiety as the frame for how she speaks not just about her own experience of female authorship but in general about the often-hostile world that female writers encounter. Woolf’s paper is one that was written with the intent of being delivered as a speech to a woman’s college, so it is very much a product of that context and of Woolf’s time as the framing device is the Victorian idea of the Angel in the House. In her essay Woolf speaks of her own journey as a woman writer, the need to not just write but to rise above societal expectations for what a female writer was but she frames this as an argument for killing the Angel in the House. She speaks of societal expectations as if they are a supernatural entity that must be battled constantly until it is finally defeated.

Ultimately, I think that Sudjic’s choice of anxiety as a way of framing female authorship could have worked if that argument was made in a slightly different context. If Sudjic herself wasn’t experiencing what is clearly a clinical mental illness, or if she was able to recognize and address that illness by demonstrating an attempt to recover. Sudjic’s justification of her illness is not unique to her, most people who suffer from similar disorders do justify their illness but it always falls apart in the end (my anxiety got me the top graduating average in my high school, a scholarship and then top grades in my first year classes but it also got me a year in bed, a hospital stay and an inability to do simple things like ride the bus). There is also the fact that mental illness has long been used as a way to stigmatize the experiences of women and invalidate their experiences or achievements so perhaps that is also part of Sudjic’s rational. So, the close connection of her mental illness and her activism is understandable but that doesn’t mean it is a view that should be promoted or taken up.

Reading Sudjic’s book is a deeply uncomfortable experience, and not in the ways one would think she intended. The weaknesses of her argument and the danger of her framing of what is really a mental illness is much clearer when read beside the Virginia Woolf essay with its metaphor. Like Sudjic’s anxiety the Angel in the House metaphor allows for the sense of outside imposition. It is not the female author that creates the angel, rather that is a specter of society that follows her. Woolf develops this angel as something that tries to sway her writing, to trap her into some less opinionated version of herself, and then shows the act of writing as one wishes to be essential to the killing of the angel in the house. There is even a consideration of the challenges that come after the defeat of expectation, Woolf addresses how hard it can be to find and stay strong in an identity of her own. Even though the context that readers encounter Woolf’s essay in is far removed from the context that it was written in the angel in the house is still a metaphor that allows for a worthwhile discussion of the female author. Except this is a version of female authorship that allows for strength and resistance without promoting an acceptance of mental illness as valuable.

The writing of female authors is undoubtedly empowering, both for the women who write the texts and the people who read them. But the way these writers speak about their authorship can have implications beyond feminism and in an increasingly complicated world there needs to be far more attention paid to the ways that activism can end up being damaging. The Angel in the House may not be the recognizable figure that it used to be but Woolf’s essay stands the test of time in a way that Sudjic’s should not. Women can be strong without having to accept their own suffering and the battle for recognition is one that should not ride upon the back of mental illness. Woolf killed the angel in her house and now it is time for Sudjic to kill hers.