- With "money and a room of her own": The
Legacy of Woolf's Advice for
- the Woman Artist at Century's End
- Karin E. Westman, College of Charleston
- [Paper presented at the Ninth Annual Virginia Woolf
Conference, June 1999]
- Women who want to escape the label "woman writer"
(as opposed to writer--the masculine norm) have had to write
like one of the boys, de-sexing themselves. Super-feminine lady
writers, if they stick to their nice nook, will be both praised
and despised for doing what comes naturally. But the woman writer
who refuses these categories blows the scheme sky-high and incurs
the wrath of the gods. (Michele Roberts in The Independent,
- Perhaps more than any other late-twentieth century British
woman writer, Jeanette Winterson has taken to heart Woolf's advice
in A Room of One's Own that "a woman must have
money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction"
(4), but Winterson has also, as Michele Roberts points out, "incur[red]
the wrath" of the cultural gods as a result. Winterson has
used her literary and financial success to secure a life centered
around her work and her concerns-- much to
the fascination and horror of the British literary establishment
and popular press. Winterson challenges the established "rules"
of writing, publishing, reviewing--in sum, the cultural expectations
for the woman artist in British society--constructing her life
in order to argue against, as Woolf does in AROO, two
cultural myths: that the artist can remain aloof from the material
concerns necessary for the production of art, and that gender
and its attendant social roles do not influence the production
of that art. Continually re-inserting her body, her gender, and
her capital into their portrait, Winterson wrestles with the
British press and literary establishment for the right to construct
her social role-- and live her life--on her own terms.
- In following Woolf's advice for the woman writer, then, Winterson
has struck a nerve in British culture, and the public response
she elicits, I will argue, illustrates the persistence of gendered
and class-based expectations for a woman artist in Britain today.
Instead of tolerating Winterson as another Martin Amis or, in
one reviewer's comparison, excusing her behavior as comparable
to "old Papa [Hemingway]'s bravado" (Faulks 9), the
press presents Winterson's decidedly un-feminine and nouveaux
riche behavior with a combination of fascination and ire. Indeed,
she is taken to task for the very circumstances which have allowed
her to produce her art. Winterson may have garnered the proverbial
L500 and a room of her own, but her self-presentation and her
resulting representation in the British press encourage us to
revisit Woolf's advice and cultural analysis of the woman artist
in a patriarchal society with a contemporary eye.
- First, the proverbial room and L500. Winterson is an extremely
successful British woman writer: "At a rough estimate,"
according to interviewer Angela Lambert, in 1997 "[Winterson]
probably earn[ed] L200,000 to L250,000 a year," placing
her "among the top 50 English writers for earning power"
(Lambert 16). She has therefore more than met the contemporary
equivalent of Woolf's recommended L500, which would be a mere
L18,000.(1) For her room, Winterson purchased
in 1997 an 18th century home in Spitalfields, now elegantly furnished
with rare first editions. Financial security has also allowed
Winterson to take control of her art during the past eight years,
removing herself as much as possible from the slings and arrows
of the increasingly number-crunching publishing world, much as
Woolf did by founding the Hogarth Press. Incorporated in 1992,
Winterson is her own agent; she also writes her own contracts,
having studied contract law. Thanks to her money, Winterson is
able to make professional decisions calculated to challenge the
determining influence of the publishing industry, thus gaining
control over her art and her life.
- Winterson's self-styled portrait as artist, however, jars
and tantalizes the British media, who in turn struggle for authorship
of her public image. The media's response illustrates how the
titular sound bite from AROO fails to account for the
complexity of women writers' experiences in contemporary British
society: Winterson has acquired the money and the room, but not
necessarily acceptance for her artistic success. To explain this
cultural response, which ranges from bemusement to virulent condemnation,
we must return to the more complex subtleties of Woolf's cultural
analysis: to her discussions of the masculine privilege of the
husband/father, the looking-glass role that heterosexual femininity
plays to empower masculinity, and the perceived monstrosity of
women writers who stray beyond the margins of their expected
- Winterson's challenges to the literary establishment take
any number of forms, but have been summed up by the British press
under the heading "egotistical arrogance," since, as
reviewer Angela Lambert remarks, "The English prefer their
writers modest" (16). Most British journalists have deemed
Winterson's "cost of fame and greatness" to be "willed
monstrosity," if simultaneously acknowledging, as The
Independent does under the headline "Mad, Bad, or Plain
Brilliant," that "her arrogance is not the result of
deluded fantasy: it is as deliberate as her sentences themselves"
(10). Winterson's pose is indeed a "deliberate" arrogance,
calculated to "provoke" the establishment of publishers
and media watchdogs as much as the general reading public. Asked
in 1992 what book she would nominate for "Book of the Year,"
she offered her own critically neglected Written on the Body.
Asked in 1993 to nominate the greatest living author, Winterson
nominated herself. In her 1998 "Afterword" to her collection
of short stories, The World and Other Places, Winterson
blithely proclaims that she does not "write fee unseen"
- It's not so much Winterson's "construction" of
her self which elicits the press's response (though her sometimes
contradictory "truths" about her past do so, too),
but the self she creates. Indeed, the majority of reviews of
Winterson's literary work published in the British press, and
especially the English press, begin not with a comment about
her literary productions, but a comment about her character or
about past or recent acts. Harvey Porlock, in one of his bi-weekly
columns for the Sunday Times which offer a meta-commentary
on current books reviews, even replicates the critical climate
he so astutely describes. In his column titled "No, No,
Jeanette!" Porlock begins: "Brilliant, immodest and
bloody-minded, Jeanette Winterson brings out the school prefect
in her critics. Often, as in reviews for her new collection The
World and Other Places, they seem to be assessing, with
the deepest disappointment, Jeanette's character, general attitude
and contribution to the school" ("No, No, Jeanette!").
As Porlock notes, Winterson's writing comes last: Winterson's
private and public acts, her "mad" character, displace
her literary work as the focus of the profile or review.
- But apparently, only the British might think she
has "gone mad" (Gerrard, "Self-Produced"):
Winterson's provocations are decidedly a national phenomenon.
According to journalist Gilbert Adair, "[n]one of my Parisian
acquaintances has the faintest interest in, or frequently knowledge
of, Jeanette Winterson's boundless self-puffery" ("Talkin'
'bout my generation" 26), and we hear little of her antics
here in the States. So, what nerve has Winterson struck in the
British literary world to provoke such heated debate
and often deprecating comments? She is certainly not the only
young author engaged in such "mad" outbursts. As Nicci
Gerrard notes, "[Winterson] can be abnormally arrogant--but
so is Martin Amis, who once said that he wanted to be remembered
in the same breath as Shakespeare, and no one thinks he is mad"
("The Ultimate Self-Produced Woman" 7). Gerrard does
not explain the discrepancy she has noted between the reception
of Winterson's and Amis' claims to greatness, but I would argue
that a determining factor--if not the determining factor--is
gender, complemented by class.
- Winterson's widely publicized "masculine" behavior--exchanging
sex for sets of Le Creuset pots and pans as a young woman in
London when she serviced lonely married women from the Home Counties,
making her home comfortable with first editions and hired secretaries,
living with her partner (a wifely Peggy Reynolds), and most notably
interrupting reviewer Nicci Gerrard's private dinner party after
Gerrard's less than favorable review of Art and Lies--
all this "masculine" behavior alternatively attracts
and disgusts the press, neatly revealing the degree of privilege
typically reserved for and ascribed to male artists and men of
wealth. A great quantity of ink has been spilt over the way in
which Winterson now lives her life--and interviewers like Jenny
Turner and Nicci Gerrard, among many others, feel compelled to
address the world within the walls of Winterson's London home
in their feature articles. Winterson's story does have a compelling
narrative. Having moved far from both her Lancashire childhood
filled with Evangelical preaching and her poverty after leaving
home a self-declared lesbian, Winterson now resides, according
to newspaper reports, in "a large house in north London,
surrounded by a court of adoring women," "waited-upon
and unencumbered in her lovely house like an aristocrat"
(Gerrard 7)--a "fantasy world [...] in a tall, grand, flat-fronted
house from which she seldom stirs, among rich, dark surfaces,
cats, and a coven of eager, loyal women who soundless cater to
the writer's every hum-drum need" (Turner T18). But, as
reviewer Jenny Turner then self-reflexively comments, "How
do we know these things? Because we read them in the papers.
So whose fantasy is this? Winterson's, ours, or a mixture of
the two?" (Turner T18).
- Dispelling some of the "fantasy," both Jenny Turner
and Ginny Dougary note in their lengthy feature stories from
1994 and 1997 respectively that they did not find a
"coven" of women hovering around Winterson, but only
Winterson and her companion Peggy Reynolds; the "coven"
consists of two assistants to help with typing and the accounts,
and a cleaning woman, all "paid handsomely" (Dougary).
The image of privilege persists, however, and Winterson has fostered
it. Turner reminds her readers of an earlier interview in The
Guardian which "revealed Winterson ensconced like a
queen bee, surrounded by willing drones in her swanky house [...]
A nation gawped" (T18, emphasis mine). Why did
the nation "gawp"? I would suggest that Winterson's
explicitly "selfish" claim upon other women's time
reveals the degree of privilege typically reserved for and ascribed
to male artists and men of wealth; further, her statement--issuing
from a woman's mouth--shows up the otherwise taken-for-granted
role of the long suffering wife, now played by Winterson's companion
Peggy Reynolds. Although Peggy, a Ph.D., "holds down three
jobs of her own"-- lecturer in Women's Studies, reviewer/editor,
and presenter for Radio 3--Reynolds will "redo her timetable
to make sure she is on hand if ever, as today, there are strangers
in the house" (Turner T18). She appears willing to put Winterson
- As a woman of wealth, Winterson therefore enjoys a degree
of freedom, usually unavailable to the young woman writer, and,
in her relationship with Peggy Reynolds, she is the dominant
partner. Winterson herself has noted that "it is helpful
for a woman artist not to have a husband" (Art Objects
105).(2) Winterson therefore lives a privileged
life not only in terms of money and possessions, but in terms
of time: she has chosen to place herself at the center of her
household and not fulfill the roles generally expected of a woman
and a woman artist. She has acquired the "wife" and
staff Woolf identifies as necessary if a woman is to relinquish
the care of the home. The result of her efforts challenges, as
Woolf had suggested it would, the residual traces of the Angel
in the House: Winterson is taken to task for the degree of power
and privilege her income and her domestic partnership provide.
- The origin of this "fantasy," then, as Jenny Turner
describes it, is indeed a mixture of Winterson's and of the public's
desires. Winterson constructs her life in order to question the
cultural assumption that the artist is to remain aloof from the
material concerns of the production of art, and that gender and
its attendant social roles do not hinder the production of art.
Winterson manifests some of the very changes Woolf proposes in
AROO. In response to Winterson's persona, the media
creates a "fantastical" Other who represents the opposite
of the ideal woman artist within bourgeois patriarchal society:
Winterson becomes the anti-heroine and, as the press frequently
terms her, the "enfant terrible" (Jensen 15)
of the literary world.
- Winterson's challenge to the cultural conventions for a British,
woman artist is perhaps best exemplified by her now legendary
response to Nicci Gerrard's profile in The Observer
in June 1994. Gerrard's profile criticized Winterson for her
arrogant "isolation" from the literary world as well
as the quality of Winterson's last novel: the "writing [...]
is floating away," Gerrard claims: "She cares about
the word, not the world" (7). Gerrard's reported comment
that Winterson "has lost touch" becomes astoundingly
ironic in light of what happened a few weeks later: Winterson
and her partner Peggy Reynolds knocked on Nicci Gerrard's door
at 10:30 in the evening, as Gerrard was entertaining guests for
dinner, demanding explanation for the review.(3)
Winterson wished to know why Gerrard had written about the life
she leads, asking Gerrard, "But, [...] I have always been
kind to you, haven't I?" and "'Why didn't you talk
to me directly? [...] [Y]ou know where I live, you could have
knocked at my door.'" After fifteen minutes of conversation,
Winterson and Reynolds left, with Winterson saying, "Never
come near me or my writing again, do you hear?"
- Winterson's performance elicited any number of comments from
Britain's literary establishment, most denouncing such improper
behavior from an artist. An artist might certain think
such thoughts, but should not put those thoughts into action.
Most commentators agreed with Nicci Gerrard's rather horrified
response: Winterson had over-stepped the bounds of propriety
and decorum by asserting her presence in the world of the reviewer,
a place she, as the artist reviewed, did not belong. Yet the
response Winterson's bodily "intervention" (Longrigg
24) received reflects not only her challenge to the proper role
of the artist, but particularly the woman artist, as Sebatian
Faulks suggests: "If Hemingway had turned up drunk to berate
his critics it would have been considered a coup, a prank, old
Papa's bravado. Wouldn't it? But there was something unpleasantly
bullying about Winterson's behavior" (9). Implying that
the media's response to Winterson's knock on Gerrard's door is
mediated by norms of gender, as well as sexuality, Faulks' assessment
turns upon established perceptions of women in patriarchal society--that
if Winterson had been a man, the response to her evening visit
might have been more forgiving. But, instead of protesting through
a more feminine behavior proscribed for her sex, Winterson appears
all too much like a man. Here, the cultural stereotype of the
passive heterosexual woman reveals the inverse stereotype of
the aggressive butch lesbian--two gender stereotypes upon which
a patriarchal, heterosexual society depends, and which the press
predominately reinforces in their portrait of Winterson.
- Winterson offers perhaps the most extreme example of a cultural
experience felt by many women writers in Britain.(4)
Living a purposefully "public" private life, Winterson
desires to author herself for her public and revise the existing
cultural narrative for the woman writer. Her literary and popular
success certainly show Winterson "put[ting] on the body"
of Shakespeare's sister as Woolf encouraged in 1929, but doing
so in 1999 still comes at great personal cost. Only a handful
of women reviewers like Michele Roberts and even fewer male reviewers
recognize and value the challenge Winterson offers.(5)
Her revisions to the cultural script illustrate the persistent
difficulties of this task for the British woman writer, even
at the turn of the twenty-first century, and the continued relevance
of Woolf's cultural criticisms in AROO.
- 1. This figure is based on 1997 data available
at the web site run by the Office for National Statistics on
the "Purchasing Power of the Pound": http://www.statistics.gov.uk/stats/ukinfigs/power.html.
- 2. A.S. Byatt might add children to the
list. In an interview with Candia McWilliams about the relatively
few women on the 1993 "Best Young British Novelists"
list, the reviewer Joanna Coles notes, "It took the only
female judge, A S Byatt, to point out to the three male judges
that a list with a cut-off age of forty did little to highlight
the achievements of the woman writer." Or, as the author
Candia McWilliams more bluntly put it, "With the birth of
each child, you lose two novels" ("Public Lives: An
Unsuitable Job for a Woman" 8).
- 3. Unlike most reports of the altercation,
Gerrard's account of the incident (published as "A Cold
Blast of Winterson at the Door") maintains a distinction
between Winterson's comments and the more inflammatory remarks
of her partner.
- 4. See Nicci Gerrard, Into the Mainstream:
How Feminism Has Changed Women's Writing (1989) and Michele
Roberts, "Girls Will Be Girls" (1997).
- 5. Harvey Porlock notes how The Observer's
assertion that "'Winterson's new novel Gut Symmetries...has
received a panning'...was only true if all female critics of
the novel were ignored"; "among the blokes, there was
a predictable reaction from a predictable crowd" ("Critical
- Works Cited
- Adair, Gilbert. "Talkin' 'Bout My Generation."
Sunday Times 6 June 1994.
- Coles, Joanna. "Public Lives: An Unsuitable Job for
a Woman." The Guardian 5 May 1993: 8.
- Dougary, Ginny. "Truth or Dare." The Times
4 Jan 1997.
- Faulks, Sebatian. "Don't Read the Reviews, Jeanette."
Evening Standard 8 July 1994: 9.
- Field, Michelle. "Jeanette Winterson: 'I Fear Insincerity.'"
Publishers Weekly 20 March 1995: 38.
- Gerrard, Nicci. "Cold Blast of Winterson at the Door."
The Observer 3 July 1994: 11.
- ---. Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women's
Writing. London: Pandora, 1989.
- ---. "The Prophet." New Statesman & Society
1 Sep. 1989: 12-13.
- ---. "The Ultimate Self-Produced Woman." The
Observer 5 June 1994: 7.
- Jensen, Liz. "Well-stuffed Turkey." The Independent
11 July 1998.
- Lambert, Angela. "Jeanette: Could anyone be as good
as she thinks she is?" The Independent 23 Jan 1998:
- Longrigg, Clare. "Get Out of My Life--Get One of Your
Own." The Guardian 8 July 1994: 24.
- "Mad, Bad, or Plain Brilliant?" The Independent
11 June 1994: 10.
- Messud, Claire. "The Body Politic." The Guardian
26 Aug. 1992: 29.
- Porlock, Harvey. "Critical List." Sunday Times
12 Jan 1997.
- ---. "No, No, Jeanette!" Sunday Times
12 July 1998.
- "Racing the Classics: How the Leading Lists Shape Up."
The Guardian 10 May 1996: T9.
- Roberts, Michele. "Book Review: 'Words Are Not the Only
Art.'" The Independent 19 June 1994: 32.
- ---. "Girls Will Be Girls; Gut Symmetries by
Jeanette Winterson." The Independent. 5 Jan 1997.
- Turner, Jenny. "Portrait: Preacher Woman." The
Guardian 7 June 1994: T18.
- Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays in Ecstasy and
Effrontery. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
- ---. The World and Other Places. London: Jonathan
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York:
Harcourt Brace, 1990.