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
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, 1997)
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 social roles.
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" (232).
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 first.
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 List").