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LIT 4386 British and American Literature
by Women

Class 3

Reading Assignment:

    Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own cont.
    Finch, "Nocturnal Reverie" (178); Cavendish, "An Excuse" (94); Behn, "Love Arm'd" (111)

    Class Objectives:

  • Discuss Woolf's evaluation of women writers
  • Analyze poems by Finch, Cavendish and Behn

    Notes and Discussion Questions:

    1. Woolf and Literary Value

    Woolf asks (p. 51) “What is the state of mind most propitious to the act of creation?”

    She answers herself on page 56: it “must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind . . . . There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.”
    “All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded” (56-7).

    Given the differences that we talked about last week, how easy would this state of mind be for a woman to achieve?

    The description of the state of mind most propitious to the act of creation leads directly to her discussion of women writers in Chapter four.

      According to Woolf, why is a literary tradition important for women writers?

      How does Woolf intervene in literary history? In what sense does she rewrite literary history?

    What does Woolf have to say about the writers she identifies:

      Anne Finch, Lady Winchilsea

      Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle

      Dorothy Osborne

      Aphra Behn

      Jane Austen

      The Brontë sisters

      George Eliot

    2. Behn, Finch and Cavendish

    According to Woolf, what is Behn’s achievement? (66)

    Analyze “Love in Triumphant Sat” page 111 (Norton Anthology):

    • What form is it? (novel? poem? short story? journal entry?) How long is it? (how many lines, chapters, pages, or other way of measuring the form?)

    • Did we read the whole thing or only an excerpt?

    • What type of language is used? (formal? informal? descriptive? denotative? regional? contemporary? literary? Describe.) Is it in first-person or third person?

    • What is the setting? What time period is represented?

    • Who are are the main characters and what are they like?

    Woolf discovers a problem with women’s writing – what is it?

    *** Here we get a sense of the WAY that Woolf evaluates literature – and so, women’s literature as well – earlier she distinguishes between that which is written in “the red light of emotion” and that written in the “white light of truth” (33). What does she mean by this distinction?

    What examples does she give of each?

    How do her categories translate into actual literary criticism?

    Examine the poems of Anne Finch, Lady Winchilsea – read from page 59-60; also read “Nocturnal Reverie” Norton Anthology page 178.

    To what extent do you agree with Woolf's criticism of Finch's writing?

    Examine the poem of the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, “An Excuse” Norton Anthology page 94.

    How accurate is Woolf’s criticism of these poems? What does she emphasize as a failure? What does she miss? What is valuable about these poems?

    3. Conclusions

    Discuss: What is the basis of Woolf’s criticism of writers before Jane Austen?


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