Perceptions and Styles of Three Women Writers
Wollstonecraft, Eliot, and Woolf
Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf are three women pioneers who helped to change and develop the writing world through style and content. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman presents the unequal status of women, while George Eliot introduces a new style of prose known as realism in her novel A Mill on the Floss. Virginia Woolf combines both a variation of the realism style and subtle comments on the difficulty women experience upon breaking into new career fields in Women’s Professions. By examining the writings of these women, we not only see the change and advance in the art of prose, but we can also see the course in the change and fledgling advance of the status of women.
Mary Wollstonecraft dedicated her art to her concerns over the unequal status of women. In her piece A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she “was unprecedented in its firsthand observations of the disabilities and indignities suffered by women…” (Abrams 165). In her “Introduction” she opens her discussion with “articulateness and passion”, and accomplishes this in many ways.
Upon a first reading one is struck with her predominant use of Latinate vocabulary, which includes many adjectives and “ly” adverbs. This gives her piece a formal and educated feel which sets her up as one who not only knows her material, but as one who can rival her male peers. In her first two pages of her narrative she parodies the male writers of her time to prove her writing is equal to theirs, and often far above, particularly in her use of alliteration found in such phrases as “flaunting leaves after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade …” (167), or ”barren blooming”, or with added internal alliteration in “enfeebled by false refinement”. Yet once she breaks with her male counterparts’ technique, her style becomes simpler as she plans to “avoid that flowery diction” (169). In so doing her sentence length drops from an average of sixty words per sentence to an average of thirty, yet she retains the Latinate vocabulary and the mixture of parataxis and hypotaxis in her sentence structure. She also uses both loose and periodic structure, but the structure becomes simpler after her break from the introductory parody and leans more heavily on a loose structure.
Verbal structure is quite modern. She uses no subjunctive, but instead uses modal verbs, particularly with “shall” which lends a more formal air to her treatise. In keeping with the modern flavour she uses a perfective aspect in change of state as seen in “what has been the result?” (169). This also exemplifies her manner of posing questions which follows the more updated “wh” word plus operator plus subject. She uses no periphrastic “do”.
By keeping her style modern, especially for the time period, she demonstrates to her audience (who were undoubtedly men in the main), that she not only has a good grasp of formal language, but she is familiar with all the modern usages of language, and therefore she must be taken seriously, as her subject matter is timely.
In contrast to Wollstonecraft’s formal or elevated tone, George Eliot’s novel A Mill on the Floss is more homespun and simple through an Anglo Saxon vocabulary and the new and innovative style of realism. Realism depicts things, events and people as they truly are or were. She accomplishes this through intricate details such as that found in her opening sentence; “A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea.” (1469). Her use of personification in the same sentence with “loving tide” and “impetuous embrace” pulls the reader in to experience a kindly scene. By using lexical archaisms such as “hitherto” meaning “previously”, “should” as “Would” and “might” as a permissive “may”, she imparts a homey comfortable tone. Further into the story she writes in the social dialect of her characters using mispronunciations such as “eddication”, “schoolin”, “learnin”, and contracted forms like “wi’” for “with” and “th’” for “the”. This not only brings us closer to the reality of her characters, but also sets a social distinction, which is a human reality through space and time. The reader is drawn in further by being invited to participate in her story through the author’s first person intervention.
Her reader-friendly tone is carried into her sentence structure which is simplified by using a loose structure, yet her noun phrases are complex, as found in “fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed” (1469) where the compounds are intricate descriptions of scenes and the nouns tend to be mainly concrete instead of abstract. Her use of verbs is also very definite and describes actions or events: “hurries”, “rushing”, “rising”, “lifting”, ”dipping” and “standing”. Continuous aspect is predominant through the first three paragraphs, but switches to a passive use when the writer starts to turn from an active present to a more transition-like recollection of memory which draws the reader in. Curiosity is piqued about the little girl and the reason for her being so interested in the movement of the wheel. Is she contemplating it out of intelligent curiosity? If so, this suggests that Eliot will go on to flesh out a female character perhaps giving her more credit than that traditionally given to little girls. Eliot’s prompting of such a question (whether real or imagined) leaves one with the distinct impression that through her simpler narration can be found a complexity where psychological and sociological issues find a voice (Abrams 1456).
The voice of Virginia Woolf seems to be an amalgamation of Wollstonecraft and Eliot. Woolf injects a newness into realism with stream-of-consciousness, and addresses the idea of women breaking into traditionally held male careers. In her speech to the Women’s Service League various tenses of verbs, and types of nouns are present. Like her purer forms of stream-of-consciousness, her speech flows with snippets of memory where she continually pulls herself back to her main goal of describing what it is like to be a professional writer.
Her vocabulary source tends to be a mix of Anglo Saxon and Latinate. Where Wollstonecraft is very formal, Woolf is less formal, but without the archaisms employed by Eliot. Sentences are quite short, and the longer sentences lean to a loose structure giving a conversational feel. Switching back and forth between present tense and past tense adds to the naturalness of conversation. Parallelism and balance are found throughout the piece as evidenced in the beginning paragraph; “it is true I am a woman; it is true I am employed” (2214), and in the final paragraph; “It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared” (2218).
Her metaphorical use of the Angel in the house as an impediment to her writing allows us to peek into the writer’s mind by sharing a personal view. Like Eliot, Woolf draws her reader in through this personal touch and conversational style.
The differences between each of the writer’s styles can be wide, as found in the formal style of Wollstonecraft and the informal manner of Eliot, or can meet in the subject matter of women’s issues discovered in Wollstonecraft and Woolf. They set the bar for innovation and insight, and provide a lasting and thoughtful legacy where writers and readers, male and female, can benefit through growth and development in thinking beyond the status quo.Works Cited
Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
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