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Woolf's Advice for the Woman Artist

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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.
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