By: Rhonda Knight, Kallion Advisor and Circles Co-Chair
In 1928 Virginia Woolf gave lectures to students at Cambridge University’s women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham. Those lectures formed the basis of her essay A Room of One’s Own, which was published in 1929. In the essay’s opening, Woolf explains that the topic she was given to write about, “women and fiction,” boils down to “having a room of one’s own,” (Woolf 3) or more specifically, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf 4). She assures her audience that she will explain this connection. She describes starting her research into the general topic of “women and fiction” at the British Museum. After all, “If truth was not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?” (Woolf 26). However, all she finds are texts in which men try to explain women to other men. Here, in the British Museum, Virginia Woolf, doing double duty as an author and a character in her own work, is mirroring Christine de Pizan, who experienced the same frustration and emotions approximately 523 years earlier. (BL, Harley 4431, f. 4)
Around 1395, Christine (1365 – c. 1431) began her career as a writer. After the deaths of her father – a physician and court astrologer to Charles V of France – and her husband – a secretary to the king – she needed to support her three children and her mother. She is purported to be the first woman in Western Europe to earn her living as a writer and a publisher. She created elaborate bespoke manuscripts of her work for such famous patrons as Louis I, the Duke of Orleans, Philip the Bold, John the Duke of Berry, the Duke of Burgundy, and his son, John the Fearless. Her most elaborate manuscript B.L. Harley 4431 shows her presenting that manuscript to Isabeau of Bavaria, the Queen of France.
Christine was a business woman, as well as a writer, running a scriptorium that produced these luxury manuscripts. The works created by the scribes and artists she employed have a consistent style that created her brand. Even though Christine did have “a room of her own,” she found that commercial success and space were not enough, given the constant misogynistic texts that describe “female nature as beset by vice” (Woolf 22). In response Christine plans a whole city, filled with virtuous women, an act that Sharon L. Jansen calls “audacious” (36). The resulting text was The Book of the City of Ladies.
Virginia Woolf did not know that a prolific female author, named Christine de Pizan, ever existed. Jansen explores the irony of Woolf searching the British Museum for edifying examples of “Women and Fiction,” because Christine’s works were there, just waiting to be re-discovered. When Woolf was visiting the British Museum, among its holdings were Bryan Anslay’s English translation of The Book of the City of Ladies from 1521 and the beautifully illuminated manuscript that Christine created for the Queen of France (Jansen 9).
Because Woolf did not discover Christine, she had to create someone very much like her for A Room of One’s Own, a fictional sister of Shakespeare named Judith. Judith Shakespeare is as “extraordinarily gifted” as her brother. She is “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he” is (Woolf 49). Yet, her gifts are not nurtured. Her curiosity and independence are punished by blows from her father. She runs away to London, seeking employment in the theater. Her inexperience leads to an unwanted pregnancy. She “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried as some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside of the Elephant and Castle” (Woolf 50). Through discussions of Judith and other historical authors, such as Sappho, Margaret Cavendish, and Aphra Behn, Woolf undertakes a project similar to Christine’s. Woolf concludes that to be writers women must have financial independence (“five hundred [pounds] a year”) and “rooms of our own.” These necessities give women “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think” (Woolf 117-118).
Jansen wonders: “Would everything have been different if only Woolf had found The Book of the City of Ladies on the shelves that day in the British Library?” Jansen decides she’d “like to think so” (9-10). She does this partially because Woolf says “we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help” (Woolf 79). The great male authors “never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks and adapted them to her use” (Woolf 79). Hundreds of years apart, Woolf and Christine recommend the same method–using exemplary women to “think with” in order to appreciate and reflect upon examples of female agency.
While Christine’s works are now a part of the canon of texts read and studied in medieval literature classes, many of her texts, especially her political writings, are still hard to access for people who don’t read medieval French. An edition of The Book of the City of Ladies contains short excerpts from two of these, The Book of the Body Politic and Lamentation on France’s Ills. The editor of the former explains that it is not only a compilation of similar political works but contains “her reflections on justice, flattery, the problems tied to excessive taxation of the poor, the importance of having experienced and honest counselors, the utility of fear in politics, and the interconnectedness of all parts of society” (225). In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine explores women’s leadership. Research shows that women’s leadership practices are often communal in nature and reflect qualities like kindness, empathy, planning, and flexibility. Christine’s book portrays Woolf’s idea of “thinking with” as a communal exercise.
Communal qualities of leadership that are often gendered female can lead to innovative acts–powered by planning, goal-setting and forward thinking–and the empowerment of others–created through relationship building and providing opportunities and support. This is a reason that people need to be more aware of and celebrate Christine’s contribution to leadership.
Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies and Other Writings, edited by Sophie Bourgault and Rebecca Kingston. Translated by Ineke Hardy. Hackett, 2018.
Jansen, Sharon L. Reading Women’s Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own. Palgrave Macmillian, 2011.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1929.