A short biography of an imaginary woman we should all get to know a little better
We’ve been hankering after ‘a room of one’s own’ this month. You can read about how to create the perfect R.O.O.O. in the November issue, but one thing’s for sure, a little spot somewhere in the house that is ‘just yours’, whether to glorify in mess, old books and bits of paper, or to keep like your own tiny palace, is a luxury we all would love.
In her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, published in 1929, Virginia Woolf asserted that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. It never stopped JK Rowling, but to be fair she had the advantage of women’s liberation.
To prove her point that in Elizabethan times it would have been impossible for a woman to have written the works of Shakespeare, no matter what her talent, Woolf introduces us to Judith, Shakespeare’s sister. “We thought his sister’s name was Joan?” we hear you cry, as one. Well, yes, it was. No one is quite clear whether Ginny just wanted to jazz her up a bit or if she’d made a mistake. But nonetheless, Judith Shakespeare is the imaginary sister of William who appears in the essay.
She is a clever girl, with all the gifts of her brother but they come to naught: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school.” She hides her reading and study for fear of a telling off from her parents and is forced to become engaged at a young age. To avoid a life of domestic drudgery she runs away to become an actress, is roundly ridiculed by all and sundry, falls pregnant by her employer and takes her own life. “She lives in you and in me,” said Woolf, “and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.”
The sad story of Judith Shakespeare is one of the most famous parts of Woolf’s essay and has inspired all sorts of writers and artists since. Not least, the band Shakespeare’s Sister who named themselves for Judith, and The Smiths, who recorded a song of the same name.
The inspiration we are taking from poor Judith’s short (imaginary) life is that we owe it to our literary fore-sisters to make the effort to find space for a room of our own. Because we’re worth it. Our regular feature, The Comfort of Things, in the November issue has more on how to create your very own ‘room of one’s own’.