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[Easy Chair]

The Mother of All Questions

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I gave a talk on Virginia Woolf a few years ago. During the question-and-answer period that followed it, the subject that seemed to most interest a number of people was whether Woolf should have had children. I answered the question dutifully, noting that Woolf apparently considered having children early in her marriage, after seeing the delight that her sister, Vanessa Bell, took in her own. But over time Woolf came to see reproduction as unwise, perhaps because of her own psychological instability. Or maybe, I suggested, she wanted to be a writer and to give her life over to her art, which she did with extraordinary success. In the talk I had quoted with approval her description of murdering “the angel of the house,” the inner voice that tells many women to be self-sacrificing handmaidens to domesticity and male vanity. I was surprised that advocating for throttling the spirit of conventional femininity should lead to this conversation.

What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, “Fuck this shit,” which carried the same general message and moved everyone on from the discussion.) After all, many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.

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