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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.67, No.1, 135 ~ 152, 2021
Why Women Write: The Evolution of Narrative Voice in Autobiographical Travel Writing from Margery Kempe to Mary Wollstonecraft
Fang Li
Virginia Woolf often asks us important literary questions in a form which only literature, and not literary criticism, can answer (e.g. how much poetry can we see in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway?). In “Women and Fiction,” Woolf urges us to consider the lives of extraordinary women writers only in the light of the lives of ordinary women, because these were the ways of life experienced by extraordinary women writers, too. But stated in this rather literary form, there is not much the critic or even the linguist can say: the lexical pair “extraordinary” and “ordinary,” defined only in opposition to each other, seem to demand novelistic rather than critical treatment. In this paper, we reframe the question so that we can bring to bear literary critical and even linguistic methods. We take it that between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century, a woman for whom writing was an occupation was “extraordinary,” even if the lives they led at home were much like those of other women. Such women writers sometimes enjoyed rather more opportunities than ordinary women; for example, the medieval mystic Margery Kempe had extraordinary opportunities for religious contemplation, travel, and renown in addition to the usual chances available to a housewife and a mother. It is true that sometimes these women had even more meagre affordances than ordinary women; for example, Mary Wollstonecraft, who did not live to enjoy either married life or motherhood for very long. However, it is also true that in both cases, texts had to bear the imprint of the lives of the ordinary women who read and had to understand them. This paper takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining grammar and history to trace the emergence of a female voice and a female subject in autobiographical and travel writing.
Key Words
Margery Kempe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, first person, life-writing
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