The narrator returns home disappointed that she hasn't found some nugget of truth with which to explain women's poverty compared to men. She thinks she needs a historian, who records facts, to describe the conditions of women through history. She considers the Elizabethan period of literature, which is full of well-known men like Shakespeare but for which accounts of women's lives are almost non-existent. She describes fiction as being connected to life but as delicately as a spider-web and, in Shakespeare's case, almost imperceptibly.
By turning from fiction, the art of artifice, to history, the art of facts, the narrator finds that women are just as poor in life as in literature. It is not just that they are missing from the spines of the library books as authors but that they are missing from the books themselves as individual subjects. In fact she describes whole history of womanhood, vast as it must be, as a kind of black hole beside the extensive and well-documented history of manhood.
The narrator goes again to books, this time a History of England, and finds a mere few facts about women over the span of centuries, and these all involve men in some way. Yet women were not lacking in personality, claims the historian. When you look at Shakespeare's plays, this is obvious – Cleopatra, Desdemona, all are full of character. A fascinating inconsistency appears in the female sex. In the imagination, she is astounding and varied; in life and in history, she is the property of her husband and basically invisible. What one must do to get a real idea of this woman is to consider history and poetry at once, but in the case of the Elizabethan woman, there is no history written that will provide this perspective.
The impression one gets of women from reading Trevalyan's history book is of a creature that only really exists in the realms of marriage and divorce. There are legal descriptions of men's rights related to their wives but of women themselves, practically nothing. Then the narrator conjures the fictional realm, where women have a far more colorful, noticeable existence. She implies that the real woman of history is somewhere in between these two realms.
Someone needs to put together a history of women, with all the missing facts, about what she ate, what she did, and the narrator suggests that a young woman in the audience might try to accomplish it. For it is ridiculous even to ask the question about women and fiction in the Elizabethan age, without knowing anything about women themselves.
Here, the narrator exposes her purpose for the lecture by addressing the women in the audience with a call to action. She goads them to do what other women have not done and write a history of women, encouraging them but also placing the pressure of responsibility on their shoulders.
Trevelyan, the writer of the History of England, claims that most girls were married by sixteen, and so the narrator can hardly imagine one of them being able to write the plays of Shakespeare. She invents a woman, Shakespeare's sister, named Judith Shakespeare, to investigate what would have happened if a woman had Shakespeare's gift. While William was going to school and hunting, then working as an actor and writer at a London theatre, his equally gifted sister stayed at home, mending clothes and under pressure from her family to marry early.
Judith Shakespeare is a symbol of everything the narrator is trying to describe in the essay. In Judith's story, the narrator exposes the difference that intellectual and financial freedom makes to creative freedom and the difference creative freedom makes to poetry. Unlike her brother William, Judith faces a life of wasted talent, a waste enforced by the very structure and expectations of society. William's gender gives him many advantages—education, connections, opportunities—resulting in a life that Judith could never dream of, and experiences that allow him to further develop his talent.
Judith had a loving family and did not want to disappoint her father so she was forced to secretly stow away to escape her marriage and ran away to London. But when she arrived she was laughed away from the theater. One actor-manager took pity on her and she ended up becoming pregnant by him, which effectively ended her chances for any kind of writing life. So Judith committed suicide. This is how the narrator believes the story would go.
Things get worse and worse for Judith as she grows up. She is forced to abandon her family to follow her desire to write and act, but even having done that no one will let her act. Dejected, she starts a relationship with the one man who is kind to her. While this relationship does not affect the man, it makes her pregnant—highlighting the intrinsic biological unfairness of love and relationships. Society and biology conspire to doom Judith's opportunities so that she never gets the chance to develop her talent. And so she kills herself even as her brother becomes a triumph.
In fact the narrator believes that a woman like Judith, with all Shakespeare's talents, would never have existed. But women must have had a kind of genius of their own. There must have been women, the ones burned for witchery or shunned by their communities for example, with potential for writing. She thinks "Anon" (i.e. "Anonymous") was probably a woman. What is certain, she says, is that any woman born with such a gift would certainly have gone mad or melancholy. If Judith had survived, her writing would have been "twisted and deformed" and she certainly would have disguised herself as Anon or a masculinized name. It is not as natural for women to seek fame as men do.
The narrator has vividly painted the picture of Judith Shakespeare and gone through the whole journey of her life from birth to suicide, regretful that she was never able to put pen to paper professionally and remained invisible in history. But though we can regret the lack of fiction that came from Elizabethan women, the narrator argues that even if they had been able to produce works of fiction, they would have been awful pieces of work because they would be deformed by the trials and social obstacles she had to overcome in order to become a writer. The narrator seems to be telling her audience that women have had to wait for the right time to emerge as writers.
It is obvious that women poets suffered a torn, disturbed state of mind. But how did male writers feel? Though we know that Shakespeare's state of mind must have been perfect for poetry when he sat down to write King Lear, we don't actually know anything about it. As time has gone on, we have become more informed, from writers' personal memoirs and diaries, and we learn from this modern confessional trend that production of a work of genius was a huge, difficult undertaking. If the writer had any distraction, the work would suffer. And for women, such distractions were so much more prevalent than for men, and works of genius therefore basically impossible.
From snippets of the history that lies behind the major works of literature, the narrator argues that men's lives are uniquely suited to writing and writing works of genius in one critical way: society was structured in such a way that men could work undisturbed. Even though we know very little about women's lives, we do know that they must have been fraught with domestic errands and duties and difficulties that meant they were regularly distracted, making it impossible to muster the sustained concentration required to write works of genius.
She charges the psychologists of Newnham and Girton to find out the effect of discouragement on an artist and how they need to be nourished to be able to write. Certainly many male authors have opinions on the subject. One Oscar Browning who used to teach at women's colleges had the opinion that even the best-educated woman was inferior to the worst man. Now with the benefit of knowing more about the minds and lives of these male authorities, we can see them as more human and not be threatened by their opinions, but fifty years ago, these opinions would have ruled.
Here, the narrator argues that in a society where women's inferiority was taken as a given, there is of course the natural result that women come to internalize this belief, and that such self-conception of inferiority will naturally affect women's ability to write great literature because they won't even be able to conceive of themselves as doing so. She adds that now that it is clear that much of the male insistence on female inferiority is actually defensive, so that men can continue to feel superior, that such opinions are easier for women to avoid internalizing, but that this is only recently the case.
We come back to the need for men to feel superior. But the story of women's emancipation is more complicated than that, full of instances of politically-minded women shunning their own opinions. And though the young ladies before her now enjoy their rooms and simple dinners, the women of the past "cried out in agony", because people of genius have always been most effected by the opinions of others.
Now the narrator warns the women that it is not just men that they need to look out for. Through history women have undermined their own cause by submitting to men, by denying the value of their own opinions.
This is especially damaging for an artist, because to create good poetry as Shakespeare did, one must be able to rise above all obstacles and impediments and be "incandescent". The fact that we know nothing about Shakespeare's state of mind is significant evidence of his incandescence – his poetry "flows from him free and unimpeded."
"Incandescent" is a word that the narrator uses repeatedly in the essay to describe the successful poet. It is a magical quality that implies an ability to ascend above mundane concerns and in so doing see the world in a clear-eyed, universal way, so that the poetry within the poet burn brightly, un-warped by the poet's mundane concerns or bitterness earned by hard experience.