Continuing from her explanation of Shakespeare's ‘incandescence', the narrator shows how it's practically impossible for a woman to possess the same quality. Just look at how women have appeared through history, she says. They've always been pictured in cramped rooms that would never inspire fiction.
Women's lives are so full of toil and practicality that they represent the opposite of this magical quality incandescence. And because their lives have been so toilsome, they have no frame of reference to inspire fiction.
But the narrator does admit that women of higher standing have better luck. Men react more favorably to a writing countess than a writing working class mother. Countesses and ladies had comparative financial freedom but they had to face ridicule and risk "being thought a monster". She gives the example of Lady Winchilsea, a childless noblewoman, who wrote poetry but could never express the incandescence of male writers because her poems were so full of indignant, bitter lines about how women are "debarred from all improvements of the mind" and so on. Amid this bitterness is pure, beautiful poetry, but it is undercut by anger.
The narrator is making a duel argument about the impact of the structure of society on women writers. First, is that most women don't have the opportunity to write because of a lack of financial freedom and resulting domestic obligations that intrude as constant interruptions. Second, the narrator argues that even those few women who do have financial freedom—such as Lady Winchilsea—can't reach incandescence because their poetry is marred by too much bitterness from the way that they are blocked from high literary culture (just as the narrator was barred from entering the library earlier) and that their work is met with an instinctual ridicule from men. Such bitterness—even if legitimate—poisons poetry, as the narrator sees it.
The narrator is imagining what Lady Winchilsea's comforts and trials must have been like because very little is known about her. Her lines speak of sadness but she was likely viewed by male readers as trivial. She was often ridiculed by male satirists. One satirist cold her a "blue stocking with an itch for scribbling." The narrator is fascinated by this idea and wishes she had access to more information so that she could form a proper picture of Lady Winchilsea.
The example of Lady Winchilsea demonstrates that even when a woman was the highest of high society, she was not taken seriously. No matter how serious Lady Winchilsea's sentiments and subjects in her poetry, men instinctively didn't take her seriously simply because she was a woman.
The narrator then turns to her next example, Margaret of Newcastle, who, like Lady Winchilsea was noble and childless and whose writings show an even more unveiled anger. Her poetry is "congealed" and "higgledy-piggledy" when it could have been beautiful, and what's more, she was laughed at by those around her and led a lonely existence until she had a reputation for madness. Dorothy Osbourne is next. In her letters, she admits that she cannot imagine being mad enough to start writing books. Letters are the extent of her writing career, yet they betray a talent for sentences.
The narrator presents this short history of women writers as if they are a series of failed experiments. With each example, the twistedness and stiltedness of their fiction gets more pronounced and the fate for women writers seems more doomed. Dorothy Osbourne is not even able to conceive of attempting to write fiction because of the treatment of those women before her who tried, and so her talent is left un-cultivated.
The narrator continues her tirade, now pulling Aphra Behn from the shelf. Behn is unlike the others however. She is not a noblewoman, but a middle-class woman embodying middle-class values of strength and humor. After an unfortunate series of events, she was left penniless and husbandless and had to make a living for herself. So she turned to writing. But the mere fact of her having a career at all is far more famous than anything she wrote, and far from being a role-model for young women, she was so ostracized by society that she made writing seem like the pursuit of disturbed women.
The narrator presents Aphra Behn as a rare example of a woman without upper-class means making a living as a writer. She is a role model and should have been a real inspiration, with her virtues of humor and strength and her dedication to fiction. But society did not allow her to become an inspiration, because it was not ready to admit a middle-class writer into its ranks, creating a tragic situation where Behn was seen as disgraceful rather than admired.
But Behn did make writing for money an option for other women, and gradually women writers started appearing in the history books towards the end of the eighteenth century. What followed were objectively important books like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, which themselves changed the status of women writers by providing a growing body of work, just as men have always had a large body of work by other men to inspire them and provide them with an insight into collective experience – this all leads to good fiction, the narrator claims.
Having described example after example of failed novels and tragic lives, the narrator shows how women and fiction has progressed. It may seem by looking individually at these examples like things haven't progressed at all, but they have, gradually and steadily. This is an important point for the narrator to make before her impressionable young audience of women college students, because it shows them that progress is worth striving for.
Writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen ought to "let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn", for their freedom. By the nineteenth century, library shelves were filling up with middle-class women's books, but they were nearly all novels and there was a notable lack of poetry. These women were all very different, had different lives and voices, yet all had the same tendency for novels. The narrator theorizes that this focus on novels resulted from the concentration it takes to write poetry; comparatively, novels can be written in spurts, which means that they could be written despite the common distractions of family life.
Women have started to write more but they are still not free when it comes to how and what they write. Women have fitted their voices into the form of the novel, because the process of writing the novels fit better with the social domestic obligations and their attendant interruptions. So, in a way, women are still as bound to their gender as before. In order for them to start writing good poetry like Shakespeare's, women's collective lives would have to evolve differently.
The narrator explains that middle-class women had been trained for centuries for novels, by having to observe and understand so much of human behavior and emotion, but Austen, the Brontes, and Eliot were not novelists by nature – their talents carved them out for poetry and history.
The narrator describes the way women have fallen into the job of novel-writing not through a creative choice but because it is the only form that will fit their lives. So women's ownership of the novel form is not a sign of freedom, but a sign of their constraint.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a good novel, the narrator believes, even though Austen wasn't proud to be writing and had to hide the manuscript when she heard anyone approach. And yet when you read the novel, it seems like Austen has become incandescent like Shakespeare, has shed herself in a way. Perhaps this is because Austen didn't covet the freedom of men and that her fiction suited her situation.
Books about Jane Austen's life have painted it as entirely domestic, with a writing desk as the only clue to Jane's career. She reportedly did all her work in the family sitting room, somewhat secretly, hiding her work whenever someone entered and never able to remove herself from distractions. But it was her peace with this lifestyle—her lack of bitterness about what was being denied to her--that allowed her to be a rare women who's writing sometimes reached the level of incandescence.
But Charlotte Bronte has a very different relationship to her written voice. The narrator quotes a passage from Jane Eyre, showing how unfulfilled and embittered the narrative is, showing how Bronte was unable to shed her own life when writing. The most unfortunate thing about Bronte, the narrator thinks, is that she knew what freedom, travel, and education could have done for her and her work, but never was able to experience or profit from those things.
The narrator uses Charlotte Bronte to show how extraordinary it is that Jane Austen was able to triumph over her situation by accepting it. Bronte by contrast was aware of her misfortune and never accepted it, and this bitterness came through in her fiction. Consequently she was never able to achieve in the way Austen achieved.
The narrator goes on to explore what it takes for a novel to rouse the emotions in the way that War and Peace for example does. She believes it is to do with the shape of the novel and the ability of its emotional content to reflect something of life. If the novel has only moments of reflection but fails to be a whole, it "comes to grief".
The narrator chooses War and Peace as her idea of a perfect novel. It is an illuminating choice because it's subject matter—war and peace—are big elemental ideas that are traditionally the domain of men. Yet the narrator does not focus on the subject matter as the key to the book, but rather it's "wholeness," which seems to imply its ability to reflect all of life.
Most novels, she says, come to grief, but does this have anything to do with the sex of the writer? She thinks that women writers' integrity has been compromised by the authority of men; male values prevail so male writers have found reflecting real life easier. Women have found it almost impossible to write without filling their pages with anger, defensiveness, or submission. Only Austen and Emily Bronte were able to write with unapologetic, uncompromised female voices, as if deaf to the "persistent voice" of the patriarchy.
The narrator notes that most novels fail to measure up to this criteria, but wonders if the women's novels that fail do so, in particular, because their authors are women. She answers this question by stating that the bitterness ingrained in women of literary ambition by the restrictions placed on them by the patriarchal structure of society thwarts their attempt to attain "wholeness" in their writing. She furthers this argument by referencing the two women whom she sees as exceptions—Austen and Emily Bronte—who somehow were able to avoid bitterness, to write as women without bitterness.
The narrator quotes a passage from the New Criterion about how female novelists should only write according to their limitations. She is surprised to find that this was written in 1928 and not a century earlier. With the pressure of male opposition still facing women, the literary tradition remains closed off to them. They don't have any access to a "common sentence," that men have access to, the shared rhythm and form that unites male writers in a collective.
Again the narrator shows that though society has progressed in terms of giving women the right to vote and the opportunity to get an education, the patriarchal judgment on women writers still weighs as heavily. She puts this down to the lack of a "common sentence", implying that if women had a large body of work around which to cohere and unite—and which proved their skill to men—they would be immune to the sort of male judgment that currently warps women's their fiction.
And naturally this "sentence" leads to whole forms of writing, the poem and the play, for example – forms created by men and continued by men. The novel is different in that it is newer and more open to women, but the narrator imagines that as women become freer in society, they will open up the form of the novel also, and find room for their poetry, or a form as yet unfounded. Here, the narrator leaves off, with hope that in the future, the forms of women's writing will be shaped to the lives of women.
The narrator uses this idea of the collective sentence to show how whole forms and traditions in literature, indeed the whole of literature itself, has been dominated by men because they have had a legacy of male writers to follow. She ends on a hopeful note, by suggesting that as women have gained freedom they have begun the process of building this legacy and that in this freedom and with this legacy they may be able to write in new forms, that are unique to women and expressions of "whole" women's lives.