I am often asked about favorite books or books that influenced me. This is one of them …
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf influenced me as a journalist and as a novelist in ways that continue to unfold. I’m pretty sure that I missed the humor on virtually every page when I first read the essay as an earnest undergraduate. But the underlinings and exclamation points in my college paperback (cover price: $1.95) remind me of the impact it had on me then. Today when I re-read it, I’m still inspired not only by Woolf’s clear-eyed message that women’s stories need to be told, but also by her style, conviction, and wit. Written in 1928, 80 years ago, these 118 pages still challenge readers and writers to consider the quesiton: Who was left out?
In one memorable passage, Woolf ponders the lives of the flesh-and-blood lives of the women who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries. She wrote, “One knows nothing detailed, nothing perfectly true and substantial about her. History scarcely mentions her… She never writes her own life and scarcely keeps a diary; there are only a handful of her letters in existence. She left no plays or poems by which we can judge her.
“What one wants,” Woolf wrote, “ is a mass of information; at which age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like; had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking … “All these facts lie somewhere, presumably, in parish registers and account books. The life of the average Elizabeth woman must be scattered about somewhere, would one collect and make a book of it.”
Virginia Woolf challenged me to write The Red Tent. And Good Harbor. And The Last Days of Dogtown – and probably much of what I have written and will scribble for the rest of my life. Thanks to A Room of One’s Own, I want to tell stories that have fallen off the pages of history simply because they belonged to women.
In the case of The Red Tent, a historical novel set in biblical times, there were no letters or parish records to consult. The historical record has almost nothing to say about the ordinary lives of women before the nineteenth century, and even then, working women, poor women, and women of color remained invisible, forgotten, and often nameless.
“One often catches a glimpse of her in the lives of the great, whisking away in to the background,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “concealing, I something think a wink a laugh, perhaps a tear.”
In Genesis 34, there is a glimpse of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, heading off to visit the daughters of Shechem. We have no diary, no letters, no testimony from Dinah about what happened to her in that ancient city. The tale of Jacob and his sons includes a brutal footnote about that adventure, but it is not told in Dinah’s voice. It is not her version.
What did Dinah do in Shechem? What was she wearing? What did she see and feel and learn?
The Red Tent is my answer. But the question was first put to me by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own.