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MacCarthy’s reply to Woolf

This is Desmond MacCarthy’s first reply to Virginia Woolf’s letter in The New Statesman. It appeared on October 9, pp.15-6, Woolf’s letter having appeared in the October 2, 1920 issue. See “Weininger’s wake and Woolf’s ire” for context.

[“Affable Hawk” writes: “Sappho was at the height of her fame about 610 B.C. She was a contemporary of Jeremiah and Nebuchadnezzar; when she wrote the Buddha was not born. This is a long time ago. Perhaps when Herculaneum gives up its treasures her works will be found; at present we only possess two short odes and fragments preserved in quotation, or fragments of fragments stuck like the wings of flies in the solidified glue of ancient grammarians. Still, Sappho is a very great name. Whether she can be ranged among the fifty greatest poets of the 2,500 years which followed her leap from the Leucadian promontory is, in these circumstances, hard to decide. Perhaps, had other dialect poets, say Burns, survived only in happy quotations, and been such themes for poetry in themselves as she, of whom it could be believed that she turned in falling into a swan, their reputations, too, might be as great. But two thousand five hundred years is a long time to wait for a second poetess for whom that claim might even plausibly be made. Suppose Mr. Bennett were to grant the point of Sappho, that long interval remains to be explained on another hypothesis than that the creative mind in fullest power seems to have been the property of a few men. There was nothing else to prevent down the ages, so far as I can see, women who always played and sang and studied music producing as many musicians from among their number as men have done. Of the millions who led the contemplative religious life surely, otherwise, one or two might have equalled the achievements of Aquinas or Thomas a Kempis? And when later painting was within their reach what great names can they show? If in the nineteenth century a woman had existed with the intellect of Mill, would she not have forced her way to the front as well as Harriet Martineau did? Mill thought that Mrs. Taylor was his superior in every respect; but no friend agreed with him. Newton was a small farmer’s son, Herschell a member of a German band, Faraday a blacksmith’s son, Laplace the child of a poor peasant. Nothing will persuade me that if among their contemporaries a woman, more favourably placed than they, had shown the same instinctive intellectual passion and capacity, she could not have done their work. Granted the intellect and a garden of peas, and a monk may become a Mendel. I maintain Mr. Bennett’s case is strong. Mrs. Woolf asks how I account for the seventeenth century producing more remarkable women than the sixteenth, the eighteenth than the seventeenth, and the nineteenth than all three put together, if education is not the cause, and therefore the explanation also, of the smallness of women’s achievement when education was withheld from most women. Of course it is education which has increased the number of remarkable women and the merit of their work, but the facts remain (1) that unfavourable in many respects as the conditions of women have been in the past, they have not been more unfavourable than many men possessing extraordinary intellectual powers have overcome; (2) that in directions to which those conditions were less unfavourable (literature, poetry, music and painting), they have hardly attained, with the possible exception of fiction, the highest achievements reached by men; (3) that, in spite of education, in pursuits requiring pure intellect they have not rivalled men. This does not imply, however, that a small percentage of women are not just as clever as any clever men, just as good artists, just as good correlators of facts, only that it seems that they fall short of the few men who are best of all.{”}—Ed. N.S.]

Posted by vmunoz in Woolf (Friday September 22, 2006 at 1:12 pm)

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