My first - and for many years only visit - to Westminster Abbey was in 1987. I was a young and starry eyed English major who had studied all the classic writers of English and American literature. I was also a sometime writer who considered myself more of a scribbler than anything else. Perhaps I was just afraid to hope for more than that -- after all, none of my teachers or professors had ever encouraged me to take my writing seriously. So when I walked through Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, I was awed by the graves and memorials of some of the most celebrated writers of England: Shakespeare of course, but also Byron, Robert Browning, Chaucer and many others.
I had such fond memories of that first visit that when after 25 years I returned to London a few weeks ago, I was excited to revisit Poet's Corner once more. I could not have been more surprised by my reaction -- anger and disappointment. Everywhere I looked, I saw names of male writers. Where were the women? Of course, there were the paltry few: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's name stuck like an afterthought at the bottom of the memorial to her husband and an admittedly good-sized memorial to Mary Anne Evans who we all know as George Eliot. Also, after much searching, I found a tiny plaque with Jane Austen's name almost completely overshadowed by the huge monuments to men that surrounded her.
Why had I not noticed this before?
I was quite the feminist firebrand in my youth, but why hadn't I felt anger over this meager recognition for women writers? Was it my own lack of confidence that made me ignore the disregard for women? And if that is the case, what had changed to make me notice this so much on my recent visit? To my mind it's a good sign that in my middle years I still have the energy to feel resentment at this inequality. I also think that since I have a better sense of myself as a writer, I no longer question the right of any women to sit at the table of English literature, just as I no longer question my own right to call myself a writer. Score one point for my development as a person and writer. Mourn the fact that such a problem still exists in our day and age.
I was not allowed to take photographs among the graves of Westminster Abbey so all I have are my notes about my visit. How appropriate that I wrote those notes in a notebook with a reproduction of the cover of Virginia Wolfe's famous essay, "A Room of One's Own." I bought that notebook after having attended the summer writer's retreat sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation -- an incredible organization dedicated to nurturing women writers. Virginia's essay describes what life would have been like for Shakespeare's sister if she had wanted to write. Instead of flourishing like her brother, she would have had to fight for every ounce of artistic expression she could manage. Wolfe passionately argues for the right of all women to have a "room", a place of their own where they can create the lives they want instead of those dictated to them by a society that sees them as less worthy than men.
Near my desk I also still keep my copy of Wolfe's book from my college days with its rather "groovy" cover. I've kept it all these years as a talisman against the forces that would make me doubt my abilities or those of any other women. While we all know things have improved for women in the 21st century, Poet's Corner shows that we still have a long way to go before women are considered equals in the world of literature - and in the world at large.