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Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792, a period of radical reform in the wake of the French Revolution, and one of the first examples of feminist literature. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, written over a century later and published in 1929, appeared in the wake of several feminist movements, the Suffragettes of the previous century and women being given the same voting rights as men just a year before, a result from women’s involvement in the First World War.
Both texts are in the form of an extended essay, in the written mode, with the purpose to inform and persuade. The audience for both texts is primarily the higher classes, educated people with the money to send their children to private schools, hence the discussion of schooling in both text excerpts.
An immediate discrepancy is apparent in both texts; though both address an educated audience, the levels of formality differ.
Woolf keeps a lower level of formaily with the reader, employing archaisms such as “alas” and hyperbole (in phrases such as “I have shirked the duty” and “bowed down by the weight of the subject”) for comedic effect, whereas Wollstonecraft’s language contains phrases that would not be considered archaisms at the time, such as “of a Sunday” and “babes”, and therefore lacking the humourous tenor of Woolf’s text, though employing the same style of language.
Notably, both texts employ the use of a personal account to exemplify the text’s content. Both accounts convey the rules regarding walking on grass, and are somwhat similar in style – Wollstonecraft’s formality dissipates to produce a passage not unlike Woolf’s work, an abundance of the first person pronoun ‘I’ is found as well as hyperbolic language (“tyrant of this domain” to refer to a school master and refering to the schoolyard as a “prison yard”), giving the short passage an almost conversational tone.
However, unlike Woolf’s work, this lower tenor is reserved for a passage placed outside the main body of text, implying a higher level of formality was expected of a text in Wollstonecraft’s time, opposed to Woolf’s ability to freely write with a low tenor throughout the essay. Grammatically, an obvious difference between the texts is the use of punctuation in determining sentence length. Wollstonecraft employs almost an excessive amount of punctuation, resulting in long sentences; In the best regulated schools, however, where swarms are not crammed together, many bad habits must be acquired; but, at common schools, the body, heart, and understanding, are equally stunted, for parents are often only in quest of the cheapest school, and the master could not live, if he did not take a much greater number than he could manage himself; nor will the scanty pittance, allowed for each child, permit him to hire ushers sufficient to assist in the discharge of the mechanical part of the business.
The use of semi-colons to create verbose complex sentences are in direct contrast to Woolf’s frequently shorter compound and complex sentences, despite even employing numerous semi-colons; “I need not say that what I am about to describe has no existence; Oxbridge is an invention; so is Fernham; ‘I’ is merely a convenient term for somebody who has no real being. ”
Woolf’s sentences, being shorter, remain more coherent than Wollstonecraft’s frequently prolix passages, reflect a change in the standard of accessibility of texts, a 20th Century audience demanding concise information opposed to the 18th Century style of formal and complex language (indeed, the Romantic poetry movement of Wollstonecraft’s era called for an end to the ‘pretentious’ and exclusive styles of writing favoured by authors of the time).
Woolf also uses grammar in the lowering of her tenor, using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to the reader directly, something the Wollstonecraft text declines to do, as well employing the impartial first person “one” (“One can only give one’s audience… “) for an aloof, comedic effect. Though the use of ‘one’ may be expected in the archaic, more formal text of Wollstonecraft, it is omitted. Instead, both texts are similar in their frequent use of the first person ‘I’.
As both texts aim to convey the authors’ views, this is hardly surprising, though the frequency in which is appears in Woolf’s text outstrips Wollstonecraft’s usage – again implying a change in the expected formality of their respective eras. Woolf’s use of non-standard grammar (in opening sentences with a conjunction – “But however small it was… “), dashes (“… a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. ), to give a sense of spontaneity, and parenthetical remarks all give A Room of One’s Own an almost conversational tone – unsurprising considering it being based on a series of lectures given by Woolf.
Again, this difference in language reflects the moving social trends – Wollstonecraft would have been unable to give lectures, or even allowed inside a university, and the language in Rights of Woman reflects this; Wollstonecraft makes no use of parenthesis or dashes, and so the text lacks Woolf’s spontaneity. A direct example of change in grammar is Wollstonecraft’s “an habit”. An’ is the older form of the indefinite article (whereas in Woolf’s text and the modern day both ‘a’ and ‘an’ would be used depending on pronunciation), originating from the German ‘ein’, reflecting the change in influence of other languages on English from the 18th Century.
In terms of semantics, an interesting similarity is the shared usage of a smenatic field of nature – noth works frequently use terms such as “animal spirits” “blossoms of hope” and “ripened” in Vindication, and Woolf’s frequent references and analogies, such as comparing of a thought to “the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back in the water… and describing the bushes and the bank of the river around her in vivid detail. However, their use differs; Wollstonecraft keeps the references short and aims to compliment the emotional appeals used in a persuasive text, whereas Woolf is highly literary and employs rhetoric in her descriptions, rich in modifiers, personification and latinate language; “To the right and left bushes of some sort, goldren and crimson, glowed with the colour, even it seemed burnt with heat, of fire. On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders. ”
Woolf’s inclusion of the semantic field in her rhetoric again suggests a more relaxed attitude towards language in the 20th Century compared to the 18th – considering the ‘groundbreaking’ natural philosophy and metaphysical aspects of Wollstonecraft’s comtemporaries’ poetry (the Romantics, such as Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley), it is hardly surprising there is a lack of richly decorated language and personification in Rights of Woman; as a persuasive text, it would not have been taken seriously. Lexically, further differences show a change in language.
Wollstonecraft frequently makes use of emotional lexis, such as; “… he physical and moral evils that torment mankind, as well as of the vices and follies that degrade and destroy women… ” This suggests that what influences language has also changed. Wollstonecraft’s references to ‘evil’ and ‘vices and follies’ suggest a spiritual influence on language, not unsurprising considering the importance of the Bible in the 18th and 19th centuries. The decline of this influence can be seen in Woolf’s text, where no mention of moral or spiritual matters are made, instead suggesting it is “the ideas, the prejudices” of people that are responsible for the hindrences facing women writing fiction.
Other differences come in the graphology of the texts, Rights of Woman notably being printed with the ‘long s’ (? ). The short form came into usage around 1800, and so was the norm by the time A Room of One’s Own was published, and is representative of the attitudes towards ease of reading, confusion with the letter ‘f” was common, and again shows English moving away from its Germanic roots, favouring the Antinqua Script as Germany continued with Blackletter styles (still evident today in the German Eszett – i? ).
Ultimately, it is the context of the two texts that determines the differences and language change. As society’s attitudes towards both language and feminism relaxed, so did the language, and this is reflected in the change of tenor between the two texts. Further contextual factors include education and women’s rights – Woolf, though not sent to school, received a literary education from her wealthy parents, and this high level of literacy and relaxed attitudes towards feminism shows in the rich language of A Room of One’s Own.
While Wollstonecraft was writing it was still considered unthinkable for a woman to act outside the norm (after Wollstonecraft’s death, her husband’s recounts of her love affairs caused such a scandal her posthumous reputation was left in tatters), and as such Rights of Women is consistently written in a formal tenor, avoiding language that would be considered innapropiate (such as Woolf’s description of a Beadle as a “curious-looking object”), instead choosing to keep well within society’s norms.