Shakespeare’s talented sister

Every year, on April 23rd, William Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated by lovers of English literature all across the Anglophone world. Born in Elizabethan England, the ‘Bard of Avon’ remains the world’s most famous dramatist, and is considered to be the greatest poet ever in the English language – facts that we all know. But how many of us know about his talented sister, Judith? Today, on the Bard’s 452nd birth anniversary, I would like to remember her.


As a child, Judith was very much like her brother – curious and alive – but had a very different life trajectory. She was not allowed to go to school, learn grammar and logic, or read Horace and Virgil, as Shakespeare did. Whenever she tried to read, her parents would immediately engage her in some domestic work; and whatever she wrote, she was careful to destroy. This is not to say that her parents did not love her. She was in fact the apple of her father’s eye – which is why he thought it fit to betroth her before she was out of her teens, and beat her up and pleaded with her, by turns,when she refused to marry. One summer’s night, she escaped from the life she did not want to lead, and set out for London. She had a taste for the theatre, like her brother; and like him, had a great thirst to know the world and the lives of men and women, and a great gift for teasing out the music of words.Like him, again, she wanted to start out by acting. But no one took her seriously: a playhouse manager joked that a woman acting was like a dog dancing, and shooed her away. There was however one gentleman who took pity on her… she found herself with child soon after… and then hanged herself on a winter’s night, her talent dying with her, before ever getting a chance to blossom!

A Room of One’s Own

Are you wondering why you never heard this story? Well, because she didn’t exist! But even if she had, she could never have become a Shakespeare – that is for sure – because society would have seen to it that all avenues of education and employment were closed for her. Almost three centuries later, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) thought her up and gave an imaginary account of her life to make precisely this point in A Room of One’s Own. Written in 1929, this long essay established, with pointed logic and numerous examples across centuries, how material circumstances are always against the woman writer. Her solution to the problem was objective and practical: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, she declared.The essay went on to become one of the most celebrated feminist texts of the 20th century.

Virginia’s iconic profile


I find the section on Judith in A Room particularly poignant, as it resonates with Woolf’s own life:though she came 300 years after Judith, she and her sister, Vanessa, were not sent to school, but their two brothers, Toby and Adrian, were. And this while growing up in one of the foremost intellectual families of Victorian England, with an eminent critic and biographer for a father (Sir Leslie Stephen), a mother (Julia Stephen) from a distinguished background, and often having famous guests visiting the house. Virginia primarily taught herself at home, her self-education facilitated by her parents’ vast library; but later, she would also take special courses designed for women at University College London.Both the sisters had shown artistic promise when young, and grew up to be a famous writer and illustrator respectively; and also the throbbing centre of what later came to be known as the “Bloomsbury Group”.

Every celebrated writer is more well-known for certain aspects of her life and work than others. In Virginia’s case, it has overwhelmingly been (even more than her technical innovations as a modernist writer) her mental illness and eventual suicide(very sympathetically depicted in the film Hours, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, which is an interesting take on Mrs. Dalloway). I however find a narrative of resilience and hope in her otherwise depressing-sounding life.

Drowning scene of the film, Hours, starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Virginia was psychologically devastated at a young age by a series of deaths of those she was closest to – her mother, father, elder step-sister, and brother. She had also suffered sexual abuse by her half-brother: nervous breakdown under such circumstances is almost inevitable. What is remarkable, though, is the resilience of Virginia’s spirit, which fought the illness and found the strength to nurture a different life of the mind, aided by her special bond with Vanessa and the intellectual camaraderie of the Bloomsbury Group.While she enjoyed their company, she actually struggled for a long time with her writing as well, coming into her own only around the age of 40. After that, thankfully, she had almost 20 uninterrupted and successful years as a writer – a fulfilling period in her life that is usually not given much attention. But I find this fact – the 20 good years, after prolonged personal trauma and struggle – to be hugely hopeful and inspiring; and in some ways, they even cancel out, for me, the negation of her suicide.

Virginia had money and a room of her own; she also had an additional factor going for her as a writer – a supportive partner, which she found in Leonard Woolf. Leonard was the perfect companion, sharing as he did Virginia’s great passion for writing. Together, they started the Hogarth Press in 1917, which, besides Virginia’s own fiction, published the early works of T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield, among others. Leonard also literally lived out the marital vow – being by Virginia’s side in sickness and in health, providing the anchor that she needed to maintain her sanity and thrive as a writer. Her personal diaries, and especially her suicide note, bear eloquent testimony to this fact.

“I owe all the happiness of my life to you”. With husband Leonard Woolf

Writing unapologetically

Virginia’s life has many interesting parallels with most of the female British novelists that she wrote about in A Room –like Jane Austen (1775-1817), her closest lifelong bond was with her sister; like Mary Shelley (1797-1851), her parents’ library had given her her chief education; like Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855), she had lost dear ones in quick succession; and like George Eliot (1819-1880), she had a keen intellect that benefited enormously from being part of a wider literary circle.All of them led unusual lives, which had either steered clear of, or did not allow centrality to, the conventional domestic roles of wife and mother; but more than any of her predecessors, it was Virginia who lived the life of a writer most unapologetically, fearlessly and determinedly devoting herself to her vocation in the early decades of the 20th century.

Poor Judith Shakespeare! She should have been born a few centuries later.

  • Written byDr.Rituparna Roy

    She lives in Amsterdam and teaches at Leiden University College and the Leiden Institute of Area Studies.An alumna of Presidency College and Calcutta University, she formerly taught English Literature at Basantidevi College, Kolkata, and has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden. She is the author of two books, South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (2010); and a co-edited ICAS volume, Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (2013). Apart from her regular academic work, she writes fiction, an occasional column on India for the IIAS Newsletter, and blogs about Indian Cinema and her life in Netherlands www.royrituparna.com



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