Mozart’s Sister and Shakespeare’s Sister

Virginia Woolf wrote her famous essay A Room of One’s Own in 1928/1929, reworking ideas from two lectures she had given to her students at Cambridge on the subject of women and literature. One of the most interesting aspects for me was the part about William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister-poetess.

woolf fry shakespeare
Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (c. 1917).

Woolf states that there is a very close link between any artistic creation and the artist’s everyday life. The creative process is fed by sentiment much more than any mathematical or logical process. A scientist can work and get results regardless of their state of mind, whereas a work of art clings like a spider’s web to what its creator does — what time they get up, what their preoccupations or problems are — and the way they feel while working on the piece.

Woolf uses this to explain why there are fewer women artists than men, and far fewer women writers. She takes as her example the poet and playwright William Shakespeare and an imaginary sister of his who she decides to call Judith. She analyses the family, social and cultural context that this sister, who was born with the same talent and the same creative desire as him, would have found herself living in.

In England, in the second half of the XVI century, women were not given any kind of education and very few women knew how to read or write. They were more or less the property of their husbands, and were not legally allowed to have, or to earn, money of their own. They spent their lives having children and often died during childbirth or of infections post-delivery. They would certainly not have been able to live a life of freedom in London like the one enjoyed by William Shakespeare when he abandoned Stratford and his wife — without earning himself the title of faithless husband or adulterer. And women were obviously not allowed to perform on stage. It would have been impossible for this sister to express herself. Woolf reckons that Judith’s levels of frustration would have been great enough to make her commit suicide.

As we know, when Woolf was alive, there was heated debate on the subject. There were people who believed that women were of inferior intelligence compared to men; people who openly declared that it would be impossible for a woman to create a work of genius like those of William Shakespeare. And some years ago, re-reading her wonderful, impassioned, and unmissable work, I had something of a revelation. Suddenly the figure of Nannerl flashed before my eyes: Shakespeare’s sister had never existed but Mozart’s sister had! I decided that I absolutely had to tell this story.