I’ve been thinking about what one might call the Dickinson-Woolf path to creative education. Although both writers have been canonized as artists, their approach to self-education has essentially become obsolete—which is odd, because who among us would pass up the opportunity to become writers of their caliber? For a certain sort of mind, self-education is indeed an opportunity, though of course for both Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf it came with costs that a male self-educator such as Whitman was never required to pay. On the other hand, unlike Whitman, Dickinson and Woolf were born into families with enough money to support unpaid literary hopefuls. That doesn’t mean, however, that their educational opportunities paralleled their brothers’. Hermione Lee, Woolf’s biographer, noted the novelist’s “practical resentment of the irrational meanness which not only made [her father, Leslie Stephen,] a tyrant of the housekeeping books but prevented him from paying for her education as he paid for his sons. ‘He spent perhaps £100 on my education.’”
Lee carefully avoids heaping blame on Woolf’s father:
It was very unusual at this time for daughters as well as sons to go to school and university. Perhaps, too, Leslie did not think Cambridge a possibility for Virginia because of her illnesses and her nervousness. Arguably—as she sometimes argued herself—he gave her a better education from his study than she would have had at school or college. And certainly she would not have been the writer she was, with the subjects she chose, if she had had a formal education. But, with all these provisos, the fact remains that she was uneducated because he did not want to spend the money on her. She would come to resent bitterly the condition of her mind in her late teens, which, like Rachel’s in [her novel] The Voyage Out, was “in the state of an intelligent man’s in the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth: she would believe practically anything she was told, invent reasons for anything she said.”
Unlike Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson did go to school, first to Amherst Academy and then to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Nonetheless, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she wrote, “You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education.” Your manner of the phrase implies Dickinson’s distinct awareness of the chasm between a polite female education and the rigorous schooling of her brother Austin, who graduated from both Amherst College and Harvard Law School. Yet her dry remark is not quite humble.