TL;DR: What Woolf meant by “man’s sentence” is that its style, typical of early 19th century writing by men, is “too loose, too heavy, too pompous” to properly represent women’s experience.
A Room of One’s Own
This passage from section 4 of A Room of One’s Own (1929) is only comprehensible in context, and in even so it is notoriously difficult. Here is the context:
But whatever effect discouragement and criticism had upon their [Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë’s] writing—and I believe that they had a very great effect—that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them (I was still considering those early nineteenth-century novelists) when they came to set their thoughts on paper—that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help. For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey—whoever it may be—never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use. The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully. The ape is too distant to be sedulous.* Perhaps the first thing she would find, setting pen to paper, was that there was no common sentence ready for her use. All the great novelists like Thackeray and Dickens and Balzac have written a natural prose, swift but not slovenly, expressive but not precious, taking their own tint without ceasing to be common property. They have based it on the sentence that was current at the time. The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: “The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.” That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.
To summarize this paragraph, the argument Woolf is making is that women’s literature expresses women’s experience and inheritance:
For we think back through our mothers if we are women.
and so it requires a different kind of sentence from men’s literature in order to express itself adequately:
The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully.
hence it is a mistake for women writers to try to model their own sentences after men’s sentences:
It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands.
So the quoted passage which I emphasized in bold is intended as an exemplar of men’s prose in the early 19th century, when Austen and Brontë were writing. It should be apparent that Woolf is using ‘sentence’ here as metonymy for ‘sentence structure’, ‘prose style’ and even ‘prose form’. The problem that women writers have to grapple with, according to Woolf, is not only one of finding their own subject matter, but of finding a style for expressing it.
On Application to Study
The “man’s sentence” comes from the essay ‘On Application to Study’ from The Plain Speaker (1826) by William Hazlitt. So when Woolf writes, “behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest,” she means that Hazlitt’s style (and the style of his contemporaries) was modelled on the style of these 18th century men.
In context, the “man’s sentence” is from a discussion of the extraordinary productivity of certain artists:
Take Raphael and Rubens alone. There are works of theirs in single collections enough to occupy a long and laborious life, and yet their works are spread through all the collections of Europe. […] The cartoons of Raphael alone might have employed many years, and made a life of illustrious labour, though they look as if they had been struck off at a blow, and are not a tenth part of what he produced in his short but bright career. […]
So the forms of nature, or the human form divine, stood before the great artists of old, nor required any other stimulus to lead the eye to survey, or the hand to embody them, than the pleasure derived from the inspiration of the subject, and “propulsive force” of the mimic creation. The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generation of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success. It is idle to suppose we can exhaust nature; and the more we employ our own faculties, the more we strengthen them and enrich our stores of observation and invention. The more we do, the more we can do.
Undoubtedly Woolf selected this passage for its subject as well as its prose style. Artistic productivity requires resources (not least a room of one’s own) that were only rarely available to women. Jane Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion at a tiny writing table in the corner of the front hall at Chawton Cottage, a situation of inadequate privacy, as Woolf points out:
Yet Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in.
The sedulous ape
* You may have wondered about the meaning of the gnomic sentence:
The ape is too distant to be sedulous.
This is an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits (1887):
Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann.
‘Sedulous’ means ‘diligent, assiduous, persistent’. So Woolf means that although Stevenson may have been able to acquire a prose style by aping his distinguished models, women writers are too distant (have concerns and experiences that are too different) from these models to profit by this approach.
A man’s sentence
So what, exactly, makes Woolf’s quote from Hazlitt a “man’s sentence”? Woolf did not provide any further elucidation in A Room of One’s Own and it seems that many readers and critics have had difficulty with it. For example, Elizabeth Dodd:
Readers have puzzled over her statement that there is a basic kind of “man’s sentence”
and Sandra Gilbert:
One of the most famous yet most opaque passages in A Room of One’s Own appears in Chapter 4, when Virginia Woolf introduces her notoriously puzzling concept of ‘a woman’s sentence’.
However, in her essay ‘Women and Fiction’ (1929) Woolf was more explicit:
To begin with, there is the technical difficulty—so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling—that the very form of the sentence does not fit her. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use. Yet in a novel, which covers so wide a stretch of ground, an ordinary and usual type of sentence has to be found to carry the reader on easily and naturally from one end of the book to the other. And this a woman must make for herself, altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it.
(My emphasis.) The quote from Hazlitt is certainly loose (consisting of airy generalizations rather than specifics), heavy (didactic, exhortatory) and pompous (self-assured and self-certain). And it is easy to see that these are attributes that make the style unsuitable for rendering experiences characterized by uncertainty or humility.
This seems very gender-essentialist to us now. Surely women have just as much right as men to write in a pompous style? But we’re not obliged to take Woolf’s essay as a prescription for men’s and women’s writing in all places at all times, as if she were as didactic and generalizing as Hazlitt.