There has been so much already written about Virginia Woolf’s famous extended essay that I find myself rather overwhelmed at the task. A Room of One’s Own came about out of a series of lectures that Virginia Woolf delivered at two women’s colleges at Cambridge. Her subject was that of women and fiction, and the result is an endlessly quotable work of feminism, quite ahead of its time. I have included a lot of quotes here – and I won’t apologise for that, there are so many passages that made me hoot – or that I wanted to point out to someone and say ‘oh isn’t that just brilliant.’ I loved this little book; it has been a brilliant beginning to my further Woolf reading.
Woolf considers the inequalities between men and women in the world of literary creativity – leading her to famously claim:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
A simple enough premise – but when one stops to think of it, not as simple as all that in practice – especially not in the 1920’s. Virginia Woolf considers the many distractions and obstacles women wishing to write must overcome, and in considering them; shows how for men it was all so much easier.
A Room of One’s Own is an essay, albeit an extended one in six chapters, it has a fictional narrator – and is set in Oxbridge, a thinly disguised Cambridge. Our unnamed narrator tries to enter a library at a male college and is told that without a letter of introduction she won’t be admitted, this is a brilliant metaphorical example of the inequalities Woolf goes on to discuss.
“…here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction”
Our narrator studies her question of women and fiction by examining the women of the past, those women of earlier generations who did write. She examines the literary canon from which women have been barred, not unlike the colleges which Woolf herself was barred. Woolf contrasts the women’s colleges of ‘Oxbridge’ with those of the men’s, the men enjoying better stocked libraries, private rooms, feasting on succulent food, while the women, forced to share their quarters have sparser libraries, and much poorer, less interesting food. Woolf reminds us with biting sarcasm how recently it is that women were even allowed the vote, how that until 1880 no woman was even allowed to own property.
“There is truth in what you say—I will not deny it. But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919—which is a whole nine years ago she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good.”
Woolf shows us how men and women had different society experiences, how materially their worlds were different, and their expectations of money and supporting themselves, therefore were also unequal. Men had for generations been born into the belief that they were superior. Men she discovers have written extensively on the subject of women, a creature they fail to agree on.
“No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.”
Woolf leads us back through history, and considers how it was that Austen, Aphra Benn and others were able to do this thing that was so hard. In a brilliantly imagined section Woolf considers a fictional Shakespeare’s sister, Judith – and how it might have been had it been her born with the desire to write. Judith is denied an education and beset with a series of daily menial tasks which must be performed. Judith writes in secret, hiding her poetry, and escapes to London when her father insists she must marry a man of his choosing. Working in the London theatre, Judith is mocked by men, Judith’s fate thereafter is a necessarily sad one.
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”
I loved Virginia Woolf’s nod of great respect to those literary female pioneers: Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot, who she suggests only succeeded because they didn’t marry – whether this is true is probably something we could debate at length – instead I will leave it there. She criticises some of those early writers for their anger – particularly Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – I love the anger which comes from that novel however. So while I, as a fan of Jane Eyre may rather disagree with Woolf’s criticism of it – I can however respect it, it’s probably not a faultless novel. Woolf urges her listeners to go out and write without such anger – to write anything, science, history philosophy, fiction whatever – but write.