A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf has been on my mind for a long time now and for 11 months on my TBR pile (thanks to Mr B&R). The work – first speech and then essay – is a landmark in feminist theory and it has been showing up in every task on my Master’s Degree since it began last November. So, Leah from Books Speak Volumes and I decided to do a read-along in October. You can check her review here.
A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929, the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled “Women and Fiction”, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction. The essay is generally seen as a feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy.
One of the first things I should confess is that I have only read two of Virginia Woolf’s works: Mrs. Dalloway which I loved and To The Lighthouse which I did not love at all. So, facing another of her works I wondered and was quite worried about the outcome. But, as you can imagine, A Room of One’s Own falls on the love category. The essay is divided into six chapters each dealing with a different topic but connected with the previous and the next one so that it is very easy to follow Woolf’s reasoning.
Chapter I and II cover the most well-known theme of the book: a woman needs a room of her own in order to develop her own self. But, there is another great argument hidden there: a room of one’s own is only a possibility if you can afford it, so both money and space come as essential feminist needs. However, these chapters also posted a dubious argument: a woman needs to forget she is a woman and just write, without anger. I find this idea a little bit problematic, but all throughout the book, I found myself negotiating Woolf’s appeal to androgyny. On the contrary, I found Woolf’s views on education very modern and sadly, still very present nowadays: if women are treated like the protected sex and sheltered from ownership and education to correctly handle their belongings, then it is impossible for them to have freedom.
Chapter III includes the well-known reference to Shakespeare’s sister, Judith and how it would have been impossible for her, regardless of her talent, to write. She would have been busy with domestic tasks, lots of children and no free time to devote to her art. And related to this domestic creation of women as primarily domestic subjects, Woolf points out the importance of chastity and how it is a very powerful and repressive tool:” Chastity dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century.” (p.46)* Along with the dominant discourse that creates women as inferior being, it is almost impossible for a woman to be creative since she also lacks role models to follow and inspire her.
Chapter IV explores the historical relationship between women and fiction since the speech she was asked to write was about such a relationship. Aphra Behn – the first woman to live by the pen in England and author of Oroonoko – opens this list of examples in which there is a central argument: if money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for, it is necessary for women to be paid for writing so that their works are dignified and recognised. Woolf’s next example is Charlotte Brontë, but she is not – she says – an example to follow: her anger percolated to her characters and such a thing should never happen. On the contrary, Jane Austen’s works do not show such an anger and, therefore, are better representatives of how a woman’s work should be. Of all of these women, one must highlight their social circumstances in contrast with men’s: “they lived secluded, unknown, not knowing for how much sell the copyright of their novels” while Tolstoy himself was travelling around Europe. And the conclusion: “Yet it is masculine values that prevail” (p.67) because only the masculine is considered important. But, why do women writers wrote mainly novels? Probably, because the other genres were already colonised by men, yet novels were quite a new genre that was available for women.
Chapter V already offers some conclusions. Women have other interests than domesticity and education should bring out and celebrate the differences rather than the similarities, quite a turn from the androgyny idea from Chapter I. However, Wool insists on the need to inscribe women’s works as culturally relevant so that we create a tradition of women’s writing and writers. It is also important not to take those women and her works for granted and as a consequence, we can write as women forgetting out suppressed condition and not follow Charlotte Brontë’s example. I was quite taken aback by this since I am a huge fan of Charlotte Brontë and find her works much more empowering than Austen’s. I am not sure one can forget she is a woman while writing.
Chapter VI is the closing one. I thought some of the conclusions just did not follow what I had been previously reading. Woolf insists again on the importance of androgyny and how being conscious of our sex is tiring when the natural thing for both sexes is to cooperate with each other. Also – and I hope I got this wrong – she blames suffragists for making society self-conscious and, as a consequence, men look to assert themselves and their privileges. This made me angry. ANGRY with capital letters. Surely, suffragists are to be thanked for a lot and I could not understand how Woolf thought such a thing about them. But, she redeemed herself with one of the closing sentences:
It is much more important to be oneself than anything else. (p.100)
So, if that is it. I am totally fine with Woolf and her ideas because she proved she was herself (and a subject) and that was the only thing that mattered. Virginia Woolf was not allowed an education, but she managed to make the most of what she had and that is what makes a role model for me.
As a whole, A Room of One’s Own is the feminist landmark I was told and I am very happy I read it. Woolf organised and wrote down some ideas that were on my mind but that I had failed to articulate. I also loved exploring how a feminist thought a hundred years back and was both sad and surprised that we care about the very same things. Woolf was an optimist thinking that a hundred years after she wrote the speech, things would be different for women. Certainly, some things are different, but some others are not and Woolf reminds us to keep fighting for, if some those changes have already come, then more is to come if we fight for them.
* I used the Penguin Modern Classics’ edition that also includes Three Guineas. ISBN 9780141184609