A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf [book review]

room of ones own-1Virginia Woolf’s essay  A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text of feminist literary criticism and, as such, is required reading for students of literature around the world. But I was a student at a time when feminist criticism was not even in its infancy so though we studied Woolf’s fiction, no lecturer ever thought to direct us to her seminal non-fiction output. My experience of this essay has been fragmented as a consequence; I’ve mostly encountered it as references in other works such as Elizabeth Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own.

Now I’ve read the essay in its entirety I could better appreciate the full impact of Woolf’s assessment of the difficulties and obstacles facing women writers and how they have risen above those challenges.

The first challenge Woolf identifies is one of attitude. Woolf dramatises this through her narrator’s experience of undertaking research at one of the Oxford colleges. First she is told in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to walk on their grass (is there a fear she might contaminate them?) and then that as a woman she has no right of entry to the college – such hallowed halls of education are reserved for male students only.  After a day at the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, she discovers that little has been documented about the everyday lives of women; what does exist has come from men who seemed to have been writing in anger.

What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. … I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; … what in short they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

The second issue is one of practicality. Reflecting on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives, she concludes that women were kept from writing because they had no money of their own. Significantly Woolf is writing at a time when the law had only recently been changed to allow married women to own any money they earned.   Without money of their own, and without any space of their own (out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble), their creativity is stifled she argues. And she points to the Romantic poets and those of the nineteenth century for evidence – all but three of them were university men and of those three it was only Keats who was not well to do. Poverty and poetry were impossible bed fellows.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from what the beginning of time . . Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

In Woolf’s view the lack of money and lack of privacy influence also what women wrote. Women turned to the novel form ( considered  a very poor second to the art of poetry) because it was easier to put down and pick up again without loss of imagination. If you had to do your writing in a public space like a drawing room rather than in the private male space of a study or library, then you would have to contend with frequent interruptions. And learn, as did Jane Austen, to hide her manuscripts and cover them with blotting paper when anyone approached her corner of the communal sitting room.

Woolf seemed to then suggest that the quality of what women writers produced was somehow inferior to that of male writers. Having highlighted people like Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters ( Woolf rated Emily as superior to Charlotte) she ponders how much better their work could have been if their experience of life had not confined to house and hearth. How enormously their genius would have benefited if only they could have travelled or gone to a war as did Tolstoy. In Woolf’s mind, War and Peace could not have materialised if Tolstoy had spent his life in domestic seclusion. Well clearly not – it would have been nigh on impossible to write so vividly of battles if he hadn’t witnessed them at first hand during the Crimea war.

There were a few points in Woolf’s argument I found myself challenging. One was the premise that these leading female writers seldom moved beyond the house yet Charlotte’s portrayal of the plight of Victorian governesses is all the more real because it came from her own experience. I doubt Tolstoy could have written so astutely about the position of a woman who was on close intimate terms with a family yet not regarded as one of them or as a servant. Nor does it allow for the role of the imagination – Wuthering Heights owes much of its power to the evocation of the wild moorland Emily Bronte knew well but the portrait of evil and malice in Heathcliff came from her imagination, not knowledge.

Then there is the idea that the challenging conditions under which such novels were created gave rise to a style of sentence alien to women’s nature..

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”

Instead of trying to ape male writers, Woolf encouraged her sisters to turn their exclusion from the opportunities afforded men to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

It’s a point which I found hard to grasp because Woolf never really gives any examples of what she means. Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

Im confident that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to understand Woolf’s essay and to fully do so I would need to spend many hours taking it apart point by point ( it gets convoluted many times as she wrestles with her own thoughts). But she ends strongly by positioning fiction by women as on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and exhortating ther audience of women to take up the baton bequeathed to them and to pass to their own daughters.


About the Book: A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College,  Cambridge the previous year. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Why I read this book: Partly from a sense of guilt that I claim to be keenly interested in literature yet have not read this essay. Hence why I added it to my #20boksofsummer reading project.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 20, 2017, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, Classics, Irish authors, Non fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Interesting – even though I bathed in feminist works (including a lot of historical ones) in undergrad, I still have never read this one! I’ll have to check it out.

  2. I so need to read this! I have it in English and French and want to read it in bilingual, to see how they did it. I just need more hours in my days…

  3. Like you, Karen, I was at university before feminist literary criticism and so I didn’t read this until some years later but it made a big impression on me, including the poorer food women students got. You can see where my interest lies.

    I think Lisa has a point re the issue still existing today. Men usually do command the study if a house has one. And I do know some women writers who wnk in cafes. I’m sure though some of them choose the cafe over home because they are often doing this midweek when their husband is out. Is there something else here going on too? If a woman is at home – in her own study or at a table (like a cafe) she is reminded of the jobs to be done?

  4. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading tyhis. I reread A Room of One’s recently too. There’s so much going on in it. I think one of the things I liked most is the sense that women writers (like men) need to be allowed to fail – not in a negative way – but will need to experiment. And I love the passage about Chloe liked Olivia. Thank you for encouraging me to think about the book again

  5. I found this to be such a powerful thought provoking read when I read it. It made me want to read more Woolf which I did last year.

  6. A very intersting review/critic. I read re-read this essay when my daughter was at university and studying Virginia Wollf.. I think it was more help to me than her.

  7. Terrific to revisit this essay through your review…
    It’s still relevant today. Here in Australia many people have the luxury of large houses, especially in the outer suburbs where four and five bedroom houses are the norm. So is a ‘den’ designated for the male of the household, but not a space for the female, not even one designated as a ‘sewing room’ or somesuch. And even in an era when women are out earning their own money, such homes are more likely to have a guest bedroom or two, than a room of her own.
    The point is, it is not necessarily a question of space being available, any more than it was in Woolf’s large house. It is a question of the expectations put upon women by others, and yes, by themselves. When a woman doesn’t exercise the same right to have a space which is her own, and where she may not be interrupted, then others interpret that as constant availability to serve their needs, whatever they may be…

    • today an aspiring female author can at least take themselves to the coffee shop to escape domesticity and find space, if not quiet, to write. But there were no bolt holes of any kind for their predecessors – if the woman wasnt at home she was visiting other women in their homes.

      Physical space constraints were indeed the natural result of an attitude and expectations. The wife or daughter’s place was at home and with the family, what need she of anywhere else to be other than where her family is

  8. It’s not so much a room of her own a woman needs, as the independence that enables her to leave it – travel, etc. But what’s so great about writing about war? Give me Jane Austen or the ‘peace’ sections of War & Peace.

    • there was a dismissive attitude towards Austen and her like for decades because she was considered only to write about lesser important topics of the family etc. I think it was Marilyn Butler who began to turn around that view with her book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas

      Fortunately there are multiple authors who’ve shown you can write an outstanding novel yet make no mention of war.

  9. There was another notable woman in France (one I’m currently reading) Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1873 -1954), otherwise known as Colette, she used her surname as a pen-name just as men often did and had to fight her ex husband in court to get his names removed from her earliest novels, The Claudine novels, which were initially published under the name Willy. She had none of Virginia Woolf’s sensibility and was not content with merely a room of one’s own, experiencing poverty after her divorce she was determined to become financially independent, and well off!

    As Judith Thurman writes in the introduction to The Complete Claudine<:I:

    “The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

    She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

  10. Kat makes a good point about privilege and I would have to revisit the essay to pull out the whole Shakespeare’s sister argument which I remember as being one of the strongest points. He, of course, was not upper class as far as we know so I wonder how a sister would have fared and if writing would even have been an option.

    • The section about Shakespeare’s (fictitious) sister Judith is clever. Woolf argues that she was exceptionally gifted but where her brother was sent to grammar school and was then able to make a living in London, his sister was told to mend the stockings or prepare food rather than waste time with a book.

  11. I love this review, especially your point about the importance of imagination – hear hear!

  12. I found it interesting when I read it and I agreed with the idea of lack of privacy. It was symbolic of a woman’s life. Basically, it was not really her own.

    That said, Great Britain was not so bad for female writers in the 19thC : they exist. A lot of them. Try to find women writers in France in that century. There’s George Sand, and that’s it.

  13. It has been years since I revisited A Room of One’s Own, and you certainly make me determined to reread it. I read it ago, long ago, in the age of Second Wave of Feminism, when such texts were highlighted in every bookstore. Woolf inspire me, but shewas privileged in my view, and so few did have the same opportunities and education as men. She did, however, study Greek, inspired by her brother, so she had more opportunities than most. You are absolutely right about Charlotte: Villette, one of my favorite books, is a masterpiece about a woman teacher. And though I read many books by men now, I am drawn to books about women’s experiences.

    • She does acknowledge early on in the essay that she is the fortunate beneficiary from a relative which gave her the £500 a year she considered necessary for a woman to write

  14. I, too, discovered this essay independently beyond my college and university years. It is a seminal work in speaking to the challenges facing women writers and women in general, I know, but like you there were parts I either didn’t understand, didn’t agree with, or couldn’t relate to… which is okay. I have to admit growing up as I did, the concept of a room of one’s own being a necessary ingredient to being a writer…well…it might have been better, I suppose, but I did find that I learned to write in chaos and distraction to the point where now, if it’s too quiet, I struggle to focus. To this day, I have to fight the push and pull of everything in order to carve out that space to write – how that affects the writing itself, what urgency it gives it or how it stifles it, I’m perhaps too close to judge for myself. She is, of course, talking about much more than physical space but that is part of it. And the universal truth is that it is a harder struggle for a female writer and artiste to claim and use her voice, even now. But there is a woman’s experience that this text speaks to which might not be universally reflective of women (women of colour, of other cultures, other nationalities, other material circumstances). It doesn’t have to, of course, this is a particular woman writing her particular point of view, whose voice is amplified all these decades later by her place in the literary canon and in helping to shape feminist thought. But there are certain luxuries she and the women writers she references had that are not reflective of my reality. I appreciate her and what she wrote here…but I have to admit that a book that was even more meaningful to me as a black-female-writer-becoming was Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. I enjoyed reading your insights on this; thanks for sharing.

    • I was thinking about your comment that the essay is about more than physical space and how Woolf’s requirement for that differed from your own experience. I wonder if Woolf was advocating the personal space not only because it prevented distractions but exposed the writer to fewer challenges that what they were up to ws not appropriate for a woman

    • Is that the essay in which she claims she learned to write by listening to the women in her family work in kitchens? I hope I’m thinking of the right woman; it’s been a while since I read the essay.

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