Virginia 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.