Blog Archives

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.

Footnotes

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.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her unfulfilled dreams

mrsdallowayChances lost; dreams unfulfilled; expectations diminished: virtually all the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway seemed to me to be failures in many ways.

It’s evident in even the minor characters. Rebellious natures like those of Sally Seton have been suppressed by  marriage to a bald manufacturer with £10,000 a year and “myriad of servants, miles of conservatories”. Intellect has turned into a form of religious fanaticism and resentment for all the things that Doris Kilman, a tutor employed by the Dalloway family, could not have or could not be. And Hugh Whitbread, a friend of the Dalloways has opted for a life of little consequence as a minor court official, merely touching the surface of life and attracting sniggers from acquaintances.

He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once. The malicious asserted that he now kept guard at Buckingham Palace, over what nobody knew. But he did it extremely efficiency… And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood this credit…

Of course Woolf reserves her deepest analysis of a life unfulfilled for the woman whose search for her true self lies at the heart of the novel, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway. This is the portrait of a woman uncertain  about her life and her identity. Walking in London early in the novel, she experiences a feeling that her life is defined by her marital status; that she herself has disappeared.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen, unknown; …. this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs.Richard Dalloway.

The outside world sees her very differently. To them she is a successful hostess and wife of an important man. Chic and financially secure she moves in a world of fine fashion, parties and high society. But it’s a world Clarissa herself has come to realise is frivolous and her life superficial and passionless. Years previously she’d been offered a different life with Peter Walsh, one with lower social status and comfort levels but full of emotion and excitement. She turned down his offer of marriage, settling for the safer option of life with Richard Dalloway, a man who seemed destined for high political office. Richard never fulfilled that early promise however. Though a good man, capable of thoughtfulness and good deeds, he never did become a Cabinet member or Minister of State.

On the day in 1923 on which Mrs Dalloway takes place,  Clarissa discovers that Peter Walsh has returned from India after many years. Throughout the day as she prepares for the party she will give that evening, she thinks about the past, about what might have been and whether life is now all over for her. Woolf apparently intended Mrs Dalloway to end with Clarissa’s death, potentially at her own hand. In the event it’s another death that Clarissa hears about during the party. Although she has no knowledge of the dead man, nor even his name she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. By the end of the novel she has come, if only for a fleeting moment, to accept the past is past and to prepare for the next stage of her life.

There is no such moment of peace for her former adorer. Peter has his own reasons to regret the passing years. All his ambitions for a glittering literary career came to nothing. Neither has he found happiness in love. Having married simply to fill the void left by Clarissa’s rejection of his proposal he is now a widower planning to marry the woman half his age with whom he’s been having an affair. He doesn’t recognise his own failings but is quick to see them in others, including the Dalloways whose English bourgeois lifestyle he detests.While Clarissa comes to terms with her own mortality, Peter becomes frantic at the thought of death, following a young woman through the London streets to smother his thoughts of death with a fantasy of life and adventure.

I know I’m making it sound as if Mrs Dalloway is a linear narrative but of course that’s far from being the case. It’s a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it’s a collection of scenes which reveal information about the characters, how they relate to each other and how they think and feel. It jumps without warning from one character to another, and from outside to inside the character’s head. At times the narrative seems to use a cinematic technique, pinpointing a character the midst of a crowd, tracking them as they progressed along a street and then zooming in on them for a close up. This is how she introduces us to Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome whose death will so affect Clarissa. We spot him outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys her flowers for the party, watch him and his wife begin to walk arm and arm to St James Park and then to settled on a park bench watching the trail of a plane through the sky. And at that moment Woolf delivers an example of what she once described as “moments of being” a time where just for a moment the individual isn’t only aware of himself but gets a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. For Septimus the moment begins with the leaves in the trees.

…leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; … All taken together meant the birth of a new religion…

Woolf isn’t someone whose writing can be skimmed or read at speed. It requires full concentration and an alertness to the fact that even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas, multiple voices, multiple tones. Complex indeed but so rich and incredibly rewarding even if you only feel you’re understanding a tenth of it.

This or that tag

Ayunda @ Tea and Paperbacks tagged me for the new idea she dreamed up. Not sure I can do the questions justice but here goes.

One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?

Most of my reading is done in bed. Ever since I was a child I’ve had to have some quiet reading time to myself before falling asleep. I have to be absolutely zonked not to read (I have been known to fall asleep with book in hand).

Two: Male main character or female main character?

I know sitting on the fence is not part of the rules but I absolutely have no preference either way on this point.

Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?

If I’m reading in bed then I’m not eating full stop. But when I read during the daytime – if I’m on holiday or on a flight somewhere, then my snack of choice has to involve chocolate. The more chocolate the better….

Four: Trilogies or quartets?

Since I can remember reading only one quartet and no trilogies then its going to have to be quartet. My one and only venture here is Paul Scott’s the Raj Quartet which I love. He then went on to write a fifth novel Staying On which set in the same hill station in India as the quartet and featuring some of the lesser known characters and is superb.

Five: First person point of view or third person point of view?

Sitting on the fence time again. The best novels for me are the ones where ostensibly its a first person narrator but then they refer to themselves as if they are a different person so you get the benefit of both first and third person narrative. Take a look at Jane Eyre if you want an example

Six: Reading at night or in the morning?

Mornings? What are they?

Seriously, I am either not awake enough in the mornings to do more than scan the newspaper and peruse a few emails OR I am running late for work so don’t have time.

Seven: Libraries or bookstores?

I’m biased here. I love public libraries so much I’ve been campaigning for the last year to save the one in my village from closure. From June it looks like I will be helping to run it as a volunteer service.

Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?

Oh cry for sure. Books which are meant to be funny often leave me frustrated because it seems the author is having all the fun rather than me. Or they are trying to hard.

Nine: Black book covers or white book covers?MadameBovaryJPG

I love the black covers of the Penguin Classics – not so much because of the colour but because they always feature an original work of art. Reading these editions makes the experience even more delightful.

 

 


Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?

Probably character driven. I do read the occasional crime novel which by its nature is focused on the plot but I tend to forget them easily whereas the character based stories I can recall more easily (especially if I enjoyed it). I’m reading one of the ultimate character-driven novels right now – Mrs Dalloway. Fascinating to see how she spins a whole novel out of one day in which not that much really happens.

Now its your turn

I don’t pass along tags but if these questions interest you, feel free to join in.

%d bloggers like this: