Published by Harcourt on 1929
Genres: Classics, Non-Fiction
After spending five years deathly afraid of Virginia Woolf after being forced to read To the Lighthouse in high school, I gave the author another shot earlier this year. It turned out that I really loved Mrs. Dalloway, and I was eager to try more of Woolf’s writing. After talking to one of my favorite bloggers, the lovely Elena at Books and Reviews, who shares my interest in feminism, we decided to read and discuss A Room of One’s Own together.
A Room of One’s Own was originally written as lectures Woolf was asked to give on the topic of “women and fiction.” She spends a good portion of the book considering what that even means, describing her thought process as she considers how to write her speech. I actually found this part pretty dull; although I loved Woolf’s stream of conscious style in Mrs. Dalloway, I found it difficult to interest myself in her first-person account of walking around a university and going to a dinner party and sitting in a library. Elena found it slow to start, too, but I’m sure many other readers would enjoy this part.
Once Woolf gets into the swing of her arguments, the text becomes more interesting. She discusses how women are limited by their roles in society; how can they write great novels that encompass all kinds of experiences, when they are confined mostly to their homes? Men are able to go into business and to travel the world; their freedom allows them to gain the experiences necessary to write novels of depth. Men also have the advantage of independence and leisure time. Women, however, can’t dedicate themselves to writing because they can’t be independent, and they don’t have the time or a quiet place to themselves in which to write.
Genius cannot shine through without experience behind it. Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister who was equally gifted but never given the opportunity to use her talents. Whereas Sheakespeare had a wild childhood, married and bore a child young, set off for London and got a job in a theatre, became an actor, met tons of people, and became famous, his sister (Woolf names her Judith) would have remained in the house. Although she was just as imaginative and adventurous as her brother, Judith would not have been to school; she would have learned how to darn socks and make stew. She would have been married off regardless of her feelings. Even if she had run off to London with the same gifts as her brother, she would never have gotten into the theatre; if she had tried, the manager might have suggested a cruder profession, and she would have ended up pregnant by an actor manager and then dead by suicide. Woolf argues that women need the same freedoms as men to be able to create art on the same level as theirs.
“My belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.”
She argues that, under the circumstances women have historically been forced to write, their personal feelings, anger, and rage, have leaked into their work, marring the pure substance of the story. In order to serve only the story and not oneself, a woman must have the freedom to sit with an untroubled mind. She can’t sit down in a crowded sitting room, constantly interrupted, and have the story flow unimpeded from her pen. She must be able to sit down, financially secure and sure of peace and quiet, to be able to write her story clearly.
I found it difficult to get into this book. I think it may be partly because it didn’t feel very relevant to today; women have the freedom and independence to have a room of their own and 500 a year. Although Woolf’s arguments are interesting from a historical perspective, the struggle she sees doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue today. (I’m not deluded enough to think everything is honky-dory and equal, but the gap is much narrower.) The writing also felt a bit dry, and I think I just couldn’t get into the right frame of mind for feminist philosophy, for some reason. However, there were sections that I loved; the part about Shakespeare’s sister was fantastic and illustrated Woolf’s points really well. I think this is a great book for those interested in feminism and the historical evolution of woman’s relationship to writing.
It was nice to be able to talk to Elena during and after reading this book. She is super smart, and it’s always interesting to hear her perspective. She enjoyed this book a bit more than I did, and her A Room of One’s Own review is up on Books and Reviews! If you don’t already follow her, I highly recommend checking out her blog!