In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister: a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different.This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. But if only she had found the means to create, urges Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this classic essay, Virginia Woolf takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give a voice to those who have none. Her message is simple: A woman must have a fixed income and a room of her own in order to have the freedom to create. Annotated and with an introduction by Susan Gubar
Woolf argues that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write, and she introduces many examples to support her point. She rambles on about the roles women have traditionally occupied throughout history, citing instances from academia, business, and home life. It's fascinating stuff, all of it, and it made me so angry I could've hurtled the book against the wall. I think we tend to forget, here in the first decade of the 21st century, that the world was once closed to women. We were considered inferior - morally, socially, physically. And we're still struggling with that, I'm not saying we aren't, but things are a hell of a lot better for us than they were for Woolf and her contemporaries. She never says it in so many words, but you can tell that the state of the world pisses her off. I concur.
Whether or not you agree with it, A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN is a thought-provoking read. I found myself pausing at frequent intervals so I could consider what Woolf had just said. How did her observations relate to my own life? Did I agree with her? If not, how would I refute her point? How did my social status differ from hers? How much of that tied into the time period; how much tied into class? I read slowly, milking each idea for all it was worth. There were a couple of times, too, where I needed to reread whole pages because I hadn't a bloody clue what her point was. (She's a stream of consciousness kind of a girl. I like it, but I can't always digest it easily). It was a time-consuming process, but I can't regret a moment of it. This is a wonderful, wonderful book, and you ought to rush out and get yourself a copy.
But as fascinating as the book is, it's not perfect. I learned a lot, and I feel like Woolf gave me an excellent framework within which to explore some of my own ideas about women and writing, but I found that she held certain class- and gender-based biases that kept me from committing to her argument on a literal level.
First and foremost, she's a raging classist. I found certain of her remarks downright insulting. The way she tells it, only middle- and upper-class persons have any business even trying to write, because only middle- and upper-class persons have true financial freedom and/or the time to write in long, uninterrupted blocks. Apparently one cannot write if one has not experience Real Life, which includes lots of fancy luncheons and international travel. Everyday Life doesn't count.
I must say, too, that I found her entire conception of gender a little iffy. Near the end, she claims that no woman could possibly appreciate the work of any staunchly male author, like Kipling or Galsworthy. Male writers should all be androgynous in their thought processes so that anyone, male or female, can understand them. That rule doesn't seem to apply to female writers, though. All women ought to write like women. They should shuck off masculine turns of phrase so's to make their writing accessible to women, first and foremost.
And there were a dozen other niggly little things that made me wrinkle my nose. So I can't get completely behind Woolf, but I can understand where she's coming from and what she's trying to do. The past is a different country, my friends, and Woolf is a product of her time. She's reacting against the dominant paradigm by treating it as inferior to the new paradigm she'd like to put in its place. It's a classic reaction, and it does tend to get results. I don't really agree with it, myself, but I can see why someone in Woolf's situation would resort to it. Everything looks different when you've been pushed to the brink.
And really, I'm not sure I'd have gotten as much out of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN if I were 100% behind everything she said. I had a blast figuring out just where my opinion differed from hers, and I'm looking forward to rereading it somewhere down the line. I wonder how my opinons will change now that I've spent so much time thinking about the text and considering my own reaction to the material? I'd highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in women's history, fiction, and the ways the two intersect.
(A much longer, more involved version of this review originally appeared on my blog, Stella Matutina).
What I liked about Woolf’s approach is that she took the broad view in examining ‘women and fiction’, the topic she had been asked to speak about. She starts by putting a men’s and women’s college side by side, both in terms of the ridiculous restrictions against women in the former (not being allowed on the grass, and not being allowed in the library), and in the poorness of the food in the latter. More importantly, she identifies the fact that women did not have the right to own money for centuries (until about 1880) as having been one of the key reasons they had been in a subservient position, and not free to pursue education or literature in nearly the same way as men. It’s one of the main themes in the book: Woolf essentially says women need 500 pounds a year and a room of their own with a lock on it to enable them to truly succeed in literature. Economic freedom is necessary for intellectual freedom.
There are all sorts of contemptible comments from men about women that Woolf refers to in the book, (e.g. Oscar Browning: “the best woman is intellectually the inferior of the worst man”), but she takes the high road, and rather than make personal attacks herself, simply picks these views apart intelligently. In pondering why men seem to feel a need to put women down, she identifies men’s insecurities and their need to feel superior as the probable reason. I found this conclusion dead-on:
“Life for both sexes – and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusions as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority – it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney – for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination – over other people.”
In a history where girls were not sent to school and were forced to marry who their parents dictated, wife-beating was a recognized right of men, and a woman’s life experiences were often confined to the sitting room, even in authors that succeeded (such as the Brontes, Jane Austen, and George Eliot), Woolf points out that were naturally less able to create richer books than men who had been free to get out into the world (such as Tolstoy). Remaining ‘pure’ as an author, and not becoming defensive or non-authentic given all this baggage, was also difficult, and to Woolf this was very important.
Woolf is a lot to handle – she’s likely smarter than the reader (certainly smarter than me), and it’s sometimes difficult to follow her train of thought, as if she’s operating on another plane. She has no qualms about criticizing authors like George Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson for their writing, and may come across as a snob or a purist. She’s erudite and well-versed in the classics, and yet radical in her politics. She openly embraces non-traditional sexuality, and points out that there is a male and a female inside all of us, and how nice it would be if things weren’t so binary sexually (a prelude to Orlando).
All of these things make her extraordinarily interesting to me, aside from the arguments she presents. And I should say that this is not a defeatist book, one that makes a bunch of excuses, or comes across as ‘man-hating’ in any way – it’s just a critical examination of the facts, and Woolf is actually optimistic about the future. Whether we’ve lived up to that optimism and made the progress we should have made I’ll leave to the reader.
On entering the British Museum; I liked the thought:
“The swing-doors swung open; and there one stood under the vast dome, as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names.”
On being true to oneself:
“I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.”
“…the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives. Walk through the Admiralty Arch (I had reached that monument), or any other avenue given up to trophies and cannon, and reflect upon the kind of glory celebrated there. Or watch in the spring sunshine the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.”
“…to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact.”
And this one, on being honest as a writer:
“What one means by integrity, in the case of a novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens. One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads – for Nature seems, very oddly, to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge of the novelist’s integrity or dis-integrity.”
Lastly, this one, which I found pretty:
“The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been.”
Within its 125 pages Woolf explored her opinions on the impediments to women who want to write coming up with her famous conclusion that women need a room of their own and a less famous parallel conclusion that she also needs an income of 500 pounds per year.
If one has the patience to wade through Woolf's dense prose you'll find this book one of the early modern feminist tracts. You ill also have some surprises. For example, she talks about how she receive the news of a legacy from an old aunt (the proverbial 500 pound/year) on the same day that women in England were granted the right to vote. An she says, Of the two - the vote sand the money - the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important. Personally, I was very pleased to see this practical side of her personality.
I would put this volume in the "it's good for you" category. Some things you just have to read because they're there
- the importance of female education, income, and independence
- the absence of both women's history and the feminine perspective on history
- the evolution of women's writing
While I'd like to think these themes are now familiar and accepted, I can certainly understand the ground-breaking nature of this work. In 1929, British women had only had the right to vote for 10 years. Female authors were making their voices heard in new and often unwelcome ways: another example from that time period is Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a work of lesbian fiction banned after an obscenity trial.
So what does A Room of One's Own offer the contemporary reader? For young women of education and privilege, it is a means to connect with and understand their foremothers' journeys. And Woolf's ideas on education and independence are still important for those advancing the cause of women around the world. Experiencing this book as a reader, not a scholar, I found myself simply enjoying Woolf's writing talents. I flagged more interesting passages in this book than anything else in recent memory. I'll close my review of this memorable book with just a few examples.
Comparing women in fiction and in real life, during the time of Elizabeth:
A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarecely spell, and was the property of her husband. (p. 43)
Considering women in fiction a bit later:
It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman's life is that ... (p. 81)
And finally, humorously challenging the prevailing view of women:
I thought of that old gentleman, ... who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare. (p. 46)
Read and enjoy.
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face. When one has no money, one hardly has the time or energy to pursue their passions. Instead they must work each day to feed their families and survive.
“…how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”
It’s easy to take these things for granted in the 21st century. Women may not have perfect equality in the work field, but we can work and we have rights that others were denied for centuries. Many of the female authors who stand out in previous centuries usually had to choose writing over children and sometimes over marriage (like Jane Austen, the Brontes, only one of whom married, etc.) Nowadays we can choose whether we want to marry or have children or a career or travel or all of the above. Because of this, we have so many more female writers than past centuries have held.
My favorite thing from the book was her comment about how each novel is built on all the work that preceded it. I think she’s right and that it holds true for both men and women in literature. Societies can’t help but incorporate the strides made by others into the development of current work.
“Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue.”
I really loved the book. It made me think and made me appreciate all that women have had to go through to get us to this point. It also made me want to do all that I can to take advantage of that freedom and perpetuate it for women around the world.
“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!”
“By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourself of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip into the stream."
Something I want to highlight- "Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind," p. 75-76. Instead of making her feel inferior, instead of spending all of your energies pushing her down why not, dear son, spend the time and energy lifting her up? Then you can work together, then your work will be so much better.
In fact I think this might be good for a men's group. I was at a party once with some of our couple friends. We played that game, "Battle of the sexes" (I find it trite and stupid). They were so impressed with me that I knew what the reference "A room of one's own" referred to. It made me sad, this book should be common knowledge. To BOTH men and women.
Come on, people, let's stop being stupid.
The essay imagines a number of situations in which Woolf or another talented woman is stifled by the customs of the times -- whether it is her experience of being restricted from a university library or her imagined "Shakespeare's sister," whose work goes unwritten because of her sex. Through these imagined situations, Woolf argues for two major points: that the female mind (and female fiction, specifically) is fundamentally different than that of the male; and that for women to write good fiction, they need the eponymous room of their own and a 500-pound-a-year stipend. While the latter point is more famous (and also more dated), the timeliness and accuracy of her assessment of female fiction remains powerful and convincing.
Despite such clarity of purpose, the essay's form is more meandering than strictly argumentative, taking off from anecdotes rather than points of strict discussion. Not unlike Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, Woolf writes in a way that is willing to sacrifice directness in exchange for extreme detail and examination. Her stories are intoxicating and easy to lose oneself in, though she is adept at pulling away and getting to the point when necessary.
It is this quality that is perhaps the most appealing thing about reading A Room of One's Own. Unlike her more experimental fiction, the novel is easy to read and to follow, while also containing passages of eloquent prose. The text also lends itself to a number of critical apparatuses, though the feminist angle is the most obvious. For this reason, it is both a useful academic text as well as a very readable selection for pleasure or casual enjoyment.
While the threat of reading nonfiction can be a turn-off for many -- and the name Virginia Woolf can be an equally strong turn-off! -- A Room of One's Own is a significant and substantive work that is worth attention even after nearly a hundred years has passed.
It's surprising to see how little and how much progress the gender equality movement has made. In some respects, Woolf's observations are out of date (gender-segregated colleges, suffragettes, the lawn incident, (near-)contemporary literary references); but what is really remarkable is that most of the issues she raises here are still relevant and not at all outdated: her observations about the male gaze, excessive expressions of masculine superiority, as well as the more general treatment of women in fiction as attachments to a male character could almost have been lifted verbatim from present-day articles. It's bewildering, really.
Woolf's stream-of-consciousness approach to these matters makes it sound as if she herself was the first person to write/talk about them -- they feel like discoveries, freshly exposed. This lends the text a pleasantly direct feel: a clever, skilled writer thinking out loud about what she thinks is important and who allows you to be privy to her ruminations.
When I picked up Woolf’s essay, I thought I’d be in for a feminist rant. After all, it has been hailed as one of those amazing, post-suffrage bits on how women relate to the world and to men. If it had been, I would have been satisfied but it was so much more.
She begins with Cleopatra and moves to the eternally modern woman. Her thesis is that women have the capacity and potential to have potential, that they are not genetically stunted but are limited in lack of education, means, and plain old space, in a way that stunts true creativity that men have been allowed.
She does not exactly rave on about how men are either superior or inferior, simply that women have been banished from conversations, resources and institutions where learning is gained by the male mind. One of the best lines in the work, in the regard to the above observation, comes from a discussion of limited access to public and private works based on gender.
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. p.76
In this, there is not a hatred but a defiance and a plan of action to settle a score.
As the piece moves toward a steadier, more hopeful light, she discusses the art form of writing as it has emerged from society through men and then women, creating different paths through the sexes and through time periods. The novel, Woolf proposes, was an original and natural platform for artists like Austen and the Brontes to explore the publishing world as it allowed printed expression through the emotional intelligence taught in parlors, not parliament.
Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs of their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of an epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands – another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels. p.77
As far as the work holds up to 2010, it shows the same as it showed nearly a century ago: We have come far but we have a long way to go. Women are only getting started and are, thus, both more stringently and less harshly judged.
There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper. Few women, even now have been graded at the universities; the great trials of professions, army and navy, trade, politics and diplomacy have hardly tested them. They remain even at this moment almost unclassified. p. 85
In the end, she concludes that women should not strive to be like men as their highest goal but should not seek to hold their accomplishments higher. It is simply, an androgynous goal of egalitarian intellect that she is striving for.
It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if the two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? p. 88
So, truly, this is not a man-bashing, vote collecting, sapphically saturated sack of silliness. It is, without a doubt, a peaceful, academic call to analysis and research on the subject of the ways in which men and women relate to each other, rather than holding one above and the other below.
I read this when I was 20 or so, and it seemed a historical document, something I was indebted to, as if she were speaking only to women who'd written before me, before the third wave of feminism, so confident was I that things had changed.
I've been writing for 20 years now. After two decades of sacrifice and focus, writing "deformed and twisted" books while watching only certain women's voices and stories being rewarded with a broad readership, Woolf's argument is entirely necessary, "...to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while."
I am not a big fan of Virginia Woolf. I had to suffer through studying Jacob's Room during my undergrad and abhorred it. The only thing that saved me from completely writing off Virginia Woolf was my knowledge that she highly respected Jane Austen, and I just can't hate anyone who appreciates my favourite author. After reading this essay, I may succumb to all of those suggestions to give Woolf another try.
Her prose and her arguments are seductive. In just a little over 100 pages, Woolf discusses the immensity of the topic of Women and Fiction and reaches her very famous conclusion that in order for a woman to be able to write, she must have £500 a year and a room of her own. In the process of reaching this conclusion she explores the position women have held in society, their role in poetry and fiction, and the writing of women. What I found most appealing in Woolf's argument was that writing should not be done solely from a single gender perspective but rather that writer's should strive to be "man-womanly" or "woman-manly." Woolf's essay is definitely feminist but not one of the man-hating variety. Instead, in her conclusion, she exhorts her audience of women to simply take advantage of the opportunities now available to them that women in the past have not had. They have the chance to possess the £500 a year and a room of one's own and should exercise that privilege to share their unique genius with others.
Maybe it's just that the rant about writing has aged badly. One can only blabber so much about women writers and men writers before the modern reader starts asking for information about people writers. Still, I can't help but think that, for a bisexual bipolar intellectual woman, Woolf was a bit of a literary fundamentalist. Women must write as women, not as men - but they mustn't try too hard or the writing will become whiny and tainted (apparently literary genius and self-expression are mutually incompatible - yes, she says this explicitly). Except the best writing minds are androgynous, so they should avoid becoming dissociated from their inner man. I'm sorry, what?
Anyway, let's say that the lit-crit part has aged badly. Why, then, does the feminist discourse in this ring so modern and real? It's just as old as the rest of the book, yet it's not even remotely as outdated. The more I think about this, the more frightening it seems to me.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, or "extended essay," I suppose it technically is. Writing in 1928, Woolf proposes that a woman must have a room of her own and "five hundred a month," or rather, the ability to properly contemplate and the authority to think for herself, in order to create. More specifically in order to write. Her observations were thought-provoking and sometimes troubling relatable to the state of literature today. A couple of passages in particular startled me with their modern relevance:
"Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial'. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists."
^^That is so precisely the (Jennifer Weiner) argument being had today over the merits of so-called "chick-lit."
"Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it. Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby...If Mrs Seton (the mother), I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you (the child) have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and all the rest of it?"
^^Again, that is so the modern working mother struggle, in a nutshell. Parentheses in that passage are mine.
There were flaws, of course. I don't know how much Woolf's advice could help very poor or non-Western women. Some bits were convoluted/a bit boring. She dissed my girl Charlotte Brontë a bit (in the nicest way possible, and she was probably right).
But meh. She's still a genius.