I would like to tell you about a classic I have just read for the Feminist Orchestra Bookclub: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. It’s the first book I’ve read from Virginia Woolf, even if I had meant to read her books for a very long time. Although I’m not quite sure this is the best book to get into Woolf’s work – if it wasn’t for the bookclub, I would probably have started with one of her novels, maybe Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse – but it is a great book, which I’d recommend to anyone.
This essay is based upon two papers that Woolf wrote and read to the Arts Society at Newnham College and to the Odtaa (One Damn Thing After Another) Society at Girton College in October 1928. Both of these women’s colleges were part of Cambridge University and it seems that atleast one of them invited Woolf to give a lecture about “women and fiction”. Thus, in this essay Woolf explains what these words mean to her and how she decided to deal with this subject, how she studied to give her lecture and how she drew her conclusions. Woolf ends up drawing up a short and very interesting overview of the works of female writers throughout the centuries, from Shakespeare’s century to the early 20th century, analysing why these works took the form they took, what the conditions in which they’re produced were and how this affected the author and her work, which social class the female authors belonged to throughout the centuries… This is a very lively essay, which very naturally adopts a conversational style (as it was first a lecture, yes, it does make sense!) and in which Woolf brings us along the different stages of her thought process, creating entertaining little stories to stress out her points (if Shakespeare had had an equally gifted sister, what would have been her destiny as a writer?) and so on.
On the other hand, probably for the same reason, this essay is not extremely well-structured. Even if it follows an identifiable structure, each part of this essay does not focus uniquely on one point but comprises a lot of different observations and theories on various subjects (all related to women and fiction, though). Woolf gives away all her observations and conclusions – and there are a lot of them in this essay. I did not agree with all of her arguments/conclusions and would have liked maybe a bigger focus on her main theory, which gives the title to this essay: artistic creation can only arise under some material conditions (an income and a physical place of one’s own where the writer can write). Women having always been deprived from that (at least until the 19th century, when things get easier for female writers, as Woolf points out), they have not been allowed to become writers. I love this point. It might seem obvious nowadays but in 1928 it was probably the first time it was explicitly stated by a writer. This point is still totally relevant today and is not only relevant to feminism. The artistic area is still totally discriminatory against those who don’t have the resources, who come from an underprivileged background and so on. In order to become an artist, not only needs one to have money and a personal space where they can create in peace: they also need time and freedom to get into arts and creation. That is the main and greater argument of A Room Of One’s Own: creation of works of art depends upon socio-economic factors which have never been favourable to women. This explains why very few women have become writers in the past centuries and why, for the few lucky women who have managed to become writers, their works have never been as great as they could have been under better circumstances – this last point is of course totally subjective and debatable. I actually don’t really agree with Woolf on this one.
I loved Woolf’s style and the book is full of powerful and amazing quotes (below is a very tiny glimpse of the gems contained in A Room of one’s own). I like the fact Woolf’s style felt so personal and varied: some passages are deliciously sarcastic, others are more analytical and detached, some others poetic and just beautiful… However, despite an awesome style and some very interesting examples, arguments and opinions, I must say that I was a bit disappointed in some other arguments I found in Woolf’s essay. When Woolf writes that the Suffrage campaign is to blame for making her contemporary male writers so eager to self-assert their sex and its characteristics in their writing, I can only disagree. I also disliked some parts of her analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and of other novels written by these great female writers who paved the way in the beginning of the 19th century (Jane Austen, Emily Brontë and George Eliot). First, I do not think that having strong female characters who could be described as feminists make any novel “deformed and twisted” or prove that the author writes “in a rage”. Second, Woolf assumes that Jane Eyre is influenced by its author’s resentment towards her position in society and lack of freedom as a creator. Obviously this might have influenced her novel but it doesn’t mean that everything in the novel is to be related to the author’s life. And if so, why does it even matter as long as the novel remains a pleasant piece of fiction? Woolf seems to find “fear and hatred” in a lot of works from female writers of the 19th century, but I believe that she mistakes literary analysis and pseudo-psychoanalysis of the writer’s personalities and motives.
Apart from a few arguments which I totally disagreed with, I fully enjoyed this book and thought it contained some very modern, interesting and valuable opinions/theories. I’m really glad to have read this classic essay, and encourage you to do so too 😉
Here are a few quotes which I liked, just in case you’ve not been totally convinced to read this book.
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size
the five dots here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder, and bewilderment. Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
London was like a workshop. London was like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern. The British Museum was another department of the factory. 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.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Published by Penguin Books (2004) for this edition