Posted on March 5, 2016
8. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf
About halfway through this book I had to put it down and look at the ceiling and think two things. One, how have I never read this before? And two, This may be one of the best things I’ve ever read. I found Woolf’s sometimes bizarre, often cutting feminist polemic totally amazing.
A Room of One’s Own grew out of a lecture that Woolf was asked to give at Newnham College and Girton College, Cambridge (the university’s first two colleges to admit women) in 1928. It follows to some extent her typical ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing, employing a fictional narrator to describe her thoughts about feminism, inequality and education whilst she lunches in various places, wanders around Cambridge and contemplates the books on her shelves.
The lecture she was asked to give was about ‘women and fiction’, but Woolf goes far beyond this in her extended essay. Most notably she addresses the misogyny which was prevalent at the time, from women not being allowed to walk on the grass or enter the libraries in the university, to the copious (and atrocious) books written about women by men. Ultimately she returns to her subject, though, and reveals why women were not able to create the greatest historical works of literature: because they were downtrodden, poor, refused education and forced to spend their lives bearing children and keeping house. She invents a hypothetical sister for Shakespeare, with the same talent and passion as her brother, but eventually driven mad by circumstance because the same options are not open to her as a woman in Elizabethan society.
One of the most powerful sections, for me, was the idea that throughout history men (not necessarily consciously; this is psychology, not conspiracy) have placed women in a subservient position because of the need to feel powerful. And what is the easiest way to make yourself feel more powerful? To convince yourself you are superior to someone. How about being superior to half of the population? Imagine the ego boost that would provide! Here is the passage that really spoke to me:
“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
So what about the title of the essay? Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’ stems from the idea that, traditionally, women did not have rooms to escape to in which to write. Not for them the quiet seclusion of the study; instead they had the communal sitting room, with its constant interruptions and the quiet (or not so quiet) judgement of their peers (Woolf mentions that Austen used to write in secret in her sitting room). Even the women writers who were successful in her time were marred by the anger they bore about their inferior position; Woolf uses Charlotte Brontë as an example, who seems to break character in the middle of Jane Eyre to rant about her own lack of freedom.
I didn’t entirely agree with the essay towards the end, and I found the final chapter a bit dubious (such as its generalisations about masculinity and femininity, and the idea that writing about one’s grievances necessarily leads to bad literature; Woolf claims that it is “fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”), but overall I found the book thoroughly interesting and highly motivating for my own writing. This is essential reading for all feminists. Ultimately Woolf argues that a woman can let go of their anger on behalf of their gender and write good, even great books, with just a quiet room and the means to support herself:
“Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.