A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

29 November, 2010

I’ve had A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf for a number of year now and although I had every intention of reading it, somehow time slipped through my fingers and it lay unopened on my shelf until the Women Unbound challenge thrust it into the spotlight. I’m not the first to admit that Woolf scares me a little. And I haven’t attempted to read any of her fiction yet, although I have To the Lighthouse and The Waves on my shelves. You can probably tell I didn’t do a literature degree! This was the first book that came to mind when I began the challenge a year ago and I was determined to read it before the close. And I can bang my head against the wall because I wish I hadn’t dithered so and just opened the d*mned book and started earlier because it surprised me at how easy Woolf’s prose was to read. Really. But there’s a lot in there. So just to warn you, this is going to be a REALLY LONG post, but I hope you read it:)

Woolf’s most famous words were:

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction

Or to paraphrase, in order to write, a woman will need a room of her own and £500 a year (which is what Woolf’s aunt left her upon her death). I calculated what this meant in modern currency and it gave a sum of approx. £16,500. And I’m assuming that is without having the need to work. I suppose I could live on that amount alone and if I didn’t have to work, I may even be able to write. And to have a room which can be locked from the inside would indeed be bliss. You can shut out the world and all the chores you are required to do and just get some head space. I did, however, blink in surprise when she said if she had to choose between the vote or money, she would take financial freedom (married women over 30 were given the vote in 1919). And she urges all women to get out their, find work and become financially independent.

What really warmed me to Woolf is how funny she is. She doesn’t write like some pontificating grande dame who looks down upon the unenlightened and tells you how to think. Her prose is engaging and what shocked me was how relevant her arguments are even today. Men may bang on about how tiresome the same old arguments are, but frankly, they can go on banging on about it because unless things change, the plight of women will remain the same. I kept nodding at each page because I agreed with Woolf and because she manages to articulate the anger and bewilderment that many of us experience including myself. I really didn’t expect to keep on agreeing with every word she said because they are relevant today.

One of the things that struck me in the past when I first began thinking about feminism and women’s place in society is that behind each oppressive act was an anger towards women that I simply could not understand. Why would you need to keep a women in her place, tied to the bed and kitchen? Why weren’t women allowed to work? Why weren’t they allowed an education? And why weren’t they given the opportunity to make their own choices? Why is it that women had to conform to rules made by men which didn’t apply to themselves? The hypocrisy alone makes me boil with rage.

My bewilderment may sound naïve, but I was brought up in a household where I never had to question these things. I, and most of my friends, grew up thinking it was our right to have an education and a job and not to think that marriage was the endpoint to our upbringing and that motherhood was the sole reason for our existence. And I still believe that, although I have no quarrels with marriage (provided I get to choose my own husband) or children (I love babies and it’s good to have family around you when you grow old). Our fathers never had to exert control over our families because they made decisions together with our mothers. I’m not against men and I certainly don’t hate them. I rather like most of the men in my life and I feel women need men as much as men need women.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses precisely this anger that many male writers were unable to hide in their rantings against women. And the only conclusion she can rationally come up with is that women have the power to shrink a man’s ego, an unforgiveable sin. It’s interesting because in many a discussion I’ve had with friends, we always end up saying that it is because men fear women that they feel the need to oppress them. But I don’t understand this fear either. But Woolf explains,

Possibly they were not ‘angry’ at all; often, indeed, they were admiring, devoted, expemplary in the relations of private life. Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.

Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most human, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!’ The exclamation to me so surprising – for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? – was not merely a cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself. Women served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticsm. for if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrink, his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing native, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquest, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?

This may be a simplistic argument, and rather tongue-in-cheek, but you get the drift.

In the introduction, Hermione Lee says A Room of One’s Own is about education, exclusion and writing. Woolf tackles all three subjects and shows how intertwined and inseparable they are. Published in 1928, A Room of One’s Ownwas originally a lecture titled Women and Fiction. Going back through literary history, Woolf shows us why there is no female equivalent of Shakespeare, how circumstances would have prevented say, for example, Shakespeare’s sister (if he had one) from accomplishing the same even if she had the gift. (On an aside, I’m really happy coming across the term Shakespeare’s sister here as lots of connections and quotes fall into place:))

Woolf also spends a large part of the essay discussing Austen and the Brontës, comparing the way they created their work: Austen hiding as she wrote and Charlotte Brontë rebelling against her lot in life. It seems as though Charlotte’s anger and rebellion, although creating an interesting and real character in Jane Eyre is also the cause of it’s failure as a novel compared to Pride & Prejudice. Interesting, no? But why is this? Woolf goes on to explain,

But how all this be affected by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist – that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer? Now in the passages I quoted form Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience – she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve. But there were many more influences than anger tugging at her imagination and deflecting it from its path. The portrait of Rochester is drawn in the dark. We feel the influence of fear in it; just as we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain.

Here Woolf is referring to her earlier theory that if you are a woman and weighed down by poverty, it is almost impossible to write not only because of the lack of finance and space, but because of the feeling of bitterness that will pervade you.

She continues,

And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. 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 ficton. 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 battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. … One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism;… She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. it does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. … She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.

But how impossible it must have been for them not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticsm, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue – write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that the voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-consicentious governess, adjuring them … to be refined

However much she admires Charlotte Brontë, you can’t but get the feeling that there is too much raw passion and anger in her writing that somehow jarrs with Woolf. And regarding the importance of men’s fiction over women’s, don’t you get a sense of déjà vu re: Franzengate?

But then she contradicts herself with this:

The very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice and cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.

Hmm. So I’m a little confused now. It’s as though in order to be a writer, you must keep your own voice but not write like a woman. What does that mean? Anyone?

I could go on and on and probably end up quoting the whole book, so I’ll stop here. But I highly recommend you read this book. It’s a great introduction to issues that are still relevant today and will give you an idea of the complexity and inherent misogyny in our society. And she highlights the struggles faced by women writers who not only have to write spectacularly but outside the constraints of being a woman.

There have been some criticism of A Room of One’s Own where Woolf is accused of not being angry enough and having too soft a tone. It certainly isn’t a vitriolic diatribe against men, but I feel it brings out all the issues women should think about, sinks its hook into our minds and lets these ideas ferment and grow. This I think is the first step in thinking independently about our place in society and the choices we make.

I’m trying to finish Three Guineas, its sequel (about education, exclusion and war) which is also in the edition I have, but I don’t think I’ll have enough days to finish reading, thinking and writing about it in time for the challenge. But I will of course discuss it with you as I’m on a roll!

This completes my Women Unbound challenge. Yahay!

So, I’m sure a lot of you out there have read A Room of One’s Own. What did you think? Did you agree with Woolf? Did I misunderstand her? Did I put too many quotations in this post???

11 Responses to “A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf”

  1. Tony Says:

    Well, I think my review was certainly a little shorter than yours (and probably a little more detached too!). This is a wonderful, and witty, little book, but ‘Three Guineas’ is a much more serious piece (although there is still some humour scattered about). I agree with her about the Brontes though; I much prefer ‘Wuthering Heights’ to ‘Jane Eyre’ 😉

  2. novelinsights Says:

    This sounds fascinating! I’m also a tentative Woolf reader – I always find her interesting but tough to read, however this book sounds more accessible and straightforward. Lovely review!

  3. amymckie Says:

    Well I’m certainly glad that I’m scheduled to read this book next year now 🙂

  4. Mystica Says:

    I have not read this particular book but your review certainly propels me to go look for this book. Thank you for a very compelling, honest review.

  5. I love the photo 🙂 I have been lusting after that mug for yours (I have the bookbag & notebook). A Room of One’s Own is my favourite piece of non-fiction & as a polemic I think it is remarkable in its accessibility; Woolf’s fiction -which I also love- is nowhere near as easy to access, except perhaps for Orlando.

  6. Violet Says:

    Woolf was big on the concept of androgyny, which is what she’s talking about in the passage that confused you. 🙂

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading A Room. Woolf wasn’t exactly what we think of as a feminist, but she did dissect the social constructs of gender, and show how both women and men are stifled by them.

    May I suggest that you start with To the Lighthouse when you get around to reading her fiction, because besides being my least favourite of her books, The Waves is a bit of am enigma, whereas Lighthouse is simply wonderful.

  7. mee Says:

    What a coincidence! I’ve been thinking to read the book quite recently (like about a couple of weeks ago). And here you are talking about it. I just read about half of your post because I intend to read the book soon, but I’ll come back. The first portion of your post convinced me to give it a higher priority!

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    Tony: Three Guineas certainly is more serious. And a lot slower to read! I did think however that Woolf really liked Jane Eyre, even though it wasn’t perfect. I like both;)

    novelinsights: Thank you:) This is quite straightforward, probably because it’s non-fiction. I haven’t tried her fiction yet so we’ll see!

    amymckie: I’m REALLY looking forward to the discussion!

    Mystica: It’s a book I’ve heard so much about but was a little scared to read (much like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex).

    Claire: I just had to grab the mug when I saw that it was half price! It’s my office mug:) This book was so much more accessible than I expected. Now to challenge myself to her fiction! You know, I’ve seen Orlando on film and I may have read the book, but it’s such a long time ago I can’t actually remember;P

    Violet: Ah, thanks for enlightening me! I was quite confused at that point. I will certainly start with The Lighthouse, thanks for the rec.

    mee: Yay, I’ll be looking forward to your post!

  9. itoeri Says:

    i have a feeling that i have only read parts of this book, and want to go back to it asap now. for me, this is a milestone work in women’s writing and women’s lives. although, i didn’t know that she argued “you have to be rich and fairly happy” to be able to write : ) vw came from an affluent background, she also had the right influences and time to contemplate on art and literature. but when you read her work, i think you find a certain hallowness, distinct to the rich with lots of time, that needs to be filled. try Mrs. Dalloway.
    i also think her sexualty and that of the ppl surrounding her allowed her to think and live freely. in order to find your own base or values, or to keep sanity, don’t you have to write? : )

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I think VW meant that in order to be able to write properly, it’s ideal not to be weighed down by everyday worries that may suffocate creativity (ie money, domestic stuff etc). I’m not sure either whether you need to be happy as it doesn’t seem that common with writers. But she definitely comes from a background and lived and married into a social class that gave her that freedom. There’s a book (which I haven’t read yet), Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light, which sounds very interesting and will probably shed more light on the domestic arrangements of successful female writers in that era.

      • itoeri Says:

        hi! i’ve seen the movie “The Hours” yesterday and came back here. i had a feeling that you have written something on that film… it was rather disturbing and yet contained a lot of truth/insight. i just wanted to read something on that story to find out what i got out of it…

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