Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

1929

Woolf begins her treatise, as she does so many of her novels, in medias res: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” 3. The answer, for Woolf, is quite simple – in order for women to write, they must have the material conditions to write – 500 a year and a room of their own to write in. As in “Modern Fiction,” she says, “I give you my thoughts as they came to me” 7.

She records the horror she caused at a university by being off the garden path. She is refused from the library because she has no letter of entry. She records the evening meal for the men, with rich wines and puddings,

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself… how good life seemed” 11.

She compares this to the women’s meal, at which the scholar Jane Harris is in attendance. Everything is plain – broth, beef and potatoes, and dry biscuits, no wine. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” she insists 18. Women do not individually or as intellectual groups have the tradition of “luxury and privacy and space” that men do 24. Though men write many books about women, women do not write about men. She feels “humiliated” by the titles and categorizing topics available to describe women.

“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” 35 [think about Lacan’s mirror, the film screen, suture, realism, etc!] 35.

“Mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action” 36.

Woolf abolishes anger from herself, and says (like Eliot would of self-effacement in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), that one must purify oneself of anger and resentment to write. Charlotte Bronte falls victim to this, Woolf claims, which we see in her writing. She seeks a Kantian disinterestedness: “freedom to think of things in themselves” 39.

Of the vote and money Woolf has inherited, money is unquestionably more helpful, she says. She imagines a world where women can take any occupation, once “womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation” 40.

“In a hundred years, I thought… women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared” 40.

Woolf tries to imagine the conditions of women, beginning in the Elizabethan era. Why did women write nothing in the age of so many great male writers?

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” 41.

Woolf points out that in literature, woman is central, whereas practically, she is insignificant to society:

“If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction” 43.

Woolf uses the power of fiction to begin to imagine woman as more than “a vessel.” This she plays out by imagining a sister for Shakespeare: Judith. She would try to write against the obstacles of domestic labor and a lack of education. Eventually she would become pregnant and commit suicide, Woolf imagines:

“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” 46.

“Genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people” 49.

Woolf also claims women are less likely to want to impose their values on others, as is the colonial fashion 50. But society will not pay for what it does not want. It will question and suppress women’s writing. It will suggest that the most intelligent woman is inferior to the average man. She considers women like Dorothy Osborne, who never wrote anything but letters, thinking it was outside their domain.

In the late 18th century, however, “middle-class women began to write” for profit 65. Austen she places above Bronte, who was undoubtedly a genius, because her writing is emptied out of anger and hate 68. Again she discusses a mirror:

“If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eye, built now in squares, now pagoda-shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed… This shape, I thought, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it… the shape is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being” 71.

“A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes” 77.

Woolf holds to some gender essentialism akin to that of de Beauvoir:

“For we think through our mothers if we are women” 76.

“The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there always will be. Again, the nerves that feed the brain would seem to differ in men and women”78.

“Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women” 82. / “If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it, she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been” 84.

“A man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men” 83.

There is no history of women by women to corroborate this, however. The strength of Mary Carmichael’s writing, which has “broken up Jane Austen’s sentence,” is that

“she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself… she was not a skimmer of surfaces merely, but had looked beneath into the depths” 93.

“What does one mean by the unity of the mind, I pondered… if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting of of consciousness… when from being the natural inheritor of civilization, she becoems, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical” 97.

“Intellectual freedom depends on material things” 108.

“For the reading of [great] books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life” 110.

It is because of this that the efforts to write the Judith Shakespeare within us are worth the effort, Woolf concludes.

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