Let’s Talk About: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A room of one's own

I have some mixed feelings about A Room of One’s Own. On one hand, I acknowledge how radical it might have been for its time and how profound it’s impact was on feminist literature and how we view women novelists. On the other, I did feel like it was limited in the sense that it was very Anglo-centric. Now, I recognize that considering that it was based on two lectures Woolf delivered in women’s colleges in the University of Cambridge, the Anglo-centrism could be explained or was understandable. What wasn’t would be her snobbishness and anti-Semitic remarks. I believe that Virginia Woolf’s thought experiments in this book-length essay while insightful, could be taken a lot further and this conversation should be continued. I’ve been thinking about it since I finished it and in particular, Woolf’s assertion that in order to write, a woman needed “money and a room of her own.” Perhaps in the society and class structure she moved in this was true, but it wasn’t the case for many other women in different societies and class structute. Alice Walker even pointed this out in illustrating the case of Phillis Wheatley, a poet who was a slave. Many women, as Walker said, exists outside of the room that Virginia Woolf set aside for women writers.

But for now, the contents of the essay itself.

As I said, A Room of One’s Own was about Virginia Woolf’s exploration of women and fiction. When she thought about why there weren’t many female authors. Thus, she created (or rather appropriated the image of) The Four Marys, who were the ladies-in-waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots. She created a thought experiment in which one of them might have gone to Oxford University in search for female authors. This lead to thinking about what a womana may have needed in order to write.

Virginia Woolf talked about the English women who wrote in centuries past. Some of these women included Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newscastle-upon-Tyne, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. She noted that even in the case of noblewomen like Margaret Cavendish and the Countess of Winchilsea, it was difficult to gain respect and recognition due to their gender. They were sometimes derided and their peers would ask why they would spend time scribbling. Even Jane Austen did her work in near-secret.

One of the most interesting portions of the novel was the thought experiment on Judith Shakespeare, a fictional sister for William Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf asked the question of what if Shakespeare had a sister who had the same gift and talent as he did. She posits that this gift would have driven her to escape an arranged marriage, run away to London where she would be turned away at the theater, be pregnant by an actor, and commit suicide. She would be buried at a crossroads and forgotten.

Here’s a quote from the essay:

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

This passage stood out to me because Virginia Woolf equates not being able to use a gift with a woman being tortured. I wonder why she painted this image quite vividly. Would a woman who cannot write just kill herself in despair? This is a question I asked myself both as I read and after I finished it. It’s been several days and I can’t give a clear answer.

She then asked the question of why was it that men wrote about women at length but women don’t write about men to the same degree. Or why men would romanticize women in their writings only to treat them poorly in real life. It’s true that women are often the subject of works by men, if not front and center, there would be several minor characters playing important roles who are women. These women are put on a pedestal and romanticized to a degree that they become far from a woman made of flesh and blood.

Finally, she talks about women who write fiction. Well, English women who write. Not mentioned are women of other nationalities who write. Lady Murasaki Shikibu hardly gets a mentioned, or Christine de Pizan or Queen Marguerite de Navarre. To be fair, Virginia Woolf does focus quite a bit on 19th century authors, particularly Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. She talks a lot about genius and being gifted with regards to these authors but I’d say I can’t comment on that as I haven’t read both authors. She also does snark a bit regarding the Brontes selling the publication rights for their works and called it foolish.

For me, the essay was a compelling read but as I read on, I became increasingly uncomfortable as I started to realize what kind of woman Virginia Woolf might have had in mind. Was this necessarily a bad thing and does it take away from the essay? No, but it reminds one that everyone has their blind spots. The fact that Virginia Woolf was an upper-middle-class white woman living in colonial era post-WWI Britain was certainly not lost on me. It bears remembering that even great authors may be limited by what they know and the world they live in.

The first book (and so far, only book) I’ve read by Virginia Woolf was Mrs. Dalloway. At the time, I thought that it was good but too white upper middle class drama for my taste. I think that it’s due for a second opinion and a re-read at some point but this essay kind of did reinforce my view on that book.  Don’t get me wrong- she was undoubtedly a great novelist but Virginia Woolf mostly talked about women in the upper middle class and the kind of lives they live and the inner lives they have. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit snarky here but my point is that for most women, the things that Virginia Woolf envision may not be enough.

On the contrary, we need to re-examine our class structures which often than not determines who can produce great works and those who couldn’t. Now that I think about it, most of the European artists we hear so much about often come from working class or middle class backgrounds. The only difference is that they were, more likely than not, able to secure the patronage of the rich and powerful which allowed them to create art. It’s only fairly recently that there are some who are able to reach a degree of renown without being backed by a patron.

Money and a room of one’s own aren’t the only things women need to be able to create. They also need freedom from oppression and oppressive class structures. This is especially true in many so-called “third world” countries. How can a woman write when she has to take care of 10 children or when she is sold barely into her teens to a man old enough to be her father or worse? Or how can a woman write when her every move is monitored and she isn’t allowed to be a woman? In A Room of One’s Own, there are many more women to be considered, women whose voices are suppressed, unheard.

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