A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf – Review
Review By Lola Rose
The rise of the pandemic has forcibly restricted my being able to travel on my gap year before starting University in September, 2021. I’ve been lacking in motivation to read or write and so I decided that it would be beneficial and make use of my time at home by completing a short credit course on feminist literature at Edinburgh University. I am thoroughly enjoying it so far and thought I would write a review on one of the many texts I am reading for my studies. Virginia Woolf was an English writer who was considered one of the most important modernist 20th century authors and was famous for her literary technique of using a stream of consciousness as her main narrative tool. Her essay, ’A Room of One’s Own’, started as two Cambridge lectures in 1928, which addressed the topic of ‘women and fiction’. It laid the ground for much of feminist literary criticism and its main focus was that women should be seen as authors of representation, not objects. In this essay, I will discuss my thoughts on each chapter and what I gained from it.
Beginning at Chapter One I immediately noticed from the introduction that the language did indeed seem a bit Edwardian, even a bit snobbish, about a privileged, rarified life. The author recounts wandering in the grounds of an Oxbridge college where a bursar comes to chase her off the grass – women must stick to the paths where they will be safe. She seems to accept this without argument. Woolf then went on to set the scene of her attending an elite college dinner, occupied solely by male scholars/students. There are several hints made by her of feeling uncomfortable and alienated as it was extremely rare for women to attend higher education in the early 19th century as their intelligence was frowned upon and they were seen as caregivers who should not have the same rights as the opposite sex. It is noticeable to Woolf how the women’s colleges had none of this luxury, they were more basic because they had been set up on a shoestring and only a few women could afford to donate to them. This could not match the contributions made by wealthy male investors and organisations to the men’s colleges. Women have been poor throughout history and anything they did earn was forced to be given to their husband and or father which put them at an extreme disadvantage.
In Chapter Two the prolix narrative swiftly changes to an important list of points that are addressed in this book. The author sets out to the British Library looking for books written by women, but in consulting an index all she can find is a list of books written by men on the subject of women, and she notices how all these titles look down on her sex, considering them to be lesser than men, patronising them. Woolf’s tone changes abruptly from timidness to rage as she realises the injustice of the situation. She states how men have always had strong opinions over women and felt righteous in their beliefs on how they should behave whilst women had no voice to disagree and did not penalise male behaviour. Men were afraid of another sex holding power over them and having any authority because they liked to view women as the inferior gender. It would destroy the patriarchy they had in place. They liked to keep women subordinate because it maintained and amplified their own importance. As she heads home she reveals to the reader that she had just recently received an income of 500 pounds per year (left by her aunt) which in the year 1928 was equivalent to around £30,000 today. She knew this money would put her at an advantage and allow her to express her creative ability much more than that someone of a lower class. She stated that she heard of her inheritance on the same day that women received the vote and that for her financial independence was actually more important. Arriving home she sees various people going about their work and asks herself why some people’s work is considered more valuable, why is a barrister paid more than a charwoman, a nursery maid, or a coal man? Perhaps this is a hint that she is interested in social equality, equality for all, not just equality for women. Or that she knows women’s equality is an integral part of social justice.
Chapter Three begins by her reflecting on a lecture she had about female history by a male professor who made strong, yet invalid, arguments as to why women are deemed to be the weaker sex. This made her question why males have always ruled and women just sat back and accepted it when they are the natural inheritor of civilisation. Woolf then goes on to make the point that there have always been strong dominating female leads in the work of such as Shakespeare, which men valued and praised yet this was a paradox to real life where respected women still had no freedom of their own. Women do not lack personality, they have been the inspiration for writing – the muses, but why are there no written records left by women of the 16th century, no plays, and very few letters? She imagines what if Shakespeare had a sister, and she had been as talented and determined as he was (despite not having been allowed an education), what would have happened if Shakespeare’s sister had come to London? And the author concludes that she would have had a hard and short life and would have been buried without the chance to have written a play or published a poem. The author points out that in the 16th-century women had no legal rights, they were raised to be married, they were considered to be the property of their fathers and then their husbands, and that it was quite acceptable for both to beat the woman. She wonders whether women in the 16th century ever had a room of their own, this is a recurring question in the book. It strikes me that Woolf is not considering that there may have been women writers but they have been forgotten about, or received no attention in their time, in the same way, that women visual artists are only now being rediscovered and placed in the history of art.
In Chapter Four the author moves on to the 17th century and describes how women from an upper class, who had the ability to read and write, still had no room of their own to share their creative abilities and the work they did, if dare, produce would most definitely be severely frowned upon and discouraged. This explains how many female writers of that time were known to commit suicide. Woolf herself sadly died in 1941 at the age of 59 from drowning herself in the River Ouse after being troubled by mental illness. She mentions how several women from the 16th/17th century who had great literary potential belittled themselves due to society’s perception of how they should behave. Women’s lives were designed by male misogynous beliefs – their pleasures should lay solely around domesticity and appearance. By the 18th century, however, the author tells us that it became more acceptable for women to write and there were many doing so despite only moderate skill or success.
Woolf then goes on to add that even in the 19th century there was a noticeably large gap in the genres of female literature as most of it revolved around novels. Fiction abstained from a writer’s own opinions and beliefs in life. Charlotte Bronte who wrote the classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’ is mentioned here as she foolishly diminished the worth of her book and sold the copyright to it which would have cost her to lose a huge profit after it was published. Women were pressured in this time to write as men write not as women write. The work of the 18th-century women provided the foundations necessary for the success of female writers in the 19th century. Without these earlier writers, there would have been no Brontes, George Elliot, or Jane Austen. The author tells us that none of these successful 19th-century women writers had children which quietly makes the point that child-rearing stops women from having the time to be creative. In Woolf’s time, the idea that child-rearing could be shared by the father and the mother and allow them both to have time to themselves would not even have been considered and was yet to become the norm. The author then goes back to talk about the anger in women’s writing, that the women writers pit themselves against men and Woolf thinks this is a distraction in the novel. I’m surprised at this opinion given that the tone of the essay sounds quite angry to me, and that hasn’t every generation of women artists/writers been angry about the injustices they experience? I wonder if Woolf is using this to set the scene for a point she will make later in the essay about how the writer has to be both male and female (androgynous), and not argue about one sex being superior to the other.
Chapter Five continues to point out how women almost always tend to only write novels and how she found this very peculiar. It was, of course, because they were scared of the patriarchy. Their work was much more likely to provide an anodyne than an antidote. The author then goes on to write about the contemporary writers of her own time and mentions in particular the work of one novelist Mary Carmichael who she did not view as a particularly good writer but still appreciated how revolutionary her work was for that time. Carmichael did not let male misogyny hold her back, she will write about anything that interests women. A woman writer does not have to write about war or the subjects that men consider important, a woman’s life is equally rich and full, women writers do not have to adhere to the rules about what they can write about, and they do not have to follow any rules about what they can or cannot do. Woolf mentions that two of the female characters in Carmichael’s book ‘like each other’ and Woolf subtlety implies that this means they are lesbians and that this should be considered absolutely fine. Given the morals of that time, Woolf would have understood that this point needed to be made subtly. She then says how this was the first time she had seen this written in a book by a female author and how astonished she was by the writer’s courage to mention such a controversial desire for that time. Women were no longer being seen as solely interests of domesticity. Carmichael’s work was unique as she did not deem males as the opposing faction and waste time pointing out their flaws, despite the hate she received from patriarchs she instead used her words to express the power of females without the need for a competition of qualities. Literature was starting to praise the feminist. The chapter concludes by stating that if a woman is given the freedom of having her own utilities and tools she shall become successful and enhance her natural abilities.
The Final Chapter
The final chapter starts with an uncertain atmosphere of where woman’s literature will go from here; nobody seems to care. The author starts to think about what differences there are between a man and woman and approaches that while a whole can be created by the two sexes coming together maybe the traditional couple is not the way things have to be. Men and women have an enormous effect on one another and should both be allowed to have equal opportunities to express their mind. Woolf mentions Coleridge’s theory that a great mind is androgynous (characteristics of both male and female). It allows for more creativity, incandescent and undivided which was seen in the likes of Shakespeare, Keats and Sterne, and so on. This was a subject she later explored in her novel ‘Orlando’ where the main character lives through several centuries and appears as both male at some points and female at others. She then compares the difference between feminine and masculine writing and expresses her thought that male writers show much more confidence in their work as opposed to women because they had been well-nourished and well-educated with freedom of mind for generations. Woolf concludes that to be a writer means it is important to not be a man or a women but to be both. Not to pit one sex against the other, not to say one is superior. Woolf also mentions fascism in Italy, which reminds me at least that she is writing this at the cusp of the 1930’s and all the massive future upheaval that is to come. I sometimes think of Woolf as a writer from an earlier period so it is useful to be reminded that she was very much part of the modernist movement and that movement has a direct line to that time. She also reminds us that the Women’s movement only started in the 19th century, and of the opportunities created for them by the First World War, and that women only got the vote ten years before. The rate of change in society was really quite remarkable. Woolf then reasserts that what women need in order to write is not only a room of their own but an income. She points out that the poor have not a hope of making a mark in the literary world. Inequality and poverty, to her, does diminish the theory that poetical genius is equal in both the poor and rich as the most prominent writers of that time had a higher education. Intellectual freedom does depend upon material things and women have always tended to be poorer than men since the beginning of time. The book concludes with high spirit and enthusiasm. Woolf points out to her female audience that they need to make use of the opportunities that were not available in the past, which is still very much relevant to this time, and that they owe it to the women of the past to make the most of those opportunities given. She reminds us of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister who never had the chance to make it as a poet, whereas today there is that chance for a woman to be whatever she seeks to accomplish. It made me feel very inspired that my writing, as a female, does matter and that I should be able to express my thoughts without fear of what others may say, no matter what position I may currently be at in life.
Lola Rose, January, 2021
This section: Book and Event Reviews, Lola Rose: aspiring writer, Writing
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