Chantal's Reviews > A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
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Sep 17, 10


A woman needs money and a room of her own to achieve literary genius is the message behind Virginia Woolf’s essays in A Room of One’s Own, so I’ve often heard, being that these two things will allow for the long concentrated hours of uninterrupted quiet necessary to create quality literature. But, having finally had the opportunity (there’s a good word) to read this work myself, I realize that Woolf’s papers say so much more than this.
Requested, in 1929, to speak to the young women at Cambridge on the subject of women and fiction, Woolf wrote the two essays (her lecture) which have come together to be published under the title A Room of One’s Own. Of the response she anticipated this work would receive, Woolf wrote in her diaries:
I shall get no criticism, except of the evasive jocular kind… the press will be kind & talk of its charm & sprightliness; also I shall be attacked for a feminist & hinted a sapphist… I am afraid it shall not be taken seriously… It is a trifle, they shall say; so it is, but I wrote it with ardour and conviction….

There are three points of interest regarding the above journal excerpt. First, Woolf was accurate in her forecast. Secondly, it is available for us to read today, almost a century later, whereas, as Woolf points out in her essays, the internal musings of Jane Austin, the Brontes, George Eliot and other worthy female writers before Woolf have not been preserved for public reading unlike the diaries of many of their male counterparts; this is evidence of progress. Thirdly, it is interesting that Woolf, while pleading for honesty from her young female audience, has admitted to writing “with ardour and conviction” and in the same sentence referred to this work as trifling.
In order to convey her weighty and controversial message, to contain the broad aspect of it while illuminating the subtle complexities within it, Woolf “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” creates a character, a female writer, Mary (Beton, Seton or Carmichael) and tells her story, claiming that this fiction “is likely to contain more truth than fact.” And certainly it does!
Mary’s story begins at Oxford where she is refused entrance into the library and disallowed to walk in the soft grass, both privileges reserved for men only. The essay goes on to compare the bland meals served at female colleges with the elaborate feasts set before male students and the lack of funding available for girls’ schools versus the “unending stream of gold and silver” that had flowed forth for centuries from kings and fathers to support the education of young male scholars. She considers the lives of mothers dedicated to birthing, feeding and raising children instead of earning money to put toward their daughters’ educations. She turns to the history books to study the lives and rights of women historically, or rather the absence of any rights (and lives for the history books had not recorded these).
Then Mary fingers the books on her shelf and Woolf examines the history of fiction written by men and the women who appear within it. She ponders truth in fiction and she questions the male ability to accurately write about the female. She complains of the ego innate to so much male literature, and she examines the why of this. She invents a female counterpart to Shakespeare, his genius sister, Judith, and she imagines the life Judith would lead, the conflicts she would face and her inevitable failures (she comes to commit suicide) as a brilliant female poet in a strenuously patriarchal world that had no room for her (the pun is yours for the taking or leaving).
Woolf’s two short works encompass all of this and so much more. Then, in her passionate conclusion, having reminded her audience of the significant recent strides attained by women:
…there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; …after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 … she was given a vote!

Woolf rallies women, both poor and wealthy alike, to write in the name of truth, in the name of literature, in the name of sexual equality and in the name of mankind, claiming that we owe that to dear, dead Judith Shakespeare and the women she represents, to the Jane Austen’s who toiled before us and their less successful counterparts, to ourselves and to our daughters.
It is a conclusion that had me clutching the book to my chest. It brought tears to my eyes and a grin to my face. It empowered me. It is anything but trifling! And that Woolf would dub it such speaks to her own argument. There she was in 1929, a supremely well-respected female author, but for the inferiority of women and female literature that had been ingrained in society’s conscience, Woolf -- despite being a lead authority on the competence of women writers and the importance of female literature, despite the evidence in her research, despite the passion exuding from the pages of A Room of One’s Own, despite her acknowledged and overwhelming literary talent, despite all this -- was ready to belittle her work, even within the personal space of her private diary, because these thoughts, these arguments, these universal truths of women could just as easily be considered mere female railings, trifles.


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