A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929).
But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’
Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.
Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.
What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.
This slim volume — an expanded version of two talks — comprises six chapters, untitled but seen gradually to unfold her thesis about Women and Fiction. Originating in a talk prepared for the Cambridge women’s colleges of Newnham and Girton in October 1928, Woolf took an expansive approach that alternately lulls and stimulates with the conversational tone associated with stream of consciousness. An additional strata has her using pseudonyms based on three women called Mary from the Scottish ballad The Fower Maries — Mary Beton, Mary Seton and Mary Carmichael — with the added confusion that she also discusses them as historic characters.
On the banks of the Cam she wonders how to start her talk, settling on verses by Christina Rossetti to illustrate her view that poetry should have the laurel wreath for literature. But she contrasts her experience dining at a men’s college with the more impecunious meal offered at a college for women: the issue of funding will re-emerge later. We next find her researching in the Reading Room of the British Museum and musing on men’s historic views on 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. […] For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished.
Money was one of the key sticking points where female writers’ worth was concerned, and Woolf reckoned that £500 a year in 1928 (around £30,000 today) would give women the financial independence to write; but in the Bloomsbury dome she found herself “looking about the shelves for books that were not there”: no plays or poetry by the fictional Judith, “Shakespeare’s sister” for example. With the Brontë sisters and George Eliot sheltering under male noms de plume it was clear they were having to cope with attitudes like that expressed in academic Oscar Browning’s diktat that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man”.
What is coming across is her ability to let many male writers condemn themselves yet quietly point out, without overt anger or obvious sarcasm, “not so much that she shall be inferior as that he shall be superior […] even when the risk to himself seems infinitesimal and the supplicant humble and devoted.” Still, women’s voices were starting to be heard, through letters, social commentary, drama, even if they weren’t published till much later, because as was said of Lady Winchilsea they had “an itch for scribbling” — women like Lady Margaret Cavendish, Dorothy Osborne, Hester Thrale and Aphra Behn.
A constraint on women not of high social standing was a space to write in: authors like Austen and the Brontës had only a sitting room in which to compose clandestinely. In fact this period — the late 18th going into the 19th — Woolf notes the shift made by female writers from literary epistles, essays and poetry to fiction, appearing to take to the genre with a distinct gusto; the novel “would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life” and that likeness written by women “without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman” (here she’s thinking of the likes of Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot). In any case, the life scientific was largely closed to them.
By chapter five of what she calls her “rambling” she is considering books by living writers like Gertrude Bell, but here she turns to an imaginary novel of her alter ego Mary Carmichael — one of those fower Maries of the ballad — to propound on “that very dismal subject, the future of fiction”, which will involve the apparent death of poetry in favour of “the development by the average woman of a prose style completely expressive of her mind.”
Finally in this metafiction we come to October 26th 1928 as she addresses those Oxbridge colleges: we hear her advocating a more androgynous style of writing, almost using the language of alchemy when she talks of some “marriage of opposites to be consumated” in place of “severances” in the mind. Ultimately, she calls for wide reading, and for the writing of all kinds of books, for “books have a way of influencing each other. Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy.”
In such a thin volume (a hundred or so pages in this edition) Virginia Woolf covers many angles, in many voices and with many tones. I loved the sly humour, as when she damns pretentious male writers with their own ill-judged remarks; her lightning survey of women’s writing over half a millennium with names I should know better; her ability to present an open-and-shut case which, even after a century, sadly remains unproven in the contrary minds of certain prejudiced types. Her conversational approach not only lulls but cajoles and persuades, but there is a steely edge to her words which shows her to be one not to be messed with. And when she declares
Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind …
are we not reminded of a writer from less than a century before who wrote a similarly impassioned statement in the words of her own fictional alter ego, Jane Eyre?
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will…
No nameless grave for these two authors then, and all of their sisters.