A Room of One’s Own is both a landmark in feminist thought and a rhetorical masterpiece, which started life as lectures to the literary societies of Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in October 1928. It was then published by the Hogarth Press in 1929 in a revised and expanded edition that has never been out of print.
Barely 40,000 words long, addressed to audiences of female students in the hothouse atmosphere of interwar creativity, this became an unforgettable and passionate assertion of women’s creative originality by one of the great writers of the 20th century. Ironically, she herself never favoured the term “feminist”.
Virginia Woolf, no question, transformed the English literary landscape. But how, exactly? Was it through modernist innovation (Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse)? Or flirting outrageously with historical fiction (Orlando)? Or in the provocative argument – in part a response to EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – of a book like A Room of One’s Own?
Well, all of the above. As many critics have noted, Woolf’s writings – from letters and diaries to novels, essays and lectures – are of a piece. Open any one of her books and it’s as though you have just stepped inside, and possibly interrupted, a fierce internal monologue about the world of literature.
Woolf herself assists this response. “But, you may say, we asked you to speak…” is the opening line to A Room of One’s Own that backs its author into the limelight of an initially rambling, but finally urgent, polemic. “England is under the rule of a patriarchy,” she declares on about page 30, and then proceeds to lay bare the structure of male privilege and female exclusion – from independence, income and education.
At first, she masks the narrator of her argument in the guise of several fictional Marys: Mary Beton, Mary Seton or Mary Carmichael, an allusion to a 16th-century ballad about a woman hanged for rejecting marriage and motherhood. This “Mary” narrator identifies female writers such as herself as outsiders committed to jeopardy.
Quite soon, however, Woolf seems to abandon this contrivance. Now she is on fire, writing in her own voice:
“One might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time – Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phèdre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes – the names flock to mind, nor do they recall women ‘lacking in personality and character’. Indeed, 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. In fact … she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
“A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”
Typically, Woolf takes herself to task as well, for her complacency: “What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the 18th century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated…”
Some of A Room of One’s Own, while written in a white heat, is also very funny: “I thought of that old gentleman … who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it … Women cannot write the plays of William Shakespeare.”
From this point forward, “Judith Shakespeare” becomes another polemical fiction who, like Woolf, had to stay at home, watch her brother go off to school, and become imprisoned in domesticity: “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school.” Eventually, Judith is shamed into a marriage of convenience by her family. Her brother makes his way in the world, while Judith is trapped at home, her genius unfulfilled.
Once Woolf has invented Judith Shakespeare, the poet’s sister who eventually kills herself, she can embark on a review of the creative lives of her great predecessors – Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters, of whom she wrote, that Charlotte Brontë, burnt by rage, died “at war with her lot… young, cramped and thwarted”. En passant, Woolf reviews the lives and careers of female writers such as Aphra Behn: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”
It’s at this juncture in her argument that Woolf proposes her now celebrated idea about the key to a woman’s creative liberation: a room, plus some independent means. To a resident of Bloomsbury this, no doubt, seemed a feasible goal, the guarantee of two essential gifts – privacy and freedom, or time and solitude. In retrospect, a private room plus “five hundred a year” seems impossibly middle-class. And yet, at current prices, it’s a sum that roughly translates into the figure that the Bailey’s prize (formerly the Orange prize) for women’s fiction (£30,000) awards to its annual winner. So perhaps Woolf’s dream has been at least partly fulfilled.
So much of A Room of One’s Own is so light and glancing that it’s easy to overlook the urgency of Woolf’s analysis. But she could be transgressive, and even mischievous, too. In another passage, describing the work of a fictional woman, Mary Carmichael, Woolf alludes to lesbian love in the novel, a passage almost certainly inspired by her relationship during the 1920s with Vita Sackville-West: “Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these – ‘Chloe liked Olivia…’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”
Finally, Woolf breaks free from the feminist arguments of her essay, morphs towards her preferred androgyny, and makes a larger claim for the true literary imagination (as she sees it): “It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex … one must be woman-manly or man-womanly … Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open … There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtain must be close drawn.”
And then, in a few valedictory pages – replete with more powerful arguments about the importance of university education for women – she is done, closing with an appeal to the essential spirit of risk and originality, “ the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think”.
A signature sentence
“For my belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common siting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.”