A Room of One’s Own was my Classic Club Spin book back in August, something I was quite pleased about as it’s one of those books I’ve always wanted to read. Although I admit to knowing very little about it before I picked it up, I just knew it was one of those works that has had an impact on a lot of people and is frequently referenced in feminist literature. I thought it was something I would probably enjoy reading and get a lot out of. I did on both counts.
The book itself is not that long at 123 pages, an extended essay based on two lectures Virginia Woolf gave to female students at Cambridge in 1929 on the subject of Women and Fiction. It is easy to read, though some references to writers and the politics of the time weren’t that familiar to me so I may have lost some of the finer points of her argument, and not dry at all (a slight worry as I knew this was initially written to be heard, not read).
Woolf starts by discussing what could be covered under the heading, women who write fiction, for example, or women in fiction, before stating that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. This is because without these things, she will never have the space and freedom to write; she will spend her time instead trying to earn a living or make ends meet, taking care of her home, her husband and her children, and bending to the wills and expectations of a patriarchal society (Woolf writes, “England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. He was the power and the money and the influence.”)
To back up her statement, Woolf traces the history of women writers, highlighting how hard it was for them to be able to write, and write about what they wanted to. How many found themselves depressed or oppressed by their husbands and fathers, unable to develop their talents. Once women did begin to write, they hid their sex behind pseudonyms or focused on the domestic because this was considered acceptable, especially to the men who held the power and were reluctant to give it up (“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself”).
This power, Woolf argues, shapes not only the lives of women but their expectations of what they can achieve, limiting them by excluding them from education and not allowing them to control their own destinies. These limits, she says, are still there in 1929 but to a much lesser degree – she is, after all, giving her lectures at a women’s college – and she urges everyone in attendance to take advantage of this, although she seems to fear that society will still dampen their enthusiasm by requiring them to be wives and mothers and putting up barriers to inclusion (she gives the examples of not being able to walk on the grass at the college or enter a library there as she was a woman).
My understanding is that this is generally considered a feminist piece of writing, because of the subject matter but also the content and I can definitely see this and would agree. However, it does seem to reach beyond that because it is about needing to have money in order to have the freedom to write; this applies whether you are male or female and to more than writing – it applies to anything, any life a person may want to live beyond merely surviving.
Because of this, whilst written 90 or so years ago, many of the observations and arguments still seemed relevant to me and I found myself challenged by the book. For example, Woolf talks about 9 out of the 12 greatest poets of the previous 100 years having gone to university, saying “however dishonouring [it is] to us as a nation…the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance [and] a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.” Reading these lines made me think about the our current cabinet and what is said of them and their Oxbridge educations and the arguments we are still having in this country about equality of opportunity between rich and poor (not just male and female).
The main problem for me was following all her thoughts through to their conclusion because at times I did feel they went off on tangents. Perhaps I needed to read the book in a room of my own, as opposed to sitting on the couch or on a train. Still, I did enjoy it, I would recommend it and – I think – I will revisit it at some point, just to make sure I have gotten as much from it as I can. Have you read it – what are your thoughts?