What women writers want

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf

I was inspired to finally pick up this book by Amy Reads and her part in the Year of Feminist Classics project. It turns out, now I look at the reading schedule, that they’re not discussing this title until May, but I’d been meaning to read it for years anyway, and I can always go back and discuss it with them in three months’ time!

I’m so glad I finally read this book. It is truly brilliant. I struggled a little with the Woolf books I had to read for my degree, but this is actually a reworking of two speeches she gave at women’s colleges in October 1928 and therefore has a rather different style from her fiction. For me it was much more accessible and approaches the topic of feminism from an angle that I am very interested in – women and fiction.

Of course, Woolf being Woolf, she doesn’t approach the subject in an entirely straightforward manner. Instead she begins with her answer to a question as yet unvoiced and then invents the character of a woman writer to illustrate how she arrived at this answer, including all of the research and ruminating along the way. But bizarre as that sounds, it’s a fascinating and intelligent study of its subject with so many quotable passages that my copy is now covered in bright yellow sticky notes.

The conclusion of this extended essay is so famous that it is not only the title but is also repeated in red text on the front cover of my edition: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” These days that may seem like an odd statement but it’s worth remembering, as Woolf ably illustrates, that at the time of writing there were very few colleges in the UK that accepted female students and almost no scholarships or bursaries for them; women were not allowed in Oxbridge libraries unaccompanied, even if they were students there; a woman’s property and wealth legally became her husband’s upon marriage; and even upper class women were very unlikely to have a study or sitting room of their own.

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.”

Woolf counts the four great women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and George Eliot (which was interesting of itself to me, that 80 years ago the same names should have been considered “great” as now, or maybe we consider them great because we have been told they are for 80+ years) and looks carefully at how being a woman influenced each of them. In Jane Austen she sees the greatest influence of having had to write in a shared sitting room, as so much of Austen’s work is set in those very rooms, but she also bestows great praise on Austen for having such an honest, undeniably female voice. Charlotte Brontë, Woolf says, was a better wordsmith but also more given to expressing discontent with her lot in life, giving her heroines speeches about being held back from the world that jar with the rest of the novel.

Woolf finds women depicted by men, in fiction and non-fiction, wholly unsatisfactory, partly because men tend to depict women as hollow featureless objects but also because a lot of what they do show is unrealistic idealism. In truth, through most of history women have not been nearly as well educated or as wordly as men.

“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…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.”

Women depicting women, however, can actually do it properly, creating real personalities, likes, dislikes, good qualities and bad ones. Woolf describes her delight when reading, in a not particularly good book by a woman writer, about the friendship between two women – a subject she declares is at every woman’s heart and yet never depicted yet by any man. (She makes a few generalisations like this. I have to presume that, though reasonably well read, she had not read every book ever written and therefore an exception to this statement may well exist.)

In the face of such adversity, Woolf shows great admiration for those pre-20th-century women who did defy convention and write, even those who did it in secret, but especially those who published their work like Aphra Behn (another name I studied at university). She urges the women she is speaking to – women who have at least a little money, some education and most likely a room of their own – to continue this tradition, to find their own voice uninfluenced by men. She complains that her reading has become monotonous with so many men’s voices, so much male influence, and expresses a hope that the time will come when readers will think her rant out of date.

She closes with the sentiment that in “another century or so” women writers will have found their voice. I like to think that, while the gender equality fight is still very much on, in writing at least women have found an equal footing. I don’t know how the numbers compare of books published by men and women, or indeed books sold, or literary prizes won, and if they are even now it’s probably a very recent development, maybe even in the last ten years. But the world has changed drastically from the one Woolf knew and I like to think she would be proud of women today, especially women writers.

First published 1928.
I read the Penguin Great Ideas edition, published 2004.

UPDATE: If you’re interested, you can check out the Year of Feminist Classics discussions about this title here and here.

3 thoughts on “What women writers want

  1. Jillian March 21, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Excellent review! I just finished this book tonight and walk away from it altered, seeing reality from a new perspective, the skin of the day peeled back, as Woolf says happens in all good literature.

    A riveting read, and my first Woolf. 🙂

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