A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
You have a very strong sense of Virginia Woolf, reading A Room of One’s Own. She has a firm steady voice, and she is sitting right next to you, and she takes out one thing at a time and sets it in front of you. As she speaks, she takes out another thing, and another, and there’s no opportunity to argue, and suddenly at the end you see in front of you a whole thesis, built of conversational tidbits, lightly delivered until they have formed something great. It’s an old-fashioned book now, but it understands the same things that still need understanding.
The topic of this essay, as set, is WOMEN AND FICTION. The path taken, famously, is that women are tragically poor parts of literary history, and this is because they have been made poor: not inherently, but by a society where men’s desire to be “superior” puts women in the “inferior” slot. Woolf’s argument is essentially that when you live in a society that will not teach you to write, let you write, pay you to write, read your writing, to value your writing if it is read–it is hard to expect you to do so, and harder to expect others to follow you. There’s a particularly wonderful passage where she point by point considers how impossible it would have been for any woman in Shakespeare’s time to do what Shakespeare did. The world made it impossible, because the world did not at all belong to her.
That is what A Room of One’s Own is: it means that women, to succeed in writing, must be given something they have never had, which is ownership of their space and their work. It means toppling the expectations that haunt them. It means being given value to their work. It means having other women to work from. It means giving a hand up to other women.
Woolf is like a great cat padding along, to and fro but always forward, and you do not get to forget for long that she has claws and teeth.
She is also a splendid writer, so let me just put some of her lines up:
On men writing about women: “Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? Wise men never say anything else apparently.” (29)
On thinking and writing: “…my own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was bewildering. It was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped.” (30)
On bigotry: “Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his superiority…Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly. By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority…over other people.” (34-5)
On women in men’s fiction and fact: “Indeed, if women 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, as Professor Trevelyan points out, 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.” (43)
On financial and social capital: “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (65)
On writing novels: “And for the most part, of course, novels do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain.” (73)
On integrity and art: “It was the flaw in the center that had rotted [those books]. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.” (74)
On women hating women: ” ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first tim in literature.” (82)
On merit: “I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter, not even in Cambridge, where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names.” (105)
On intellectual freedom and poverty: “That is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years only, but from the beginning of time.” (108)
On why women should fight: “I maintain that she [the future writer] would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” (114)