Title: A Room of One’s Own
Author: Virginia Woolf
Genre: Non-Fiction: Essay; Classics
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister—a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different. This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. If only she had found the means to create, argues Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this classic essay, she takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without. Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read this book as part of Allie’s A Modern March. This essay was based on two speeches Woolf gave to the Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton, two women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928. The essay was then expanded for publication the following year. The topic of Woolf’s was asked to present on was ‘Women and Fiction,’ but, as Woolf relates, writing a lecture on ‘Women and Fiction’ is more complicated then most would assume. Woolf covers a variety of topics: women and educated, the history of women writing fiction, and even ‘Judith Shakespeare,’ Shakespeare’s fictional sister, which she makes up to expose the difficulties that have faced women writers throughout history and the barriers placed in their way by men, barring them of reaching their full artistic potential.
One of the great things about this little book is the structure of the essay; Woolf uses a fictional narrative with herself as narrator to explore the topic of Women and Fiction. We join her on a trip to the British Library as she reads, and grows angry by, male academics’ opinions on women. We join her in her writing room as she scans her shelves, taking books down written by women, flipping through them, and contemplating how the patriarchy of England’s literary tradition has influenced women writers. Through it all, Woolf remains committed to the idea that, for women to be able to write, they must posses two essential components already in the possession of men: a fixed income and a room of one’s own.
I really enjoyed this essay. Besides being a pleasure to read, I found myself nodding in agreement with Woolf, growing angry alongside Woolf as she explores contemporary male academics’ opinions of women and their intellectual and creative capabilities, and thinking about myself as a woman in today’s society. For me, this was a very thought-provoking book.
One of the parts of her essay I found particularly interesting was in the first half of the essay where she wonders about the situation of women a century in the future. Although it is only 85 years since Woolf wrote this essay, it is interesting to compare today’s reality for women with Woolf’s vision of the future. I’m afraid that Woolf was a bit over optimistic. Today women are still thought to be the ‘protected sex’ and although she is right that women are no longer ‘barred’ from particular activities, women are still vastly underrepresented in traditionally male occupations and in positions of corporate and government power. She is also wrong in thinking that in the future women will cease to have longer lifespans than man, although I am not as upset by this as I am the about the others 🙂
Woolf also deplores the lack of knowledge about the lives of women in the past. I think she would have been glad of the emergence of ‘women’s studies’ and ‘women’s history’ (although I confess that I dislike these terms) and that we know have many answers to the questions she was asking. Although the lives and history of women, just like the lives of people of color and the working class, are not as present in history classes and history text books as I think they should be, we have made progress since Woolf’s time.
I also enjoyed Woolf’s exploration of the history of women and fiction. I have been wanting to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women for a while, and now knowing that she was derided as a ‘hyena in petticoats’ for her conviction that women should receive the same level of education as men, I am more eager than ever to pick it up. I also thought her comparison of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were very interesting.
This is the first work of Virginia Woolf’s that I’ve read and I admit that I was not sure if she would be a writer that I would enjoy, so I purposely picked one of her shorter works. Luckily I was wrong, once again, and I had a wonderful time reading this little book. I would eventually like to own and reread this book as it gives you a lot to think about. I am now also interested in reading her Three Guineas and checking out some of her well-known fictional work as well. If you’re interested about the history of women and fiction or are wanting to know what one of the most talented novelists of the past century thought about the treatment of women during her time, then I would encourage you to check this book out.