It is no shocker that Virginia Woolf was a hardcore feminist. A Room of One’s Own is her feminist essay from woman to woman.
As always, the book has Woolf’s unconventional employment of narrative techniques and her notorious long paragraphs that (annoyingly) make sense.
What’s the book primarily about?
Woolf had to give a series of lectures to women in the 1920s about “women in fiction.” This novel/essay/narrative is a book derived from that lecture.
The primary argument of the book is simple: a woman must have financial independence (specifically, 500 pounds/year) and a private space if she wants to become a writer (by extension, this extends to other fields as well).
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
While the ‘solution’ for the lack of creative opportunity to women lies in the title itself, Woolf recognizes that reality is much more complex and nuanced in the book.
What themes and styles can I expect to find?
The book touches on many themes about women in writing – from examining the career of female authors of the time (like Austen and the Bronte sisters) to recognizing that women in literature are presented from a male point of view.
The former theme gives us details about how Austen’s domestic responsibilities cut down on her time to get an uninterrupted flow in writing. This is in contrast to male authors like Hemingway, who didn’t have to worry about familial accountability as much as women.
The latter theme tells how women are perceived by men and expected to live up to a patriarchal value system that makes them internalize false and brutal aesthetics.
Woolf does not voice these arguments in the standard “I” — she narrates through the voices of Mary Beton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael. She also recognizes that literature and language shouldn’t be gendered. Woolf advocates going beyond the male/female binary in writing & creativity because she believes the best artists always have a combination of both genders.
What A Room of One’s Own is birthing Shakespeare’s sister, who is given the name of “Judith” in the book. Woolf argues what would’ve happened if Shakespeare had a sister, had an education, and was free of the Elizabethan gender norms & duties. She urges women to keep Judith alive inside them:
“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.”
Shortcomings of “A Room Of One’s Own”
While this book remains the hallmark for feminist literature, it does leave out a significant portion to give an opinion on motherhood and how it affects a female writer. This could’ve been explored in greater detail.
The reason why a lot of readers do not “get” Woolf is because she has a habit of going off track. She certainly brings you back with a striking punch, but there’s a lot of beating around the bush when Woolf gets carried away with her whimsy.
This book is often criticized for implying that creativity is for the bourgeois. Woolf does not just leave a commentary on gender but a commentary on class, too. Material wealth makes for a better writer because there are no constant interruptions and servants can take care of the domestic chores.
I read this book when I was an aspiring female writer at the age of 16. To say I truly needed this book then (and yesterday, and today), would be an understatement.
The analogy of Shakespeare’s sister has what made me survive through days when writing seemed too difficult and it was tempting to give up. I’ve read the passage of keeping Judith in my flesh enough times to recite it like a prayer when I need it.
I believe this book has done its job if even one woman picks up the pen after reading this. It certainly inspired me to sit at my own desk and shut the door.
Luckily, I have a room of my own.