Abstract: Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of the constraints they face and their relative poverty: “In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.” The article overviews how Woolf’s essay examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. By building the argument that literature and history is a male construct that has traditionally marginalised women, Woolf refutes the widely held assumption that women are inferior writers, or inferior subjects, instead locating their silence in their material and social circumstances. Women have been barred from attending school and university, for instance, or excluded by law for inheritance, or expected to marry during which their time is spent housekeeping and childrearing.
Keywords: women writers, women writing fiction, inferior status, gender consciousness, feminist propaganda, literary imagination, middle class women, women’s empowerment, women’ education access
Even after eight decades, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) remains a text that defies any attempt at classification – it is variously interpreted as an extended essay, a lecture, a political essay, fiction, feminist polemic or propaganda. It is an open text crammed with ideas and the reader does not notice them all at once. At the outset, Woolf makes it clear that she does not intend the text to be a conventional lecture.
‘I should never be able to fulfil what is, 1 understand the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your note books and keep them on the mantelpiece forever’ (Room 13).
She admonishes the reader, ‘It is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether only part of it is worth keeping’ (14). Woolf makes the reader aware of himself as a reader and herself as a writer actively constructing a text. She sees independence as the most important quality that a reader can possess, and denies the text a single authoritative meaning. Moreover, she deconstructs the humanist assumption of the author’s subjectivity — ‘I is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being’ – and adopts a persona – Mary Beton (14). This extremely imaginative and highly self reflexive text has stood the test of time to be considered as the first major work in feminist criticism.
The text we now know as A Room of One’s Own was first published on 24 October 1929 by the Hogarth Press in England and Harcourt Brace in America. A Room of One’s Own began as two lectures delivered by Woolf in Cambridge in October 1928, under the general heading ‘Women and Fiction’. One was addressed to the Arts Society at Newnham College, and the other to a society name Odtaa (One damn thing after another) at Girton College. Both were Women’s colleges in Cambridge. In March 1929 she published an article based on the lectures ‘Women and Fiction’ in the American magazine Forum. The text we now have is a much revised and expanded version written in the spring and summer of 1929. While she was working on The Waves S.L.Rosenbaum discovered the handwritten manuscript of the Room, and published it with other manuscripts in 1.992 as Virginia Woolf Women and Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. In 1929, with profits from Orlando Woolf built some rooms of her own in the back garden of her summer home at Rodmell, Monk’s House. She was planning these rooms, a bed room and a sitting room not attached to the main house, during the time she was writing the Room. Another contemporary event that would have influenced the text was the Radclyffe Hall obscenity trial which began in November 1928. After the trial Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was destroyed and burnt in England because of its lesbian subject matter.
The contemporary reviews of the Room were generally good although novelist Rebecca West called it, ‘an uncompromising piece of feminist propaganda’ (West). Desmond McCarthy in the Sunday Times reviewed it in 1929, ‘It is feminist propaganda, yet it resembles an almond tree in blossom.’ Quentin Belt, Virginia’s nephew calls the Room “the easiest of Virginia’s books. . . . The whole work is held together . . . by a thread of argument – a simple well stated argument: the disabilities of women are social and economic: the woman writer can only survive despite great difficulties, and despite the prejudice and economic selfishness of men: and the key to emancipation is to be found in the door of a room which a woman may call her own’ (12). He goes on to remark that “in A Room of One’s Own one hears Virginia speaking . . . . It is a serene voice, the voice of a happy woman who loves life… and loves that subtle subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry, no need to sparkle’ (13). John Lehmann, finds it heartening that a polemic on the inferior status of women could ‘such imaginative illumination or such absence of rancorous rhetoric.’ He says, ‘It is in fact, a masterpiece’ (20). At a time when feminist theorising was in its infancy, Woolf does not make any claim to feminist scholarship. This is how she evaluated her work in A Winter’s Diary, ‘It is a trifle, I shall say: so it is but I wrote it with ardour and conviction’ (20). Her anti-patriarchal and anti-authoritarian stance helped women to use their anger constructively and taught women to express themselves as women in their lives, in their work and in their art.
The narrative A Room of One’s Own opens in Oxbridge, a fictionalised blend of England’s most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, the male bastions of education. The narrator lunches at an unnamed men’s college and is impressed by the ambience, the luxury and the lavish food served in style. In contrast, she depicts the poverty, the lack of amenities and elegance in the women’s college she names Fernharn. The conversation that men engage in is pleasant and intellectual whereas women talk about their private lives and share the gossip about their common acquaintances. Here Woolf traces the effect that poverty has on the mind. She declares that in order to think well, one must eat well. The initial question that she raises in her text is why there have been so few women writers. She now ties their minority status to socio-economic factors, specifically to their poverty and lack of privacy. This leads to her central thesis — ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ (Room 13). Without money she is slavishly dependent on men; without privacy she is hampered by constant interruptions that can ruin her creativity. This is her basic line of argument while she ponders over the topic assigned to her for the lecture at Fernham — ‘Women and fiction’. She analyses her topic and finds that it may mean many things — women and what they are like, women and the fiction written about them, and women and the fiction that they write. She concludes that all these are inextricably linked together and connected to the material basis of women’s oppression. At Oxbridge, the narrator encounters the worst form of institutionalised sexism when she is denied admission to the library. But her anger soon dissolves in good humour when she remarks: ‘. . . and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked perhaps to be locked in’ (Room 33). While discussing the poverty of their sex with Mary Seton, the narrator points out how men’s colleges were built by the money poured in by the ex-students who had become business magnates and owners of corporate houses. Women like Mary Seton’s mother were housewives whose non-productive work never secured them money of their own. Mrs. Seton, Mary’s mother was married to a minister of the church and had thirteen children. Woolf here identifies the family as the cornerstone of patriarchal oppression relegating women to the private sphere of domesticity excluding them from the public world of wage earning and decision making. The narrator realises that if Mrs. Seton had gone into business and was independent and wealthy, she could also have instituted endowments and founded fellowships that would help women’s education. However, she realises that before the married Woman’s Property Act was passed in 1870 and 1882, no married woman was allowed to keep her own earnings. The historical question why there have been so few women writers has a materialist answer in Woolf. Material circumstances limited women’s lives, education and achievements. Since women were not allowed to control wealth, they necessarily led lives which were less publicly significant than those of men. Until these material limitations are overcome, women will continue to achieve publicly less than men. Woolf’s materialist thesis implicitly contests the notion that women’s inferior status is a natural outcome of biological inferiority. While the materialist position is widely accepted today, in Woolf’s times, such arguments had to be put forward with convincing illustrations.
Searching for answers and further clarifications, the narrator explores the British Museum in London. She finds there countless books written about women by men, while there are hardly any books written by women on men. One male professor who writes about the inferiority of women angers the narrator, but soon she realises that this work – The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex-was written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth (Room 41). She has become angry because it was written in anger. Had the professor written dispassionately she would have paid more attention to his argument and less to him. She now wonders why any man in patriarchal England should be so angry when he enjoys so much power. Soon it dawns on her that it is the insecurity of men that drives them to assert their superiority at the expense of women. Women have always served as looking glasses which reflect men as twice their natural size and this is what boosts their self-confidence. Throughout history women have served as models of inferiority that enlarge the superiority of men.
A turning point in the life of the narrator was the death of her aunt Mary Beton who left her a legacy of 500 pounds. The news of the legacy reached her one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. To the narrator, the money was infinitely more valuable than the right to vote. She reasons out that since nothing can take away her money and security she need not enslave herself to any man. She need not now earn money from trivial occupations like addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers and teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten the chief occupations open to women before 1918. She says that ‘legacy unveiled the sky to me’ and gave freedom ‘to think of things in themselves’ objectively without fear or prejudice (Room 45).
The narrator explores the history of women in Elizabethan England, puzzled why there were no women writers who made their mark in that fertile literary period. She is convinced that there is an undeniable connection between living conditions and creativity. Women in that era had few rights and were suppressed. She realises that the majestic and witty women characters on the Elizabethan stage and in the pages of books did in no way resemble the ordinary woman of the time. There were no Rosalinds or Cleopatras or Violas in real life. The narrator feels that history has to be rewritten to include women.
The highlight of Woolf’s text is her brilliant and original creation of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith Shakespeare. She was equally gifted with a flair, for the theatre but parental opposition ties her down to domesticity. Finally, like her brother she takes the road to London only to find that she is ridiculed and exploited by men who dominate the theatre. Finally she is seduced and impregnated by Nick Greene, the actor manager and chooses to end her life. The narrator recognises that the female body is often the greatest obstacle before women’s yearning for intellectual fulfillment — ‘who shall measure the heat and violence of a poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ (55) A woman who chooses to be different is treated as a freakish outsider and often punished by society. As Woolf puts it, ‘When however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils . . . I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of come mute inglorious Jane Austen’ (56). Later, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar were to develop this thesis in their Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979).
The difficulties in writing – especially the indifference of the world to one’s art – are compounded for women who are actively disdained by the male establishment. The narrator says that the mind of the artist must be incandescent- filtering out personal grudges and spites and antipathies. The absence of personal grievance makes Shakespeare’s work ‘free and unimpeded’ (46).
The narrator reviews the poetry of several aristocratic Elizabethan ladies only to find that anger towards men and insecurity mar their writing, and prevents genius from shining through. Lady Winchilsea and Duchess Margaret of Newcastle produced poems that were stifled by fear and hatred of men.
For the narrator the writer Aphra Ben, dramatist, poet and novelist of the seventeenth century, marks a turning point. She was a middle class woman forced to earn her living after her husband’s death. She triumphed over her adverse circumstance to emerge as the first professional woman writer who wrote for money.
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of the great women novelists like George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. These middle class women trained in the art of social observation found the novel a fitting medium. The narrator finds more genius in Charlotte Bronte but feels that her writing is marred by personal prejudice and protest. Jane Austen however, wrote naturally without prejudice or hatred, without protest and without preaching. The narrator places Jane Austen beside Shakespeare for her genius and her incandescent mind.
Woolf explores the psychological impact of the hostile criticism against women writers and also outlines the difficulties of those who had no tradition behind them. Literary history was essentially male. The metaphor of literary paternity denied a place for the woman writer. She had no literary foremothers and remained a freakish outsider to the literary tradition. Woolf remarks, ‘We think back through our mothers if we are women’ (82). The lack of a tradition and the inadequacy of tools told enormously on the writings of women. Woolf paves the way for Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: Women Writers from Bronte to Lessing (1978), and Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1984) which excavate the forgotten women writers who form links in the tradition. She also explores the need for a woman’s language as she feels that the man’s sentence often does not provide the adequate vocabulary. The search for ecriture feminine had already begun with Woolf. She experimented with writing. She was very much influenced by the post-Impressionists, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse – whose paintings her friend Roger Fry exhibited. Like the painters Woolf tried to create a suggestive form which takes into account more than the surface features. Yet she was faced with the problem: ‘The meaning is just on the far side of language’ (Virginia Woolf ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ in Rachel Bowlby A Woman’s Essay) Woolf perfected the stream of consciousness technique in her To the Lighthouse and she established for herself a style – witty, elegant, ironic, detached – while she found her own natural shapely sentence.
Nearer to modern times, the narrator finds books by women on various subjects – Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archeology, Vernon Lee’s books on aesthetics and Gertrude Bell’s books on Persia. Women had now started using writing as an art, not as self expression. She focuses on a book called Life’s Adventure by Mary Carmichael. Mary Carmichael was the name taken by Marie Slopes, pioneer of birth control when she published a novel Love’s Creation (1928). Carmichael for Woolf is the descendant of a female tradition in literature. She brings about an enormous change in the state of writing. Her prose style is uneven, perhaps a rebellion against the ‘flowery’ language of women. She unsettles the reader’s expectations with unexpected stylistic shifts. Woolf lights upon the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia.’ She feels that the idea of female friendship is groundbreaking in literature since women are generally viewed in literature only in relation to men. By the nineteenth century, women were portrayed in novels as more complex characters, but the narrator still believes that each sex is limited in its knowledge of the other. Yet she believes that great men in history depended on women for providing them with “some stimulus, some renewal of their creative power” that other men could not (91). She hopes that Carmichael will do justice in recording the lives of women faithfully and will write about men without prejudice and anger.
Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory. They are co-workers and partners. The narrator asks how impoverished literature will be if men were depicted only as lovers of women. She maintains ‘that sometimes women do like women . . . these things sometimes happen’ (87). The lesbian undertones are obvious but not self consciously expressed. ‘For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that chamber where nobody has yet been’ (89). The women find other interests than domesticity and reach out for ‘knowledge, adventure and art’ (89).
Mary Carmichael also has the duty of creating characters out of stereotypes. She will also have to record the obscure lives of ordinary women. The creativity of men and women is different and then writing should reflect these differences. Since everyone has a blind spot about himself / herself, only women can adequately portray men in literature. Perfect balance and harmony can be achieved when each sex can laugh at its foibles and eccentricities. Carmichael however, is now ‘only a clever girl.’ In a hundred years, the narrator believes, with a little money and a room of her own, Carmichael’s genius will blossom.
In the last chapter the narrator maintains that gender consciousness hampers creativity and dims the incandescence of genius. Gender consciousness cripples both male and female writers. Most men derogate women to maintain their superiority. Most women are angry and insecure about their inferior status in society. Male writing is aggressive and female writing is reactive. Both genders thus focus on themselves and then personal grievances and lose relationship with objective reality. The subject then becomes the writer’s self, not the world.
Woolf maintains that an incandescent mind is essentially an androgynous mind. She borrows the term ‘androgynous’ from Coleridge. A complete fusion of minds, male and female, obliterates any gender consciousness and frees the mind of all impediments. She maintains that ‘it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be woman manly or man womanly’ (108). She declares that only when the fusion between the male and female takes place the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties (103). The narrator exhorts the reader to exchange competition for collaboration.
In conclusion Woolf speaks in her own voice and asserts her thesis about money and private space. She hopes that in a hundred years things will change for women and that Judith Shakespeare will be born again and ‘she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry’ if women work for her and pave the way for her arrival.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972.
Gilbert, Sandra M and Susan Gubar. The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale U P, 1979.
Lehmann, John. Virginia Woolf London: Thames and Hudson, 1975. West, Rebecca. ‘Autumn and Virginia Woolf.’ Ending in Earnest. 1933 Woolf, Leonard, ed. Writer’s Diary. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. New Delhi: Foundation Books; Cambridge U P, 1998.
ROSHAN THOMAS. Teaches at the all Saints’ College, Thiruvanathapuram. Interested in Feminist Studies. Is a regular contributor to research journals.