Sharing my learnings from the book, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
“A Room of One’s Own” is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled “Women and Fiction”, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction. The essay is generally seen as a feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy.
- What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? This is the driving question that moved Virginia Woolf to write A Room of One’s Own – a touchstone work of the feminist canon.
- novelist Virginia Woolf was strolling along a river that ran through a picturesque college campus. As she lolled in the grass, she became lost in thought. Deep in this intellectual reverie, she felt on the verge of a sharp insight – until, suddenly, a man interrupted her peaceful introspection. The interloper informed Woolf that the riverbank lawn was reserved for scholars at the university and that she must move along.
- Woolf continued to muse on the barriers keeping women from artistic pursuits. She was struck by the way in which, both historically and in her own day, women were excluded from many academic and cultural institutions.
- All this reflection wore on Woolf. She saw that men were often afforded luxurious accommodations for their intellectual pursuits, while women had to struggle with economic insecurity and social precarity. She wondered how these disparate conditions affected the creative output of the respective genders.
- to uncover why women and men are treated so differently in society, Woolf began her research in the British Library
- The library’s stacks held thousands and thousands of books about women. There were books on their biology, their temperament, their psychology, and their history – and, of course, they were all written by men. Yet, curiously, there were no corresponding publications about men written by women. It seems that in the Western imagination, women are always the object of scrutiny – but are never allowed to be the objective scrutinizers.
- Woolf was especially struck by a thick volume by an esteemed professor, titled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. The premise was so ridiculous and laughable that Woolf was driven to imagine the man behind the words.
- Woolf flipped through the newspaper and noted how every headline concerned the actions of men. Men ran governments, brokered the business deals, and had their sports covered in rhapsodic detail. To any visitor from another planet, their structural power over women would have been completely obvious.
- She hypothesized that this impulse was rooted in men’s insecurity and their desire to affirm their status in the world. She imagined that a man must feel assured that he could walk into any room convinced that he was better than half its occupants. Woolf wondered how many women’s accomplishments had been diminished by this mindset.
- Throughout history, society has kept gifted women from applying their talents.
- women have rarely been given the same autonomy as men. Even in the relatively recent era of Elizabethan England, women were scarcely educated. Instead, they were married off early – often against their will or wishes
- Many talented women who actually existed were also never given the chance to express themselves. Such stifling conditions surely drove many into mental distress or even to suicide.
- Even successful women writers are still constrained by social realities.
- Meet Lady Winchilsea. Born in 1661 to a noble family, Winchilsea was one of the relatively few seventeenth-century women with enough education and material resources to spend her days writing poetry. Unfortunately, her passion was not taken seriously. They deemed her to be strange and melancholic for spending time alone at her desk. The social ostracism she experienced left her bitter, and the hostility soured her work.
- Aphra Behn earned a living writing plays and novels. Her rare success showed writing could be profitable for women – and with profit came respectability. With Behn as a model, more and more women could take up their pens in the pursuit of artistic expression.
- All these women wrote novels. Woolf remarked that this format was the easiest to write between bouts of housework and other distractions. Their social conditions shaped the content of their work.
- In the modern era of the late 1920s, you can find a book on Greek archeology by Jane Harrison; Vernon Lee’s writing on art and aesthetics; and Gertrude Bell recounting the history of Persia. There’s a plethora of fiction as well – romances, fantasy stories, and novels grounded in gritty realism.
- Woolf felt that the only way to read fiction was to treat each work as the latest installment in a longer literary history. So, when reading Mary Carmichael’s debut novel, she compared the work to texts of the past. In this light, Life’s Adventure presented a few interesting departures. For one, Carmichael’s prose is snappier and more terse than those of predecessors like Austen or Brontë. But this stylistic choice is only the beginning.
- Woolf was immediately struck by a simple sentence: “Chloe liked Olivia.” This short phrase opened a whole new world of possibility. Previously, nuanced and amicable relationships between women had rarely been depicted. Women were always written as mutually antagonistic, or rendered purely through their relationships with men. By focusing on a working relationship between two women, Carmichael was already pushing literature in new directions.
- It’s also notable that Chloe and Olivia are not merely friends, but colleagues. They work together as scientists in a laboratory. Here again, Carmichael was exploring new territory. Modern women’s fiction was no longer confined to the perfumed parlors of upper-class protagonists. Women were now writing about a broader range of experiences, from workers to courtesans, and giving them more detail and distinction than male writers ever had.
- Woolf felt that if women could set aside lingering animosity to trace male characters with care, they would produce works that offered stunning new insights into the opposite sex as well.
- Maybe our social categories of “man” and “woman” do more harm than good. Maybe artists are at their best when they operate beyond such strict binary thinking.
- The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge forged the concept of the “androgynous mind.” This is a mind that works beyond the simple binary of male and female. It sees the world from both male and female perspectives, and it finds artistic avenues that don’t strictly adhere to either sex at all.
- the world of the late 1920s was very conscious of gender. In particular, men felt threatened by women exerting themselves politically. Many men sought to protect masculinity by retreating into a self-consciously masculine ideal. This not only produced bad art, but also fed dangerous, hypermasculine political movements such as Facism in Italy.
- Woolf imagined a better world – one in which women and men alike can pursue their goals, artistic or otherwise, without their identities being refracted through the prism of gender. She asserted that artists should not worry themselves with ranking the relative merits of the sexes, but should instead focus on relating to reality as a whole. She felt that this mindset, along with material resources, was the best path to producing great art.