Nov 23, 2011

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own was the May choice for the Year of Feminist Classics project, and although I was supposed to be leading the discussion, life happened and I only got around to writing about the essay in full this month. Better late than never, right? As I said in my introduction, A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929, and it’s based on two lectures delivered by Woolf at Newham and Girton Colleges in 1928. Virginia Woolf’s central argument is that “every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year”, that is: without economic independence and the freedom it allows, women’s achievements in the arts and in literature will forever lag behind.

A Room of One’s Own uses this central premise as a point of departure to address topics such as women’s access to education (or the lack thereof), literary history, the social circumstances surrounding women’s writing, androgyny, and the taboos concerning lesbian writing – a topic that was surely at the front of everyone’s mind only one year after the obscenity trial about The Well of Loneliness.

This was my second time reading Woolf’s famous essay, and now as then I was particularly moved by the third chapter, in which she tells the fictional story Judith, Shakespeare’s sister. Reading that chapter for the first time many years ago caused one of my first “click” movements regarding feminism – it made me understand sexist oppression better than I ever had before, and it caused me to begin to join the dots.

Regarding the position of a woman like the fictional Judith, Woolf says:
To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.
The words “twisted and deformed” are pretty loaded: they hint at centuries of shaming women and deeming any deviant gender performance “unnatural”. Therefore, it’s a little hard for me to read something like this without wincing. I disagree with Woolf here, and also later on when she makes a similar point about Jane Eyre. A lot has been written about Woolf’s stance on female anger, so I won’t dwell on that too much – I’ll just say that yes, anger is a perfectly valid emotion for a woman to experience and is certainly worth writing about. However, as Woolf develops her argument I begin to see her point. She goes on to say:
But, nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked even half a century ago. Men were no longer to her ‘the opposing faction’; she need not waste her time railing against them; she need not climb on to the roof and ruin her peace of mind longing for travel, experience and a knowledge of the world and character that were denied her. Fear and hatred were almost gone, or traces of them showed only in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to the caustic and satirical, rather than to the romantic, in her treatment of the other sex.
As much as I don’t think that anger makes women’s writing twisted or deformed; as much as I think that resistance to oppression is a perfectly valid topic, I do want women’s writing to contain the full human spectrum. I don’t want every book by a woman to have to be an outcry against sexism, but that’s only possible if they live in a world where sexist restrictions and limitations don’t consume their whole attention. In this sense, I can understand what Woolf was trying to say.

Another frequent point of discussion about A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s theory of the androgynous mind, about which Emily wrote a fabulous guest post back in May. I particularly liked Emily’s point about gender being real in the world as it is today – therefore, even if one rejects gender essentialism the gender binary remains very useful as a lens of analysis. Woolf accepted essentialism to a far greater degree than I’m comfortable with myself, but I can certainly see value of her ideas despite that.

Reading A Room of One’s Own was an eye-opening experience for my younger self, and revisiting it some years later was a real pleasure. Of course, this isn’t to say that the text is without its blind spots and shortcomings: Alice Walker has written a famous critique based on Woolf’s exclusion of women of colour, and in her review from a few years ago Memory made some excellent points about why the essay is problematic from a class standpoint. All of this is true, and I completely respect the fact that different readers have different limits regarding how much is too much. In my case, A Room of One’s Own’s limitations didn’t detract from a deep appreciation for what it does achieve. As with many other simultaneously problematic and illuminating texts, I was left with the desire to read it alongside other works, so that a fuller picture of the gender issues faced by women in the early twentieth century could emerge.

A Room of One’s Own packs a lot of ideas despite its brief length, and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything it does or doesn’t do. I’ll finish this by saying how much I loved the voice Woolf uses here: she does sarcasm brilliantly, and despite the serious subject matter there are some wonderful moments of humour.

The final paragraph, in which she returns to Shakespeare’s sister, really moved me. I wonder what Virginia Woolf would make of the world as it is today? So much has changed, so much has stayed the same.

You can read A Room of One’s Own online here.

Memorable excerpts:
So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I pondered this and that, as one does at the end of the day’s work. I pondered why it was that Mrs Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind; and I thought of the queer old gentlemen I had seen that morning with tufts of fur upon their shoulders; and I remembered how if one whistled one of them ran; and I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge. A thousand stars were flashing across the blue wastes of the sky. One seemed alone with an inscrutable society. All human beings were laid asleep — prone, horizontal, dumb. Nobody seemed stirring in the streets of Oxbridge. Even the door of the hotel sprang open at the touch of an invisible hand — not a boots was sitting up to light me to bed, it was so late.

Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? Here had I come with a notebook and a pencil proposing to spend a morning reading, supposing that at the end of the morning I should have transferred the truth to my notebook. But I should need to be a herd of elephants, I thought, and a wilderness of spiders, desperately referring to the animals that are reputed longest lived and most multitudinously eyed, to cope with all this.
I really love it when she gets sarcastic.
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
So true, even today. As is this Bechdel Test-esque bit:
Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose.
They read it too: Stella Matutina, Amy Reads, Notes from the North, Literary Musings, Rebecca Reads, Eclectic/Eccentric, Chasing Bawa, The Reading Life, Musings, Silver Threads, Booked All Week, Bonnie’s Books, Nose in a Book, Reading' and Dreamin', Read Irresponsibly

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add it.)


  1. I read it last year and remember being completely stunned by it. It's a brilliant piece of feminist writing and yet, as you point out, it is also problematic. But that's probably why it makes it so interesting. And I do agree with Memory about the problems of class. I really should re-read it sometime!

  2. This book has always been fascinating for me, but I haven't read it yet because I find it intimidating. The excepts you posted, though, proved me wrong. Yes, the book does make you think, but I think I can still understand it. Great post, as always.

    I also completely aree about its relevance to today's women writers. It's almost hard to believe that a lot of female writers are still dealing with the same issues that Woolf tackled in this essay.

  3. It might be time for a reread of this book! And the excerpt you quoted made me want to read Diana of the Crossways, which I went to some trouble to get. It is sitting right on my shelf. Room is still relevant for women writers-thanks for a great review.

  4. I have never read this, but what you have to say about it is fascinating and makes me think that this book would make me really think deeply about the issues that it presents. It seems that I have been intimidated by Woolf for too long. I am going to rectify this by trying this one on the upcoming year. Thanks for the beautifully crafted review on this one!

  5. Fantastic review. I, too, was moved by the chapter about Shakespeare's fictional sister. I almost started to believe she was real.

    I read this for the first time last year, and it blew me away. I wrote a review for it, but it's not much, just my thoughts:

  6. I've never been a big fan of Woolf's fiction, but I did read this one many, many years ago (early eighties), sadly, so long ago that I may as well not have read it at all - and reading your review reminds me that I really do need to revisit it.

  7. I ve only read to the lighthouse which I didn't get on with so well ,it put me off a bit ,lthough I saw on the programme about diary writer and would like to try that at some point ,all the best stu

  8. You've made me want to reread this, stat. I wonder how my response will have shifted in the intervening years?

  9. I read this about ten years ago, and I remember being fascinated by it and the ideas and analysis it presented.
    However, reading the excerpts you present I realise I don't remember much. I should probably reread it someday.
    I believe it's an important book for women writers even today, and is also important for women readers because just as much as it's difficult for women writers to be published and promoted, then it somehow means that what we read is mostly (as everything around us) from a man mind. And we need a balance.

  10. Zibilee - she has the same effect on me! The only fiction of hers I have ever tried to read was To The Lighthouse (and that was only because a friend was doing it for A Level English) - I failed miserably.

  11. The Shakespeare's sister story is one that really has stuck with me since reading. So much else have gone by the wayside, but that one is still fresh in my mind.

  12. I read this for collage recently, and thought that it brought up some great ideas about literature and fiction in general. It made me wonder about films and televsion - from what I've read men still prevail in those industries as writers. I did feel a bit hopeful at the end though because two of the most recent big authors have been women - J K Rowling and Stepheny Meyers, but then I realised 'Harry Potter' is about a boy and Twilight is well Twilight lol... I think your review was really good.

  13. Great review, and glad you liked it as much on your reread. So many interesting points. I think it's so great though that others call out different points from the book like race and class, allowing us all to have a fuller appreciation while still noticing the flaws, and able to read other works with it to fill in the gaps!

  14. I'm not one for stream-of-consciousness, but I was always curious about her essays. I discovered something amazing from your review: Woolf can be sarcastic! I like her more already :)

  15. Reading your brilliant post made me realise it's been all too long since I last read A Room of One's Own. I really have to schedule a reread!

  16. Sakura: Yes, all the issues are worth discussing, but still a brilliant piece of writing! And all these decades later it still has the power to open eyes.

    Darlyn: It's a lot more acessible than her fiction, I find. When I first read it I was surprised that it was such an easy read! And ditto to your second paragraph.

    bibliophiliac: I have a copy of that one as well! I really should get to it sooner rather than later.

    Zibilee: I think this is an excellent way to get over Woolf intimidation! It's funny, readable and full of food for thought. I'd really love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Christy: Many thanks for the link - and sorry I missed it!

    Tracy: That happens to me with so many books. It's a good reminder that I really need to make more time for rereading.

    Stu: I think it's perfectly possible not to get on with her fiction but still love her essays. In fact, that was the case for me for many years!

  17. Memory: I'd be curious to find out! (<-- See? Can't help myself in comments :P). I really do love your post from back then, though.

    Larissa: Yes - the majority of fiction readers are women according to statistics, and yet this still happens. Even women have been conditioned to think of men as the default, and as having experiences that are more universal and important that women's.

    Tracy: That happened to me too for years and years. It was only last year that her fiction finally clicked for me.

    Trisha: It's hard to forget, isn't it?

    I remember Delight: And there's also the fact that J.K. Rowling was asked to use her initials rather than the name "Joanne". Pretty telling!

    Amy: Yes, I absolutely agree. I'm so grateful that those readings are out there and that they help expand my own understanding.

    Alex: She can be very funny! Read this and you'll see :P

    Tiina: A post about this on your blog would be perfect given its name :) (Which I've always loved, btw).

  18. Nymeth, what a wonderful write up! I really enjoyed reading it. I like how you acknowledge all the faults and shortcomings but come back around to the fact that in spite of the flaws, Woolf has said some very important things. I think there is sometimes an unfortunate tendency among different feminist factions to dismiss an entire argument because of the flaws (this is not to say that it isn't important to discuss the flaws, only that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater). And so everything gets so fragmented that we lose the bigger picture. Woolf is not perfect, but her argument that a woman needs an independent income and a room of her own is extremely important and true both then and now.

  19. Thanks so much for this Nymeth! You have inspired me to read this.

  20. Fascinating, and I needed to read this now. I've been seeing to many subtle (and not so subtle) anti-feminist rants online and it eats away at you.

    I've just finished the first draft of my own first full length book and now I find myself worrying that most of the characters are female. Not sure why that should worry me. In fact, I was considering making the dog female, but then I find myself thinking "Hold on, that's one of the only male characters, maybe I should keep the dog male."

    How absurd!

  21. At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot I have to admit that I've yet to read Woolf. I know it is a shameful gap in my reading but also why I love your blog. You never cease to have me running off to update my reading list!

  22. Its interesting, my reaction when reading Woolf was to wonder if the thing I LOVE about, say, 19th century women's literature was the thing that she was ashamed of, if the fact that one WAS oppressed and disadvantaged gave a particular vantage point that they wouldn't have otherwise had. I think the problem is the presumption that there is a standard of perfection in literature - that the closer a book is to point X, the more perfect it is. Reading Jane Eyre as a book against, say, Vanity Fair, and judging which is more perfect, seems like an exercise in impossibliity. Read Jane Eyre for its own sake.

  23. Stefanie: Yes, there is a real danger that we'll throw out the baby with the bathwater sometimes. There is a lot here worth critiquing, but also a lot of value.

    Sarah Norman: I'm happy to hear it!

    Masha: I know just what you mean about those rants online. I wish you the best of luck with your book!

    Kathleen: You certainly don't sound like an idiot! I think her non-fiction makes for a great introduction to her work.

    Jason: Yes, there's definitely a fixed hierarchy of worth implicit to her argument, and that's an idea I can't buy into at all.

  24. Perhaps Woolf hadn't read Gaskell. I have been struck by the portrayals of women's friendships in Mary Barton, my current read, which is otherwise a pretty straight political melodrama.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.