I think “A Room of One’s Own” may have just cemented Virginia Woolf’s place as one of my favourite authors. Not only that, I think it’s probably pushed her very near to the top of the list! Everything I have read so far has been excellent but “A Room of One’s Own” is exceptional. This book came into my life at exactly the right time; I wanted something to really sink my teeth into but I didn’t want anything too depressing- you know how it is with meatier books sometimes. Anyway, I spotted this book on my bookshelf and couldn’t believe it had sat there gathering dust for so long, especially once I started it and felt like it had become glued to my hands. I could not put it down.
“A Room of One’s Own” is mighty little bunch of paper and print. It practically grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled:
“WHY HAVE YOU TAKEN SO LONG TO READ ME?”
And really, I can’t work out what has taken me so long. Especially since I found about 5000 usable quotes that would have boosted my masters dissertation no end (queue massive frustration!) I think it’s partly because it’s defined as a ‘feminist polemic’. There’s something so daunting about those words that I was put off. A polemic is a contentious argument that is intended to establish the truth of a specific understanding, and it’s usually very controversial, so understandably I was expecting something vitriolic and preachy. But you see, this is a polemic written by Virginia Woolf, and therein lies the magic. “A Room of One’s Own” paused for thought where I expected a tirade. It whispered where I expected it to shout. It quietly drew me into the argument and best of all Woolf had so obviously thought clearly and without the heat of angry passion, that her argument emerged from amongst the pages well-formed and convincing. Don’t get me wrong, Woolf definitely had an agenda when she was writing this book, but she doesn’t let it overrule everything.
That’s quite an introduction, but what’s the book even about?
Well it’s quite hard to categorise actually. Officially it began life as a speech Woolf was invited to give, to female students at Cambridge University, on the history of Women’s Fiction, but as Woolf herself explains in the first few pages, it’s so much more than that. In many ways it is an attempt on Woolf’s part to define what her thoughts and feelings are on the subject of Women’s independence, whilst also trying to figure out what is needed to further enhance it. What makes this book an engaging read is the subtlety Woolf employs. She does not use the egregiousness of her own personal position to tell us how bad her life is, instead she turns a non-fiction piece of writing into a fiction where the heroine is a vague ‘every woman’. By doing so she removes her personal feelings from the argument which allows her to think dispassionately about the facts in hand. What results is something totally absorbing and convincing. I read this book in a fast paced haze of excitement because it’s so good, in fact I think I may have shocked people on the bus with me by saying “EXACTLY” a little louder than I had intended.
Using the 1st person frame of a woman visiting a University, Woolf slowly introduces the reader to the injustice faced by the woman scholar, namely her exclusion from most aspects of University life. By forcing her heroine to walk in the gravel rather than roam freely on the grass she creates a metaphor that sets the tone for the whole work. Women who aspire to literary greatness, she suggests, must first get over the problem of being forced to the outskirts.
She then hypothesises on what would have happened to Shakespeare’s equally gifted sister (had she existed), coming to the conclusion that not only would her talents have been stifled and discouraged, her life would have ended in a shameful and early demise. It is obviously not a pretty picture but it serves her purpose. We cannot talk about the topic of Women’s Fiction without being aware of the limitations that Women have faced. What would Jane Austen have written, she ponders, if she was not forced to write her novels in full view of everyone and in odd fits and starts when she could spare the time? It is a fruitless train of thought, but also a necessary one. For Woolf, giving women full independence is the key to Women’s fiction becoming equal to fiction written by men. Another important factor is encouraging Women to write like women, not as women writing like men…it’s is a complicated concept ,that Woolf manages to explain far better than I can, but is well worth the extra ten minutes of mental unravelling it takes.
What I love most about Virginia Woolf is how she writes things that I hadn’t realised I wanted to say, and in such a way that makes them feel totally obvious. She uses such beautiful imagery to elucidate a point that sometimes I’m almost jealous of her ability! Additionally she has a brilliant skill at pacing her writing so that it never feels like it’s dragging along but rather encourages readers to turn pages almost faster than they can read them. “A Room of One’s Own” is unashamedly a feminist text, but it is also an interesting example of historical perspective. When it was published in 1929 the world was a much different place as a result, one of the things I enjoyed most about reading with this in mind was marvelling in how far we have come since then.
If you haven’t read any Woolf before I’d possibly suggest reading some of her fiction before reading “A Room of One’s Own”, although I cannot stress enough how much I think everyone should read it!
Have you read Virginia Woolf before?
What’s your favourite work by her?
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about Woolf and her writing!