Having picked up three books in three days without having my imagination captured I was beginning to embrace the reading slump and come to terms with the notion I may never read and enjoy a book again. In a state of quiet disillusionment I started reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. People have told me to read it numerous times, so naturally, I had completely ignored them. I’m glad I finally took the advice as this book, framed as an essay and a feminist polemic is an absolute joy to read.
Virginia Woolfs astute observation and wit is preserved on every page. It feels like a voice from a very specific moment in the past is speaking to you as the reader. What she claims is simply that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” An easy premise for a subject so vast as Women and Fiction.
She begins with a fictitious day in which she is run off the path by a Beadle and denied entry to a library. She considers the history of men pouring money into educational instituations and the exclusion of women from industry and Universities. Her observations are dry and humourous. She thinks to enter the University but says she may be asked to produce her baptismal certificate, or a letter of introduction from the dean. These dry, sardonic observations are impeccable and give the text a relevance that can be felt even now.
The focus is prodominantly on the history of women and their role in society. She suggests that “for some reason or other, our mother’s had mismanaged their money very gravely.” Which is a view that would likely have been expressed if a man had experienced the same lack of prospects as many women at the time. She expands the assumption to consider how women have lived and the extent of subdigation through a history of women writers. Her assessments are crisp, and you can read in her work the extent of the research and consideration that has gone into her writing in general and this particular piece.
Woolf begins her research by looking at what has been written about women. She asks “are you aware, that you are perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe.” It’s strange to consider now that about 200 years ago, the predominant reflections of women were those written by men. Woolf goes on the speak on the way in which women have been portrayed. She doesn’t counter the observations with her views, but gives the reader the opportunity to consider the facts as she lays them out.
As her research continues a sense of anger begins to rise. She says of professor Von X’s portrait “his expression suggested he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on his paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him.” The anger that fuels this statement and the observation of this man are sharp and perfectly astute. It reminded me of comments on Facebook when a women raises a feminist view point and is promptly told how wrong she is. Often by the end she has been told she’s wrong, stupid and ugly as well! This strange defensive phenomenon designed the crush, belittle and undermine, appears sadly alive and well in the world we currently live.
Woolf expresses the view that women have become “looking glasses possessing the Magic and delicious power of reflection the figure of man at twice its natural size.” What struck me was the colossal burden of this notion. How much power male writers had given women, suggesting they define the esteem of their husbands yet how little power they had in real terms. The difference is irreconcilable but ever present in the work of many male authors. I read a fantastic article that took descriptions of women that were written by men and looked at them under a microscope. The madness in the way these strangely mute visions of Aphrodite are portrayed in literature are incredible when read out of context. Adding to the literary myth that women are erethral creatures as appose to just normal humans.
Woolf finishes her essay by arguing that fiction should be written without the consideration of gender. That it should be composed in the voice and style of the writer without giving way to the frustrations and draw backs of sexes. She says of writing that what is needed is the power to contemplate and think for oneself. Woolf leaves us with a reminder that the freedoms women have now are vast by comparison to those that have gone before. A sobering and inspiring reminder that the opportunity to create is for the most part, accessible to us all.
Do you feel there is still something to be gained from Woolf’s work on fiction?
Are her observations about gender still relevant today?
Have you read A Room of One’s Own? What did you think?
I’d love the hear you views in the comments.