A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's OwnINTRODUCTION
In A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf asserts that some of the most interesting and intellectual characters in literature have been women. However, off the printed page, women have primarily played second-class roles, kept in place by men determined to dominate them. Women have long been denied access to education and have historically been denied the personal rights and leisure time that are the precondition of creative writing. Addressing her audience in 1929, she notes that authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have made important contributions to literature, but much remains to be done. Woolf famously insists that creative works require freedom, both financial and intellectual; a woman must have independent means (at least five hundred pounds a year, a large sum at the time) and a room of her own. At the time this essay was published, Woolf's message was unprecedented and radical.
A Room of One's Own is based on two lectures that Virginia Woolf presented in 1928 at Newnham and Girton colleges, women's colleges at Cambridge University. She expanded the lectures and published them together as one long essay in 1929. In it, Woolf starts with the subject of women and fiction, but quickly expands into the wider issue of sexism and art, particularly as it affects women's creativity. She frames the essay as a description of her own thinking on the matter, and as she sets out to learn more about women and literature, she finds a shortage of significant female authors prior to the nineteenth century. Seeking an explanation—poverty, lack of education, social expectations that tied women to the domestic sphere—she makes another startling discovery: not only is there a paucity of female authors, there is a lack of information about women's everyday lives before the eighteenth century. The historical picture makes it seem as though women existed only in literature written by men, from a man's point of view. Woolf responds by imagining women's lives, as a way of understanding why female authors are historically such a minor presence in literature.
Woolf's literary reputation was already well established by the time A Room of One's Own was published. She was deeply affected by the carnage and devastation of World War I and was part of the modernist movement in literature. Modernism called for a new worldview and the use of new modes of expression in traditional genres such as novels and poetry. In her writing, Woolf used a method she called "tunneling," in which she dug into a character's inner life, dreams, and thought processes in order to present a more complete picture. She strove to uncover genuine meaning, the truth underneath the observed details of daily life. This technique is evident in her novels Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). In Orlando: A Biography (1928), Woolf explored her title character even more deeply, presenting a protagonist who chooses not to grow old and moves between genders. Her thoughts on a new literary perspective and the concept of androgyny (sexual identity neither exclusively male nor female) are fully articulated in A Room of One's Own.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born January 25, 1882. Her father was an editor, critic, and biographer; Woolf had full run of his library as part of her at-home education. Her mother died in 1895, leading her to experience the first in a series of nervous breakdowns. When her father died in 1904, Woolf suffered another mental collapse. When she recovered, she and three of her siblings moved into a house in the Bloomsbury neighborhood in London. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, and the next year she suffered another breakdown. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915.
In 1917, the Woolfs began their own publishing imprint, Hogarth Press. They also became the center of an intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group, an assemblage of creative intellectuals that included E. M. Forester, Dora Carrington, John Maynard Keynes, and Vita Sackville-West. Woolf became well known for her modernist style and non-traditional novel structure. Woolf's fiction often focused on ordinary female lives that had been overlooked in literature.
Fearing another nervous breakdown and a possible Nazi invasion of England (her husband Leonard was Jewish), Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the river Ouse near her home in Sussex, England, on March 28, 1941.
A Room of One's Own is considered a landmark feminist text and is itself a significant critical contribution to the subject of women and literature. Though some of Woolf's suggestions and methods have been questioned in the seventy years since its publication, it holds an important place in the British and feminist literary canon as an essay that empowered generations of women writers to pick up their pens.
Having been asked to speak on the topic of women and literature, Virginia Woolf wonders what that topic means: the type of literature women write? The type of literature women read? The type of literature written about women? She thinks a mixture of the three is the most interesting take on the topic. She quickly realizes, however, that she will never be able to come to a conclusion, as both women and fiction remain "unsolved problems." Because of the controversial nature of the topic, Woolf says, she can only give her opinions and show she arrived at them, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.
She begins by talking about the days preceding the lecture, during which she visits a men's college she calls Oxbridge (a hybrid of "Oxford" and "Cambridge," traditionally male, elite universities), and women's college she calls Fernham. Thinking about the topic of women and fiction, Woolf absent-mindedly begins to walk across the grassy grounds at Oxbridge. She is quickly intercepted by a security official, who tells her to get off the grass and return to the gravel path. Only students and professors of the college are permitted to walk on the grass; as a woman, Woolf can be neither. Having lost the idea she was developing before she was chased from the grass, she thinks about an essay by Charles Lamb, in which he recalls revisiting Oxbridge and discusses one of Milton's manuscripts. Curious to see it for herself, Woolf makes her way over to the library only to find the entrance is barred to her. Women are only allowed in the library if they have a letter of introduction, or are accompanied by a student or professor.
Woolf angrily leaves, following music she hears coming from a chapel nearby. She stays outside, listening and watching. Reflecting on the chapel's architecture, Woolf thinks of the money it took to build this and all the other university buildings. She thinks of all the kings, noblemen, merchants, and clergy members who have contributed to the college and continue to do so. She then goes to a luncheon, at which several courses of sumptuous food are served. She thinks about "how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as, lighting a cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat." The lunch guests enjoy conversation and laughter, and the feast lasts late into the afternoon. Afterward, Woolf ventures down the road to Fernham, a woman's college.
The meal at Fernham contrasts sharply with her luxurious lunch at Oxbridge. The food is plain and the women drink water rather than wine. Everyone leaves the dining hall immediately after eating, no one stays to talk or smoke a cigarette. Woolf talks to a friend, a science professor at the college, about the money flowing into Oxbridge and asks why it is not the same at Fernham. The professor recounts the struggle to find benefactors for the women's college and the time and energy it took just to raise enough money to get the college started. There is simply no money left over for things like rich food or even private rooms and sofas for students.
As they consider the difficulty female students have gathering money for tuition, Woolf and the professor wonder: "What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?" They realize that their mothers were busy having children and running homes, too busy to build fortunes. If mothers and grandmothers had been able to support Fernham, Woolf and the professor would not be discussing a lack of funds; instead, they would be talking about art, biology, mathematics, and other scholarly pursuits. However, they also realize that if their mothers had gone into business and made money, they would have never been born, remarking that "making a fortune and bearing thirteen children—no human being could stand it." Woolf decides it is useless to think about these women amassing financial fortunes, because it would have been impossible. Moreover, any money they made would have been the legal property of their husbands, not their own to donate to a women's college. Thus there are no amenities at Fernham; "to raise bare walls out of bare earth was the utmost they could do."
The scene shifts to the British Museum in London. Woolf's visits to Oxbridge and Fernham have shown her new questions about women and fiction, and she wants to consult experts about the answers. Looking at the card catalog, she is stunned by the number of books about women written by men. She notes that it is not just biologists or doctors writing about women, but seemingly anyone and everyone, "men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women." The sheer number of men writing on women transforms Woolf's initial question—why are women poor—into dozens of new questions. She makes a list of topics that she encounters in these books about women, such as "Small size of brain of," "Mental, moral and physical inferiority of," and "Weaker muscles of." She discovers a well-spring of contradictory opinions about women, and despairs at the difficulty of finding the truth. Woolf imagines one of the male experts on women and sketches his picture; she draws him looking angry. She imagines him writing his book about the inferiority of women angrily as well, and wonders about the source of this anger.
Having lunch at a nearby restaurant, she resumes thinking about why the expert was angry when he wrote his book, wondering why any man should be angry at women, given that men hold power over women. Perhaps the expert insists that women are inferior not because he is concerned with the truth about women, but because he wants to make sure that he remains superior. Women, Woolf argues, have long been a magnifying glass for men, making them seem bigger than they are. If women were to abandon this function, the civilized world would cease to exist. Men therefore have a motivation to keep women in a subservient position.
As Woolf pays her check at the cafe, she thinks about the money her aunt left her: five hundred pounds each year for the rest of her life. The money has liberated her from the demeaning odd jobs she used to work. It allows for freedom and security, and she is no longer bound by the bitterness that used to accompany her working life. She describes her independence and freedom, writing, "I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me." Woolf considers the shifting value of women's labor. She imagines a time when women are no longer denied simple rights and freedoms, wondering how these thoughts relate to women and fiction.
Woolf rejects the opinions she read in the British Museum's books, choosing instead to consult the historical facts of women's lives. Great works of fiction, she notes, do not simply materialize; they are crucially supported by the writer's livelihood, income, and health. Perhaps an examination of history can explain why, for centuries, women did not write.
Woolf notes that women were long handed off between families via arranged marriages; legally, they were the property of their fathers or husbands. She is struck by the contrast between reality and the way women are depicted in literature: characters from Antigone to Anna Karenina have been powerful, competent individuals. Off the page, they were beaten, kept illiterate, and treated as though they were insignificant. Literary women often surpass the male characters' intelligence and heroism, but living women were not allowed in public without a male escort. Woolf believes that a combined analysis of historical women and fictional women provides a better understanding than either one taken alone. Historians write only of heroes and victors, roles that women were simply not allowed to play. When women cannot read or write, they cannot record their own history; until the nineteenth century, there are few diaries, personal histories, plays, or poems by women. Woolf laments that little is known about women's lives before the eighteenth century. It is thus impossible to know with certainty why women did not write; their private lives, hopes, and expectations are unknown.
Woolf imagines the life of Shakespeare's gifted sister, Judith. Shakespeare leaves Stratford, going to London to write, act, and choose his own path in life. Judith wants the same things, but she is forced to stay home, cobbling together her own education, condemned to domestic chores. She writes in secret, hiding her work or destroying it for fear it will be found. Her father loves her, but believes that this is the best life for her. She is still quite young when her father arranges her marriage. She tries to convince him that she should remain unmarried, but he beats her and begs her not to shame the family. She runs away to London, hoping to become an actress, but stage managers ridicule her and tell her that women cannot be actors. She has a romantic relationship with an actor-manager and becomes pregnant; despairing at her situation, she commits suicide and her grave is long forgotten.
Woolf believes a life like William Shakespeare's was not a practical possibility for the women around him. Given Judith Shakespeare's aspirations, her life could not have been anything but a frustrating tragedy, because "genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people." Woolf does not deny that working class people may possess extraordinary talent and genius (as evidenced by Robert Burns and Emily Bronte). Her point is that limited education, exhausting work, and domestic demands leave little energy or time to express oneself creatively. Woolf believes that any woman with Shakespeare's gift in Elizabethan England would have either killed herself or lost her mind, reasonable responses to being continually thwarted in the pursuit of one's goals. In later centuries, women who dared to write often used pseudonyms or submitted their work anonymously, for "Anonymity runs in [women's] blood."
Though Shakespeare never wrote about his inner life or his experiences as a playwright, later authors have written extensively about the challenges of the creative process. Thus, modern readers know that completing a work of fiction takes enormous strength and commitment, in the best circumstances. The task was that much more formidable for women, Woolf argues, because women could rarely, if ever, obtain the education, quiet, and privacy that most people need to express themselves creatively. This was nearly impossible for women, even in the upper classes, until the nineteenth century. Female artists and writers faced significant material challenges, but they also confronted problematic public attitudes. The world does not need poetry or art, and male writers have often met with an indifferent audience. Women writers faced this indifference, but received hostility, as well. She notes, "the world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What's the good of your writing?" A large body of work claiming that women are intellectually inferior only supported this hostility, confirming and perpetuating men's self-serving ideas about women. Taken together, these challenges are major obstacles to female artists. In 1928, Woolf feels that female novelists have largely overcome these hurdles, but women painters and especially musicians are still struggle under the weight of prejudice. Woolf sees men's collective goal as "not so much that she shall be inferior as that he shall be superior…. The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself."
Woolf reminds her audience of the great difficulty of forging ahead artistically, in the face of the prevailing view of women. It is difficult to convince oneself that the view is wrong, and it is a further challenge to persuade a prejudiced public to accept one's artistic creations. Nonetheless, true creativity requires that an author be able to write beyond her environment. Truly great literature is not burdened with details of the author's personal life and unaddressed grievances. We do not know Shakespeare's purpose in writing his plays. His work stands on its own; it is his writing we know, not him. Creative freedom allows artists to reach beyond themselves, but it requires social and material independence.
Free and complete expression, like Shakespeare's, would not have been possible for a middle-class Elizabethan woman. On the other hand, one can imagine women of nobility or means being able to indulge their creativity. Still, these women were constrained as human beings, and emotions such as fear or anger would emerge in their work, compromising the greatness of their efforts. As an example, Woolf offers Lady Winchilsea, whose poetry focuses on women's oppression. If she could have overcome that, Woolf believes that purer poetry would have come from her pen. Woolf examines other female writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who risked—and received—ridicule for their poetry and instead wrote in solitude for themselves.
Aphra Behn, however, is different. With her, "we turn a very important corner on the road." Behn, a middle-class widow in the eighteenth century, had to make her own living by writing. With Behn, Woolf claims, the capacities of an unconstrained female author are first evident. Behn's work signaled the dawning realization that women could write and make money, and those who followed her laid a foundation for better-known female writers like Austen and the Bronte sisters. Though one needs solitude to write, one also needs the supportive presence of those who have come before.
Woolf notes that the nineteenth century produced more female novelists than poets. Because women writers usually worked in a common family sitting room, any writing done there would be frequently interrupted. It would thus be easier to write prose than poetry, because it requires less concentration. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was written in this sort of environment. Woolf notes that Austen writes without bitterness or fear, in an open manner much like Shakespeare. This was not the case with Charlotte Bronte, in whose writing Woolf sees signs of bitterness and rage. Jane Eyre, like others novels written by women at the time, is marked by the author's lack of real-world experience. Woolf argues that all novelists need such experience. A novel's quality, regardless of the author's gender, derives from its integrity, the sense that the writer is telling the truth. Social dictates about proper subject matter (which, for example, value war stories over stories of family life) can lead female writers away from integrity. Remaining true to oneself and one's experience must have been an enormous struggle, Woolf admits. Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte were able to do it in their time, ignoring what they were told they should write about or think.
Woolf admires the bravery of nineteenth-century women because they had no female literary tradition to consult for help or guidance. Going to male writers for advice was useless; male writers' style, methods, and genres were not suited to female writers. Therefore they took up the novel—the newest literary form—and tried to make it fit their needs.
Looking at her bookshelf of modern writers, Woolf sees that women's writing changed in the twentieth century. Self-expression became an art form. Woolf examines a hypothetical contemporary author she calls Mary Carmichael. Carmichael writes about two women in a relationship, a departure from the traditional depiction of women. Until Austen, she argues, women were "almost without exception … shown in their relation to men" and not in relation to each other. Portraying women's relationships with one another acknowledges that they have meaningful interests outside the home. Showing women eternally in the shadow of men diminishes them as literary characters and as people. If the men in Shakespeare's plays could only have played women's lovers, there would have been no Caesar, Hamlet, or Lear. Likewise, "literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women." If Carmichael—and the contemporary female authors she symbolizes—can maintain the momentum and direction of her writing, Woolf thinks that she will light "a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been." Women outside the domestic sphere, away from men, are new creatures in literature.
For Woolf, female writers offer a different perspective than male authors, and they use their creative powers differently. Woolf praises these differences, and suggests that education should encourage these differences rather than seek to eliminate them. Women should not hide the fact that they are women writing about ostensibly female subjects, for millions of obscure lives remain to be written. "Be truthful," she says, "and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting."
Continuing her critique of Carmichael's novel, Woolf notes that Carmichael is writing like a woman who has forgotten she is a woman, which is good. Woolf worries that the scholars, experts, and men of the world are conspiring against Carmichael's writing and style, waiting in the wings for her to listen to their dissent.
Looking at a busy London street, Woolf watches a man and woman get into a cab together and considers the difficulties of evaluating the sexes separately. To concentrate on one thing, other things must be held back. Woolf wonders whether there is a state of mind in which nothing is held back at all, and feels that watching the man and woman come together in the cab is just such a state. She believes that the sexes naturally want to cooperate, and that perhaps there are two sexes in the brain that must be united for complete satisfaction. When both the male and female sides of the brain are working together, they create what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the androgynous mind." Creative minds are truly "man-womanly" or "woman-manly"—the sexes are not separated. Unfortunately, a divided mind is much more typical; for example, the angry men writing books about female inferiority are writing strictly from a male perspective, and their works are unbalanced and less interesting as a result.
Woolf blames the prevalence of divided minds on anyone who perpetuates division of the sexes. An androgynous mind is essential, Woolf argues, because "it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex." Writing has neither greatness nor longevity if it is sex-conscious.
Woolf reiterates the importance of financial independence and private space for the creative writer. She closes by addressing two possible objections to her views. First, her point is not that women are better writers; she is not debating the merits of female writers versus those of male writers. Writing cannot be measured like ingredients in a cake, and as people mature intellectually, they no longer believe in choosing sides. She exhorts her audience to write whatever they want, and not to sacrifice their vision.
The second objection she foresees has to do with her claims about the need for material security and financial independence. Some might claim that a true artist can rise above any circumstances, but this is unrealistic. Woolf quotes a professor of literature, who writes that the best British poets of the past two hundred years have been well-to-do, saying, "the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog's chance." Woolf agrees, and says that "intellectual freedom depends on material things." Women's historical poverty means that they have had little opportunity for the intellectual freedom required to write poetry or fiction. But she does not wish to confine women to writing fiction. Fiction is enriched in the company of other books, on wide-ranging topics such as archeology, travel, and philosophy, and women have important contributions to make in many fields. Good books—of all sorts—make the world a better place.
Woolf ends her speech by encouraging her female listeners to refuse ignorance and limitation. The world offers them women's colleges, the right to own property, the right to vote, and more professions open to women than at any other time in history. Old excuses about lack of opportunity and education are no longer valid. Reminding her audience of Judith Shakespeare, William's imaginary, restricted sister, Woolf tells them that Judith "lives in you." If women continue to make progress and write about reality, then Judith Shakespeare has a chance to live. Women's historical struggles, in poverty and obscurity, have been worthwhile if they finally allow Judith to speak.
Women and Literature
The impetus behind A Room of One's Own was an invitation to lecture college students on the subject of women and fiction. As Woolf considers her topic, she reaches an interesting conclusion: women in literature have little in common with actual women—a woman becomes an "odd monster" when one compares fact to fiction. Female characters such as Antigone, the Wife of Bath, Juliet, Penelope, and Cleopatra have some of the "most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature," but in reality, at the times these works were written, women could "hardly read, could scarcely spell, and [were] the property of [their] husband[s]." Because female characters are depicted only in relation to male characters, "the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous."
Women's real-world lives also suffered as a result of this limited, stifling picture of their role and capabilities. In one of the most famous sections of A Room of One's Own, Woolf imagines that William Shakespeare has a similarly gifted sister named Judith. While Shakespeare is free to leave Stratford, seek his fortune on the stage, and fulfill his creative goals, Judith has none of these opportunities. She cannot spend time cultivating her talents because her parents (and society) tell her to "mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers." Judith's stifled creativity and subjugation lead to her suicide. Woolf believes that any woman "born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage … half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at." Until the nineteenth century, women were rare in writing because their fundamental task was to serve their fathers or husbands, and their days were filled with domestic responsibilities.
At the end of the eighteenth century, however, a shift occurred in which women began to be able to make their own livings by writing. This momentous trend opened the doors for women to express themselves in a way that had been previously off-limits. For Woolf, this achievement is "of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses." These early female writers established a female literary tradition, a new foundation of support for other women who wrote later. From that tradition sprang the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; from that time onward, women were increasingly able to represent female lives truthfully and completely. As long as women continue to develop creatively and to make their voices heard in the arts, Judith Shakespeare's suffering will not have been in vain. With a room of one's own in which to write and financial independence, women may write without restriction. She declares, "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say."
A Room of One's Own begins with an illustration of the inequality and prejudice confronting women at the time. Woolf presents her experiences at two colleges: Oxbridge, a male college (a theoretical amalgam of eminent English universities Oxford and Cambridge), and Fernham, a college for women. At Oxbridge, she is chided for walking on the grass and barred from the library, in both cases because she is a woman. She reflects on Oxbridge's beautiful architecture and the money it must have taken to build the school. At an afternoon luncheon, she dines richly and engages in intellectual conversation. In comparison, her dinner in Fernham's cramped facilities is bland and joyless. She wonders why there are no individual rooms for students, or even couches in the lounges. Woolf discovers that it was an enormous struggle for the founders to get the college established, and they must fight for every penny. There is no money for luxuries. Wealthy men support Oxbridge, but Fernham suffers because women—the students' mothers and grandmothers—do not have the money to endow a fully equipped university.
Woolf sees inequality between the sexes in terms of a struggle for superiority. She believes men have a vested interest in keeping women uneducated and under men's financial control—as long as they do so, men remain superior. This desire, she writes, "plants him wherever one looks, not only in front of the arts, but barring the way to politics too." Woolf suggests that men need women as magnifying mirrors, objects reflecting their image in a positive light, and this might not happen if women were truly independent:
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.
Therefore, the stakes of female independence are high; men stand to lose a distorted (but precious) picture of their own importance, and women stand to gain valuable rights and freedoms. Woolf writes in 1929, when women could obtain considerably more of this independence than previous generations: they can vote, be educated, work outside the home, and most importantly for Woolf, they can write as women. Though there is "no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women," women now have the ability not only to make a mark, but to exceed it with every effort. Woolf imagines a day when every opportunity will be open to women and "womanhood [will have] ceased to be a protected occupation."
Class and Poverty
For Woolf, social class and poverty played a major role in keeping women from writing significantly until the eighteenth century; these factors are still barriers to women's creative expression. As Woolf analyzes women and poverty, she concludes that women have historically been poor because they have never been allowed the means or opportunity to support themselves. They have spent their lives as property to fathers and husbands, tending the house and bearing children, legally unable to hold wealth or property. There was neither time for jobs outside the home, nor for creative endeavors. The same can be said for the contemporary working-class. Woolf notes that they do not have idle time to create, as their days are filled with making a living. Because of this, she posits, "genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people…. It is not born today among the working classes." She goes on to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch's The Art of Writing, which substantiates her claim by examining the lives of England's most renowned authors over the past three centuries: with the exceptions of Robert Burns and John Keats, all had been university-educated—an avenue open to middle and upper-class men only. Quiller-Couch regrets to admit that "the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog's chance."
Woolf argues that in order to create, one must be financially secure, that "intellectual freedom depends upon material things." This is why she repeatedly points to the importance of having a stable income; combined with a solitary place to write, these are the keys to creative freedom. "Five hundred pounds a year stands for the power to contemplate [and] a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself," she says. Free of constant worries about survival, one can concentrate on creating. She herself knows of the liberty that money brings, as she inherited a five hundred pound annual income from an aunt (at the time, a fair amount of money). This money, she writes, has freed her of the need to depend on men for support: "my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman … a view of the open sky."
Though A Room of One's Own is often considered a foundational feminist text, Woolf is concerned with more than promoting female independence. After spending three-quarters of the essay examining the place and role of women in literature, Woolf discusses the next step in literary and human development: "the androgynous mind." An androgynous mind is neither female nor male; it combines the two in a seamless, transcendent intellect, one that has the strengths and capacities of both genders. Rather than spend time and energy dividing the sexes and thinking of the world in dichotomous terms—as either male or female—Woolf believes that gifted writers must move beyond those distinctions to achieve the incandescence that marks great literature.
She posits that much writing is compromised by being too clearly the product of one sex or the other. Women's writing fails when it is raging and suppressed; men's writing, when it is angry and condescending. Woolf agrees with Coleridge in his assertion that "a great mind is androgynous." When women write consciously as women, Woolf argues, their work is too strongly colored by rage, limitations, and selfconsciousness—natural and valid responses to their oppression, but not the foundation for great literature. Men suffer from different, but equally ruinous, flaws when they write consciously as men. When the different sexes write this way, they cannot find satisfaction in one another's work. Instead, "one must be woman-manly or man-womanly," and abandon all thoughts of gender while writing. Failing to do so is a "fatal" mistake, and produces literature that cannot possibly have the lasting impact of true art.
Woolf is often referred to as a feminist. However, critic Bernard Blackstone suggests another label in his essay "Virginia Woolf" for Scribner's Writers Series. He believes a more appropriate title for Woolf is that of an androgynist: "she puts the emphasis every time on what a man and a woman have to give to each other, on the mystery of completion, and not on the assertion of separate superiorities."
The Elizabethan Era in England is typically considered the country's golden age and is also known as the English Renaissance. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), British literature flourished, as did British exploration and colonization, while the Protestant Reformation fought against Catholic influences in Europe. It was a time of relative tolerance and economic prosperity. Playwrights—Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Johnson—found success and popularity in London playhouses. The Church of England, created by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, continued to evolve as the country's official church. Sir Walter Raleigh colonized the east coast of America, and Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe.
As Woolf points out in A Room of One's Own, the notable men of the era take up nearly all the space in Elizabethan history. There is little information about Elizabethan women other than the queen. What is known is that the average woman did not work outside the house and was passed as property from her father to her husband. Childbearing was dangerous and resulted in many women's deaths. Women were not permitted on stage, so female roles (such as Juliet, Helen of Troy, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra) were played by men. Historical sources suggest that Woolf's picture of Judith Shakespeare's life is roughly accurate.
The seeds of World War I were sown long before the actual fighting began in 1914. Political alliances and military expansion combined with fervent nationalism (the belief that one's identity is tied to a specific country or ethnicity) to create a powder keg of tension and animosity. The spark that set the war in motion was the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand; he and his wife were killed in Sarajevo on June 24, 1914, by a young Serbian nationalist. A series of invasions and declarations of war followed, with participants aligning into two main groups. The Allies—France, Russia, Britain, Serbia, and later the United States—fought the Central Powers—Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Italy—for four bloody years. At the time, it was the second deadliest conflict in recorded history. Over sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed.
World War I introduced a new type of fighting that replaced centuries-old hand-to-hand combat and chivalric conduct. Men fought with long-range guns, submarines, chemical weapons, tanks and, for the first time in history, aircraft. Fighting was impersonal and conducted at a distance, eliminating many of the opportunities for individual bravery and valor that were highly prized in earlier forms of warfare. Fighting ended on November 11, 1918, and the Treaty of Versailles was officially ended the war on June 28, 1919.
The devastation caused by World War I shook the world. Many felt that their old ways of thinking no longer applied in a world so horribly changed. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf notes the poetic hum that has disappeared from gatherings—and life—since the war. She asks, "When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other's eyes that romance was killed?" Woolf was profoundly affected by the war, and was a key member of the modernist movement that sought to find new modes of expression in its wake.
The modernist movement began in the last decade of the nineteenth century as a reaction against strict Victorian morals and values. It did not become widespread, however, until World War I began changing people's understanding of the world. The modernist aesthetic (guiding principles) embraced the concept of "making it new," replacing outdated traditional modes of artistic expression in music, art, and literature. In the face of a mechanized sacrifice of human life for pieces of earth, prewar conceptions of society, humanity, and the world were no longer recognizable, and a new generation of creative artists began speaking their minds. Virginia Woolf was a key figure in modern literature, and some of her suggestions in A Room of One's Own—most notably her support for the androgynous mind—reflect the movement's ideals. Woolf's novels Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse are considered classic modernist texts. As Bernard Blackstone points out in his biographical essay "Virginia Woolf" for Scribner's Writers Series, "Woolf was, from first to last, intensely conscious of making a different thing out of the novel," just as she encourages her audience to do in A Room of One's Own.
Suffrage Movement in Britain
The British suffrage movement began in England in the late nineteenth century, aiming to secure women's right to vote in government elections ("suffrage" means the right to vote). Two groups supported women's suffrage in Britain: suffragists, a nonviolent collection of both men and women who sought change through legislation; and suffragettes, an exclusively female group that sometimes resorted to violence and vandalism in their attempts to effect change. Suffragettes were known for tactics such as hunger strikes, breaking store windows, lighting mailboxes on fire, and chaining themselves to fences in order to be heard. In popular history, many people specifically credit the suffragettes with achieving the women's right to vote in Britain.
During World War I (1914–1918), women were called upon to fill the roles of working men who were fighting the war. They were given greater social responsibilities in addition to their new workplace roles, and proved that they were capable of many tasks that were traditionally assigned to men. In 1918, the British Parliament passed a resolution allowing a woman to vote as long as she met at least one of the following conditions: she was over thirty, she was a homeowner or married to a homeowner, she was a renter, or she was college educated. It was not until 1928 that all women were able to vote on the same terms as men. In the United States, the Nineteenth Amendment (ratified in 1920) granted women the right to vote.
As Mary Gordon notes in her foreword to A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf forecasted the reviews to her published essays: "I shall get no criticism, except for the evasive jocular kind;… also, I shall be attacked for a feminist;… I am afraid it will not be taken seriously." Gordon writes that the essay was published at a time when feminist writing was not "in vogue," and many accused Woolf of "snobbery [and] aestheticism." It was published near the time of the stock market crash that lead to the Great Depression, and the rise of fascist powers in Italy and Spain. As a result, much of the world's attention was elsewhere, and the essay did not receive the same critical attention paid to her previous works. "The Literary Debate between Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett" records Bennett's review of A Room of One's Own in a November 1929 issue of the Evening Standard. In it, Bennett argues that Woolf's main point about a fixed income and a solitary place to write are not fully supported in the essay, which is instead full of padding and filler:
Virginia Woolf's thesis is not apparently important to her, since she talks about everything but the thesis…. She is merely a victim of her extraordinary gift of fancy (not imagination)…. Whereas a woman cannot walk through a meadow in June without wandering all over the place to pick attractive blossoms, a man can. Virginia Woolf cannot resist the floral enticement.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the essay attracted countless critics and scholars. Beth Carole Rosenberg calls the book a "classic in Anglo-feminist literary theory" in her essay "Virginia Woolf: Overview" in Feminist Writers. In "Virginia Woolf's Shakespeare: Why Woolf Made Room for the Stratford Lad in A Room of One's Own," Andrew Werth calls the essay "a bombshell that would become the cornerstone of feminist criticism," and notes that Woolf's section on Judith Shakespeare is "a dazzling feat of imaginative writing." In the Virginia Woolf entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Alan Kennedy writes that "one can only regard with admiration and wonder the lightness of touch with which [Woolf] dissects male power and injustice." While most agree that A Room of One's Own is a foundational feminist text, feminists have not accepted it uncritically. In "Virginia Woolf: Overview" in Gay & Lesbian Biography, Renee R. Curry writes that "A Room of One's Own has never ceased to be a controversial text worthy of debate and long discussion." She points to well-known feminist critic Elaine Showalter, who criticized the essay for a "naive insistence on an equality gained only by running away from being a woman."
In the early 1990s, A Room of One's Own was adapted into a one-woman play. Critics praised the adaptation, and often commented on Woolf's original text. In a review of the adaptation in Library Journal, Philip Fryer marvels at the way Woolf "was able so freely to articulate and express in 1929 the state of women throughout history and literature. Her pointed critique is at once devastating and luminous." Michael Sommers's review in Back Stage praises Woolf's writing as "quicksilver … and often dryly humorous." In a later issue of Back Stage, Jane Hogan calls the essay a "wonderfully intelligent text."
Today, Woolf's essay remains a landmark literary achievement of the twentieth century. The Modern Library placed A Room of One's Own in the fourth position on its "100 Best Nonfiction" list in 1999.
In the following excerpt, Scherr argues that both Virginia Woolf and noted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche embraced the idea of an "androgynous" mind that was bias toward neither male or female. Scherr writes that both Woolf and Nietzsche believed that only by using an androgynous mind can a person truly tap his or her creativity.
Although few writers have perceived similarities between Friedrich Nietzsche and the great English novelist, feminist writer, and literary critic, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), her antipathy toward the male gender resembled Nietzsche's against women. A victim of childhood sexual abuse by her halfbrothers (and possibly her father), she had additional cause to resent the callous, brooding male patriarchy's domination of the life and literature of her time. Her father, the famous English critic, historian, and biographer Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), epitomized many of the literary and personality traits she despised. She deplored his despotic, hardheaded, and hardhearted rule in the home and his bullying of her uncomplaining mother, which she suspected contributed to her premature death when Virginia was only thirteen. She abhorred the Victorian middle-class British male's analytic intellect as a "prick of steel," which rendered him unable to feel the profound emotions of sympathy, pity, and love of nature.
In her famous lecture, A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf first fully expressed her feminism and her conviction that women could not gain intellectual autonomy and an opportunity for self-realization as novelists unless and until they achieved economic independence and privacy ("a room of one's own') apart from the men who had hitherto controlled their lives. Vaguely purporting to discuss "women and fiction," Woolf's brief classic eschewed specific topics. Inventing the trope of "Judith Shakespeare," William Shakespeare's mythical, "wonderfully gifted" sister, who is denied an education, degraded and beaten by her father, sexually exploited by the men she meets, and never encouraged to develop her literary talents, Woolf vividly depicted women's dehumanization by hegemonic patriarchal economic, social, and educational institutions. She urged women to take pride in their emotions and develop the "female sentence," a language more spontaneous and less rigidly rational than male structures. Feminist scholar Jane Marcus considers A Room of One's Own the "first modern text of feminist criticism, the model in both theory and practice of a specifically socialist feminist criticism."
A Room of One's Own was adapted into a one-woman play of the same name by Patrick Garland. It has been performed off-Broadway at the Lamb's Theatre in New York City and in various cities across the country. A video version with Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf is available from Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
An abridged audio version of A Room of One's Own is available from Penguin Audio on audio cassette. It is narrated by Eileen Atkins.
Few scholars note that Woolf's final pages in A Room of One's Own expound a more inclusive theory of literary creativity. She asserts that the most innovative writers, whether male or female, possessed an "androgynous mind" (a phrase she borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge). The androgynous writer alone achieved true artistic greatness, leaving behind her/his resentments and bitterness and depicting universally resonant themes that transcended differences in gender, class, race, or religion. Woolf's androgynous ideal prima facie struck a blow against male cultural domination. Nathaniel Brown, an expert on the concept of bisexuality during the Romantic Period, observes: "Androgyny is associated in her [Woolf's] mind with the ability to transcend the confining limitations of the patriarchal mentality."
In several of their writings, Virginia Woolf and Friedrich Nietzsche viewed the opposite gender dispassionately if not sympathetically, implying that incorporating the opposite's elements within the self would heighten individual artistic creativity. Yet students of Woolf and Nietzsche seem to have ignored the intellectual impetus for their transitory "androgynous" periods: an ultimate goal to achieve universal, "objective" standards of artistic value and creativity.
In spite of the reputation for feminism Virginia Woolf acquired after writing A Room of One's Own (1929), this work transcended man-hating vituperation. Analyzing the desirable characteristics for a female novelist, Woolf decried self-righteous indignation at the oppression that women had undergone in a maledominated society and literary milieu. Positing integrity, truth, and objectivity as the primary qualifications of any good novelist, male or female, she argued that a female novelist should be unbiased. Stooping to defend herself against charges that she flouted "male" values and canons, a woman writer preoccupied with her resentments and sufferings in a man's world ruined her creativity. Woolf disapproved of her hypothetical budding novelist busily engaged in refuting male critics: "She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing [the novel] itself." Pressured to justify herself against male aspersions upon women's fitness for writing, Woolf feared, a weak-willed female novelist would abandon the search for universal, objective truths and degrade her mission by fighting on men's terms.
Woolf admired Jane Austen and Emily Brontë for writing as women wrote, with women's language, state of mind, and themes. Since men had long dominated the genres encompassed by epics and plays with their traditional, straightforward, "masculine" style of writing, Woolf argued, "The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her [woman's] hands—another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels."
Particularly offended that male novelists had previously avoided discussing women's friendships, Woolf advised burgeoning female writers to put female camaraderie at the center of their narratives. She pointed out that men had previously examined only women's relationships with men, which she considered far less interesting and relatively superficial compared to women's more profound relationships with each other. Moreover, men's biases disqualified them to depict conversations between the sexes: "And how small a part of a woman's life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observed it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose." Thus, Woolf reasonably pointed out, when men described conversations between themselves and women they were telling only half the story; insofar as dialogues between women were concerned, they groped totally in the dark.
Striving to evaluate male novelists' treatment of women impartially, Woolf observed that, in the nineteenth century, men began to write more objectively about women than had classical playwrights, who depicted them as either angels or monsters. Conceding that few writers of either gender could easily comprehend the other's feelings or existence, she perceived that, as late as the close of the nineteenth century, "it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men." On the other hand, she argued that the 18th-century Enlightenment's poets and novelists had gained renewed inspiration from their love affairs with women, which gave them "something that their own sex was unable to supply … some stimulus, some renewal of creative power which is in the gift only of the opposite sex to bestow."
Exercising her imagination, Woolf pondered the consequences of men's confining women's creative powers to the indoor house-hold's world. She speculated that this constraint explained why women's rooms were so much more decorative and interesting than men's, an appropriate comment for a book entitled A Room of One's Own. Thereby men's oppression of women had inadvertently created a milieu in which females could develop facets of their creativity, producing some unintended salutary consequences, Woolf pointed out. She hoped that the genders' writings would preserve their unique (albeit socially-molded) personhood. In a forthright, "male" manner, she commented: "It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?" Extolling human diversity, Woolf acclaimed two sexes as a good thing: perhaps three or four sexes would even better suit "humanity."
Unlike Nietzsche, who, as shown earlier, at the outset of his career believed that the idea of innate intellectual differences between the sexes was spurious and man-made, Woolf discerned intrinsic variations. At the same time, she was ambivalent, arguing that men's control of society—the limited options they had kept open for women—played a major role in conditioning women's interests, identities, and worldview in such matters as their preoccupation with household cleanliness and adornment. Her views were, so to speak, "Lamarckian" in that, at least to a degree, she believed in women's "inheritance" of "acquired characteristics," i.e., social attributes and concerns which Western man had ascribed to them practically throughout history. Although she considered man's power disturbing and degrading to women, she would not make it grounds for permanent intergender enmity, at least partly because she feared an impairment of the female artist's rise to literary greatness once she succumbed to an obsessive rage against the male.
Reproving hostility, Woolf counseled sexual harmony between men and women as the formula that would most improve belles lettres. Her desire for sexual and intellectual amity and cooperation between the genders is exemplified by her metonym of the man and woman getting into a taxicab, symbol of both material progress and sexuality. "It is natural for the sexes to cooperate," Woolf stated. "One has a profound, if irrational instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness."
Woolf considered it natural—"instinctual"—for men and women to feel attracted to one another, both physically and intellectually, as each complemented the other and fulfilled the other's identity. She conceived that androgyny—the harmonious union of male and female personality traits—was most fruitful for literary creativity and productivity. Like Plato and Carl Jung—thinkers she failed to mention—Woolf argued that each sex had stored within it part of the other's mental and emotional apparatus. "Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine," she surmised. She deplored one paradoxically negative effect of the woman's movement upon male literature, whose reactive tone had become too self-consciously "male," making it less creative and meaningful to women, less reflective of objective "reality."
Woolf considered Shakespeare the greatest of all writers because his plays illuminated his androgyny: a condition partaking of both male and female temperaments, speaking to both genders. Woolf stressed that no one, man or woman, could be a powerful writer if they thought about their gender while writing:
It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.
Although Woolf acknowledged that women had been treated unjustly over the centuries and denounced their exploitation by an egoistic, male-dominated society, she advised that the creative woman writer shun vindictiveness. Like a feminist Gandhi or Martin Luther King, she envisioned women peacefully overcoming the obstacles before them, assisted by new inheritance, property, and divorce laws. In the sphere of literature, women must try to understand their male opponents, incorporate their perspectives, and in that manner surpass male as well as female points of view in the interest of a new objectivity. "Some marriage of opposites" had to be consummated before creativity took place. As Woolf poetically explained, angry writing "ceases to be fertilised. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others."
Woolf's desire that the female novelist pursue objective, universal themes led her to urge her predominantly middle-class women litterateurs to examine the lives of their disgraced, disinherited sisters: lower-class women and prostitutes. Deploring a dominant centuries-long trend in English writing, she advocated realistic, "naturalistic" novels depicting the everyday lives of average women, not merely the rich and middle classes. Though herself a member of the upper class, Woolf deplored the snobbery of many women writers. She worried that "Mary Carmichael," her mythical feminist novelist, fearful of real-life intimacy with the lower classes, would depict their lifestyle without first experiencing it. Seemingly even more disgruntled by female squeamishness and prudery than by male abuse, Woolf said: "It will be a curious sight, when it comes, to see these [poor] women as they are, but we must wait a little, for Mary Carmichael will still be encumbered with that self-consciousness in the presence of 'sin' which is the legacy of our sexual barbarity. She will still wear the shoddy old fetters of class on her feet." Only by respectfully attending to members of all socioeconomic classes would the female novelist succeed in expounding universal, objective themes.
Regarding autonomy as the writer's most important attribute, guarantor of his/her objectivity, Woolf spoke bluntly yet encouragingly to budding women authors: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say." "It is much more important to be oneself than anything else," she reiterates. "Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves." By exhibiting their true feelings, great novelists would, willy-nilly, externalize universal, objective truths.
Source: Arthur Scherr, "Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and the creative artist: The Birth of Tragedy and A Room of One's Own," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, Spring 2002, pp. 257-273.
"100 Best Nonfiction," The Modern Library, http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100bestnonfiction.html (December2,2005).
Curry, Renee R., "Virginia Woolf: Overview," in Gay & Lesbian Biography, edited by Michael J. Tyrkus, St. James Press, 1997.
Fryer, Philip, "Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own," in Library Journal, Vol. 122, No. 11, June 15, 1997, pp. 110-11.
Hogan, Jane, "A Room of One's Own," in Back Stage, Vol. 40, No. 19, May 7, 1999, p. 30.
Rosenberg, Beth Carole, "Virginia Woolf: Overview," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.
Sommers, Michael, "A Room of One's Own," in Back Stage, Vol. 32, No. 12, March 22, 1991, p. 32.
Werth, Andrew, "Virginia Woolf's Shakespeare: Why Woolf Made Room for the Stratford Lad in A Room of One's Own," in Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 26.
Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own, Harcourt Brace, 1989, originally published in 1929.