A Room of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
THE LITERARY WORK
An essay; written in England in the late 1920s; published in 1929,
One of the milestones of modern British feminist thowght, Woolf’s ealay explores; the social and economic factors that determine what—and whether—women will write.
Bom Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882, Virginia Woolf is one of the most haunting literary figures of the twentieth century. She was a member of the famed, and sometimes resented, set of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, whose members strove to free themselves from the moral and intellectual strictures of Victorianism. A respected literary and cultural critic, a prominent essayist and sought-after lecturer, and an avant-garde novelist, Woolf was at the center of England’s literary culture until her suicide in 1941. A Room of One’s Own speaks to those women—and men—on the verge of a new world of gender relations, addressing the uncertainty of how to behave, think, and write at the foreseeable end of the history of female oppression.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a renowned Victorian philosopher and writer. Upon their mother’s death (May 5,1895), Virginia and her sister Vanessa assumed the care of their grief-stricken father, entering in many ways into the traditional feminine roles of the Victorian era—those of housekeeper and giver of emotional support. The Stephen girls were educated at home by their father, and it was an education supplemented by their explorations of the family’s substantial library.
Their father died in 1904, leaving considerable wealth to his four children. Upon his death, Virginia, Vanessa (a famous painter known by her married name of Vanessa Bell), and their brothers, Thoby (who died shortly thereafter) and Adrian, moved together to the Bloomsbury district of London and began a long association with a group of avant-garde writers, artists, and intellectuals who eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Prominent members of this circle included art critic Clive Bell (who married Vanessa Stephen), painter Duncan Grant, novelist E. M. Forster, writer Lytton Strachey, and philosopher John Maynard Keynes. Together as a group and later separately, these individuals would eventually become a dominant force on the English cultural scene.
In 1912, after some hesitation, Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf, who, as the editor of the journal the Nation, was to become one of the country’s most prominent political journalists. Their marriage, while satisfying to both of them, was blighted by medical advice warning Virginia not to have children, and by their mutual disappointment in their physical relationship. How much of this disappointment was related to Virginia’s own bisexual tendencies and the fact that she had been sexually abused in childhood remains uncertain. In any case, in 1917 she and her husband founded Hogarth Press. At the beginning of their publishing enterprise, they did all of the printing work themselves—more as a hobby than anything—and were responsible for making known the work of such eventually famous writers as T. S. Eliot and the aforementioned Forster. Virginia set the type for Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land herself, in part to keep her mind off her own writing, which tended to absorb her to the point of exhaustion. Hogarth Press gradually became one of the most powerful presses in England, thanks in part to the Woolfs’ decision to spare Virginia the pain and aggravation of dealing with editors by publishing her writing themselves.
Woolfs first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in March of 1915, and by the time of her death some twenty-five years later, she had written such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). Her characteristic and highly influential style, sometimes called “stream of consciousness,” follows the mental patterns of different characters and of the narrator, with the style of her sentences mimicking the often illogical or nonlinear progression of thought itself. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf suggests that the kinds of sentences most commonly to be found in novels written by men are in fact masculine sentences, and that women novelists will, as Jane Austen did, naturally develop a syntax more reflective of their way of thinking. This idea, and the way in which she put it into practice in the writing of her own novels, is perhaps Woolf s most enduring legacy to English literature.
THE BEST THING
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes movingly of Judith Shakespeare, an imaginary sister to the great poet, who, deprived of the ability and opportunity to develop her gift as a writer, took her own life in despair. During her last struggle with madness, Woolf similarly felt herself incapable of pursuing the reading and writing that sustained her creative life. Her final note to Leonard Woolf reads in part:
I feel certain that I am going mad again.... And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.... You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.... I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
(Virginia Woolf in Leonard Woolf, pp. 93-4)
From an early age Virginia Woolf suffered from the ravages of mental illness—prompted, it has been suggested, by the sudden death of her mother or perhaps by having been sexually molested as a child. Her father’s death brought on her first full-fledged breakdown; many more would follow. She battled her madness with the help of the always attentive Leonard Woolf. On March 28, 1941, however, tragedy struck. Virginia was feeling distraught by the London air raids and the horrors of World War II in general—Leonard Woolf was Jewish and the couple had a suicide plan in the event that the Germans should conquer Britain. Also feeling worn out from writing her novel Between the Acts and fearful that she was about to descend irrevocably into another period of insanity, Woolf wrote a note of thanks and apology to her husband and disappeared. He found her walking stick by the banks of a nearby river; three weeks later, her body washed ashore.
Most Thursday nights in the period after the death of Virginia Woolf s father and before World War I, the Bloomsbury artists and intellectuals would gather for conversation in the home of Virginia and her brother Adrian, or in the nearby house where Virginia’s sister Vanessa lived with her husband Clive Bell. They engaged in intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and sexual discussions. Although the people who gathered together had very different interests—ranging from painting, history, and biography to political philosophy, feminism, and fiction—they shared certain common interests. The Blooms-bury circle is said to have cherished above all else aestheticism, or the pursuit and creation of beauty in art. Books written by the Bloomsbury set aimed for a mix or marriage of emotion and intellect. In the religious sphere, many of them were atheists. They worked to dismiss reticence and to speak frankly and openly about sex and the body. They looked to ancient Greek society as a model for the ideal culture. Thanks to the Greeks’ use of slaves, ordinary male citizens were free to think and create without being troubled by minor daily hindrances that could distract one from one’s artistic and intellectual development. No one in the Bloomsbury Group, of course, believed in reinstituting slavery. On the other hand, its members regarded a paid servant or two as almost essential.
As they grew individually to become the most famous writers, painters, and critics in Britain, the Bloomsbury friends came to practically control the cultural life of London. They decided whose writings were published, whose work was reviewed in the most prestigious journals, and whose paintings were displayed in the finest galleries. Often enough, it tended to be each other’s work that commanded the most attention, probably because they shared a common intellectual or aesthetic approach. Naturally, however, this aesthetic camaraderie set them up for all kinds of hostile reactions, and the stereotype of the Bloomsbury Group that endures to the present tends to be quite negative:
[T]he public legend made them out to be rude busybodies in painting, politics, economics, the novel. They espoused “the new,” it was alleged, more for oddity and sensationalism than anything else.... They were bad-mannered egoists. They were self-indulgent. They were homosexuals or lesbians. They practiced free love.
(Edel, p. 255)
Woolf herself, as well as her husband and brother-in-law, protested, denying that there had ever been a “group.” It was, they said, only an informal collection of friends and acquaintances interested in some of the same things. The issue remains a matter of debate, but the influence of the people involved on one another and within London was undeniably strong.
Feminism in Britain
A Room of One’s Own was written in 1928, only a decade after British women over thirty were granted voting rights for the first time. British feminism had been in a sort of holding pattern for over a century after the death in 1797 of its most prominent feminist, the famous Mary Wollstonecraft; scholars cite the eighteenth-century Wollstonecraft as Woolfs most immediate predecessor in the formation of English feminist thought. In an essay published in 1929, the same year that A Room of One’s Own appeared, Woolf wrote that Wollstonecraft “is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living” (Woolf, Women and Writing, p. 103). The scandal that surrounded the name of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was the mother of an illegitimate child, had kept well-bred women away from the feminist movement in England.
The course of women’s suffrage and women’s rights in general moved along slowly in England. Not until the Education Act of the 1870s was it made compulsory to educate girls in England, for example. Victorian mores had, at least until the turn of the century, dictated the “proper” female roles of wife and mother, dutiful daughter, and overall gentle angel in the house. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, founded a radical organization called the Women’s Social and Political Union, made up of English women who had the goal of political equality firmly in mind. They were adamant in their tactics. They harassed politicians, incited riots, and went to jail—until the outbreak of World War I turned their attention to the larger issues involved in Britain’s struggle against Germany. They were eventually rewarded for this combination of rebellion and support, when in 1918, British women over the age of thirty were permitted to vote for the first time, with wider enfranchisement rights coming eleven years later.
A Room of One’s Own, written in 1928, thus speaks to the newly enfranchised, which perhaps accounts for the deep seriousness with which it treats the relationship between material and political success and the production of a literature representative of women’s responses to the world:
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom, and women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.... That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.
(Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 104)
Although she insists that it is an imaginary place, the university that is named “Oxbridge” in A Room of One’s Own is clearly a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest and most prominent universities in England. Cambridge, where the women’s colleges of Newnham and Girton are located, dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century; Oxford was founded slightly earlier, sometime in the twelfth century. The universities began as schools for the training of teachers and clergy. Women were first admitted to Cambridge as students in 1869, but were not made full members of the university until 1948. Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that a university official once shooed her away from the library because a woman required a male chaperon to enter the building. Actually at the time that Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, British university women held a status unequal to that of men at Cambridge, but this was not the case at Oxford. A Room of One’s Own specifically addresses the female residents of Newnham and Girton at Cambridge University, perhaps for that reason.
The British Museum
“If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 26). The first place that the narrator of “A Room of One’s Own” visits in search of the answer to the essay’s central questions, which concern the relationship between gender and the production of texts, is London’s massive British Museum. The British Museum was founded in 1753, when the government acquired a large collection of books and artifacts that it decided to combine with an already-existing collection of early manuscripts. Over the centuries the collection was augmented by contributions from the British royal family. In 1973, a few decades after Woolf s essay, the library of the British Museum would be combined with the holdings of other large libraries all over the country to form the British Library. Attached to the museum, this library is located in Bloomsbury, the part of London in which Virginia Woolf lived.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 6); this is the central contention of “A Room of One’s Own.” Throughout the six-part essay, which is a reworking of a speech she gave female college students, Woolf calls into question the social forces that keep women financially impoverished, forces that guarantee their daughters will inherit none of the power, prestige, ease, and education that sons inherit from their fathers. The immediate prompt for such ruminations is the experience at “Oxbridge” University of a fictitious “I,” a female who is informed that she, like all women, may not enter the library without a letter of introduction or male companion. This fictitious female compares the luxurious, gracious meal she enjoys as a guest at a men’s college with the miserable fare served at the women’s college. It becomes clear to her that the women’s college is impoverished because women themselves are generally impoverished, and that it is almost impossible for women to come up with the sizeable sums of money required to provide a comfortable atmosphere in which their daughters could study: “At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we [she and a friend] burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in shop windows?” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 21). Of course, she notes, women are poor not because they do not work or because they are frivolous with their money, but because they are not paid for the work that they do: raising a family and taking care of the home.
The quest for more concrete proof on why women are poorer than men leads Woolf s narrator in the second part of the essay to the British Museum library, where she discovers that there is a staggering number of books about women written by men. In some of these books, Woolf discovers an anger that she attributes to the male need to boost his own sense of power and authority by oppressing and denigrating the female. But instead of despising such men, Woolf s narrator tries to explain their attitude toward women in terms of material considerations of wealth and power; the education of these men, she realizes, has been limited and their experience narrowed by the “rage for acquisition” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 38) to such an extent that they become objects of pity to those women liberated, by even limited wealth, from their control: “[W]atch in the spring sunshine the stockbroker and the barrister going indoors to make more money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 38).
Having returned from the British Museum without a scientific proof of why women are always poorer than men, Woolf s narrator then decides to look closely at the material conditions of women in the Renaissance, trying to account for the almost complete silence of women writers during that time of bursting creative output in England. To this end she presents the haunting imaginary figure of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, who was as gifted as her brother but who, as a woman, was not permitted to develop her genius. Forced to run away from home because her parents promised her in marriage to someone she did not wish to wed, and hopeful that she might find work on the London stage, Judith Shakespeare ends up impoverished, pregnant, unwed, and dead by her own hand. Such must have been the fate, Woolf speculates, of any talented girl in those days. Even if she had managed to overcome all of the prejudice and danger attached to being a woman living by her own wits in Renaissance London, all that she could have produced would have been “twisted and de-formed,” born of anger, despair, and frustration (A Room of One’s Own, p. 49). In order to produce works of enduring worth and beauty, concludes section 3 of the essay, a writer must have peace of mind, something denied women in general throughout history.
In section 4, Woolf looks at the literary efforts of women in the recent past, first focusing on the generally poor writers, such as Aphra Behn. She speculates as to their potential as writers if they had not all had to deal with discouragement and lack of support or education. Then she turns her attention to the masters of nineteenth-century fiction—George Eliot, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and Charlotte Brontë—proposing that even they might have written more and produced better had they not suffered from being women in an age when that meant being kept at home and subjected to strict codes of behavior. Also in this section comes perhaps Woolf s most radical idea about the relationship between gender and writing. She proposes that at the sentence level, women write differently than men, and produce their own type of writing, variations that are reflected in the differing bodies of men and women:
The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will be.
(A Room of One’s Own, p. 74)
A Room of One’s Own turns, in section 5, to the appearance of literary works by women in which they are presented as relating primarily to themselves or to other women, and do not serve as the foils or background for the exploits of men. Such works will allow the recovery of lost (because unspoken) everyday experiences of women. Or at the very least, says the essay, the historical process of obliteration will be arrested. It also maintains that one should not write strictly as a woman; a person, that is, should not allow gender to dominate the story being told.
The conclusion of A Room of One’s Own puts forward Woolf s famous idea that the mind of the artist is androgynous, which means that there is a little bit of the masculine in every feminine brain, and vice versa. If this were to be accepted and understood, then it might allow one sex to write insightfully about the other, and perhaps without anger or bitterness. The deliberate shunting of the feminine from the minds of male writers has impoverished their work, she holds, and the same must surely be said of the books written by women too conscious of being women.
Woolf’s essay has a final message for the young and educated women of Newnham and Girton Colleges: secure your independence and your leisure, and the stifling bonds of resentment and poverty will fall away from you. Only if this happens will you be able to become great artists.
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn ... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 63).
The “shady and amorous” Aphra Behn (1640-89) of whom Woolf speaks is held to be the first woman in England to earn her living by writing. Respectable, aristocratic women, like the Duchess of Winchilsea (whom Woolf mentions in her essay), had put pen to paper before, but they hardly had to support themselves through the sale of their work. Behn, on the other hand, was an adventurer who went to Surinam and other far-flung places, a bit of a rogue with a sharp tongue and scandalous language, a woman not always careful with whom she consorted, and possibly a spy for Charles II during the Anglo-Dutch wars. She wrote novels (the most famous being Oronooko, or the History of the Royal Slave) and at least fifteen plays that sold well enough for her to support herself. Woolf s closest friend, Vita Sackville-West, published a biography of Behn in 1928, the year before A Room of One’s Own appeared, which also asserted that Behn had opened the door for other women, despite the fact that many people accused her of being a low-bred harlot:
But although she might lay her scenes in brothels and bedrooms, although her language is not to be recommended to the queasy, and although in her private life she followed the dictates of inclination rather than of conventional morality, Aphra Behn, in the history of English letters, is something much more important than a mere harlot. The fact that she wrote is much more important than the quality of what she wrote.
(Sackville-West, p. 16)
A Room of One’s Own was based on two lectures that Woolf gave in October of 1928 at Cambridge’s women’s colleges, the first to the Arts Society at Newnham College, and the second at Girton College. Throughout her essay, she is careful to emphasize that the experiences written of are not personal, but the universal experiences of any woman faced with the daunting task of establishing herself as a
WHAT IS A WOMAN?
In an address given to the National Society for Women’s Service (January 21, 1931), two years after the publication of A Room One’s Own, Woolf continued the work she began in that essay, alluding to the directive she had given to young women to write. The problem now, says Woolf, is in defining “woman”:
[T]hat young woman [sitting in her room writing] had only to be herseii Ah, but what is “herself” I mean, what is a woman? I assure you, I do not know. I do not believe that you know. I do not believe that anyone can know until she [Le., woman] has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.
(Wootf, Women and Writing, p. 60)
writer in a country governed almost exclusively by the desires and dictates of men. But, in a letter dated June 8, 1933, Woolf revealed the autobiographical nature of her work to her friend Ethel Smyth, while giving her some advice about writing as a feminist: “Leave your own case out of it. . . . I didn’t write ‘A room’ without considerable feeling even you will admit; I’m not cool on the subject. And I forced myself to keep my own figure fictitious; legendary. If I had said, Look here am I uneducated, because my brothers used all the family funds which is the fact—Well, they’d have said; she has an axe to grind; and no one would have taken me seriously” (Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, p. 195).
Woolf, generally her own harshest critic, predicted the critical reception of her essay on the eve of its publication by Hogarth Press. “I will here sum up my impressions before publishing A Room of One’s Own. . . . [I] suspect that there is a shrill feminine tone in it which my intimate friends will dislike. I forecast, then. . . that the press will be kind and talk of its charm and sprightliness; also I shall be attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a Saphhist [a lesbian]. . . . I shall get a good many letters from young women. I am afraid it will not be taken seriously. Mrs Woolf is so accomplished a writer that all she says makes easy reading. . . this very feminine logic. . . a book to be put in the hands of girls” (Woolf, A Writers Diary, p. 148). Her prediction was accurate in some respects, but within four months, by February 14, 1930, A Room of One’s Own had sold 10,000 copies.
On November 9, 1929, the British journal Nation and Athenaeum reviewed A Room of One’s Own; the reviewer was a woman, Lyn Irvine. As interpreted by Woolf herself, one of Irvine’s criticisms of Woolfs reasoning was that, when she writes of the meager diet enjoyed by the women’s college in the essay’s first section, Woolf does not admit that men would not sit still for such treatment. Woolf responded to the charge: in her “intelligent and generous article” Miss Irvine “infers that men are therefore endowed with some desirable power that women lack” (Woolf, Women and Writing, p. 53). However, in Woolf s opinion, the case is actually that the entire British working class, male and female, is too poor to escape such a meager, or bland and repetitive, diet. She thus points her finger more directly at middle-class men than at men in general: “It is the middle-class man to whom we owe our art; but whether he would have enjoyed his very valuable degree of comfort and prosperity had the duty of child-birth been laid upon him in the flower of his youth, and had all the professions been closed to him by his sex, seems to me disputable” (Woolf, Women and Writing, pp. 53-4). In this way, Woolf shut the door firmly but politely on the criticism that women were oppressed because they somehow chose to be.
Caws, Mary Ann. Women of Bloomsbury: Virginia, Vanessa and Carrington. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: House of Lions. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1976.
Sackville-West, Vita. AphraBehn. New York: Viking, 1928.
Woolf, Leonard. The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939-1969. London: Hogarth, 1973.
Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1932-1935. Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Grafton, 1988.
Woolf, Virginia. Women and Writing. Introduction by Michele Barrett. London: Women’s Press, 1979.
Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Leonard Woolf. London: Hogarth, 1954.