“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”
I read this many years ago, and always remembered it fondly, so it has been a real pleasure to re-read it. I had forgotten quite how sharply, precisely, creatively and wittily Woolf makes her points. And I had also forgotten quite how beautifully her ‘stream of consciousness’ style works in a non-fiction setting, where she is exploring the unequal opportunities afforded to women in terms of exploring and fostering their creativity, their education, their growth and development, in a world whose systems were designed to exclude them.
Her 1928 book, A Room Of One’s Own is a world away from the dry marshalling of facts, and a world away from hammer bludgeons of polemic too. Yes, there is anger – at discovering as a female, she is not allowed to walk on the hallowed grass – only College Fellows can do that, and, hey-ho, there are no female fellows. The chapter of ‘disallows’ on a quite ordinary day continues, locking her out of the library, the meaner endowment of colleges for women – because, until only some fifty years before the book was written, all a woman possessed was her husband’s. Changes were put in place after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. But it did mean that as, in the main, as she points out, most men were less interested in advancing the education of women than women were, until Married Women had the legal right to own the fruits of their own paid labour and to inherit property, the likelihood of generous endowments to colleges for the further education of females was less likely than the generous endowments to colleges for the further education of males.
The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
The writing of this essay followed on an invitation Woolf received from a Cambridge college to give a lecture on ‘Women and Fiction’ and follows her musings on what this could possibly mean : A talk about women in fiction, as described by male and female writers; a talk about female authors; a talk about what women are like – or some combination of ‘all of the above’
Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ writing perfectly serves this incisive, discursive account, examining women’s position in society, examining why the novel has proved to be a potent creative place for women, and mixing analysis of society, history, literature, and political structures in a wonderfully fertile, creative, juicy, living way. She refutes those who have undervalued women’s creativity, dedication, imagination and genius, in the creative arts or elsewhere, by showing how often it was a powerful, moneyed, privileged few who produced ‘geniuses’ – and how much of this was due to access to education. She points out that our dearly loved Shakespeare himself was some kind of rarity – he was not part of the aristocracy. And, to take another tack, over the last hundred or so years, there have been all those pathetic attempts to claim Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but some cover for a lord.
a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.
Given the wonderful, but dice-weighted-against-it, reality of Shakespeare, Woolf imagines a sister, equally rare in creativity, and unique imagination, born in the same fertile environment which did produce Shakespeare. And she traces the impossibility of ‘Judith’ to have had access to the chances and accidents, the opportunities seized, to produce our Bard of Avon, for the distaff side. Woolf gives us sharp, thoughtful analysis – but the packaging is delicious, playful, inventive and remarkably potent.
I re-read this simultaneously laughing in delight – and raging
Life for both sexes – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one-self.
And, suddenly, my reading of Woolf came bang up to date, and I felt her going beyond the well known argument she makes, here, for the necessity for the creative artist to have ‘A Room of One’s Own’, some freedom from the demands of service to others, some independence of means – and I felt her talking about more than literature, and speaking about our divide-and-rule, and the myriad places we practice it
This is a wonderful laying out of thoughtful, philosophical, sparkling creative feminism. Delivered with wit, humour, inventiveness. Oh, she dazzled and she dazzles still.
This was read towards the end of last month, for the particular stage of HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, but, alas, a growing sense of alarm about what might be going to happen ‘across the pond’ rather took away the energy for the writing of reviews