A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is a short, classic, feminist treatise, and it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I know very little about Virginia Woolf. I vaguely remember having to read Mrs. Dalloway in school, but I think I was too young to really appreciate it. I never even saw The Hours with Nicole Kidman. So, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I began reading this book.
A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay based on two speeches that Woolf gave at women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge. Her basic premise is that women must have money, independence, and a room of their own in order to be able to write fiction. It is smart, pithy, and still relatable. I did feel like I was reading an assignment for school, and I probably could have gotten a lot out of some extended class discussion, but I still found it easy to read. One surprise was that Woolf was a lot funnier than I was expecting. She has a dry wit, and some of her snide comments were immensely appealing.
The book begins with Woolf attending a luncheon at a men’s college, enjoying the luxurious meal and furnishings. From there she is denied entrance to the library because she is a woman. When she travels back to the female quarters for dinner she notes how sparse the food and options are for the women compared to the men. But she is not surprised when she thinks of the last couple hundred years when men were seeking money and power and women were getting married and having babies. Since women could not even control their own wealth, they had very little interest in making any. So when it came to donations for the women’s colleges, the women’s colleges had much fewer resources than the men.
Woolf also explains why there have been no classic, famous women writers. She gives Shakespeare a fictional sister as an example, and gifts her with the same genius as her famous brother. Woolf explains how impossible it would be for Shakespeare’s sister to get any kind of education or have any time to foster her talents. And she could not run off and join a theater company as her brother did because women were not allowed. Instead, Woolf prophesied darkly, Shakespeare’s sister would end up pregnant, and desperate, and kill herself.
I imagined being a college student in 1928, and listening to Virginia Woolf deliver this lecture in person. What an experience. Would it have been shocking? An inspiration? I’m glad I read this book. I have a better understanding and appreciation of Virginia Woolf, and I’m now open to reading more of her in the future. I ended up highlighting a fair number of lines as I read, so I’m just going to include those now instead of trying to sum up Woolf with my own words.
“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (2)
“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?” (27)
“men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.” (28)
“One does not like to be told that one is naturally inferior of a little man.” (34)
“With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything.” (36) [pointing out that when reading contemporary newspaper stories, men were obviously in control of the world.]
“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.” (38)
“how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism.” (38)
“She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” (47)
“was in her case not indifference but hostility.” (57) [Artists are challenged because they face an indifferent world, but Woolf states that women artists have a much harder time.]
“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” (60)
“the value that men set upon women’s chastity and its effect upon their education.” (69)
“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” (80)
“It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.” (90)
“unless indeed he chose to ‘hate women,’ which meant more often than not that he was unattractive to them.” (91)
“that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” (117)
“Still, you may object, why do you attach so much importance to this writing of books by women when, according to you, it requires so much effort, leads perhaps to the murder of one’s aunts, will make one almost certainly late for luncheon, and may bring one into very grave disputes with certain very good fellows?”
-“Lately my diet has become a trifle monotonous.” (119)
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