Author: Virginia Woolf
Challenges: The Classics Club, Reading the Twentieth Century, Women’s Classic Literature
A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf based on a lecture she gave at Girton College, Cambridge in 1928. In it she explores the life of women and fiction: how they have been portrayed; the struggles they have faced when writing; their style of writing and what they need in order to be a successful writer. Woolf discusses famous nineteenth century writers, such as Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, and their writing and goes on to discuss what would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister.
I added A Room of One’s Own to my Classics Club List earlier this year as I knew I wanted to re read it (I studied it at university and can remember sitting in my room in my second year house drinking copious amounts of tea and reading it in an afternoon). When The Classics Club announced their Women’s Classic Literature event and various posts on Woolf and this work in particular started appearing I knew it was time to pick it up again. The premise is quite simple: in order to be a successful writer a woman must have money and a room of One’s own own with a lock on it. This is why literature has been dominated by men for centuries – they have always had the freedom to escape their families and explore the world – although this has often depended on money. Women through history have usually been stuck in the kitchen or at home popping sprigs and raising them and for some bizarre reason that isn’t very exciting to read about. And the women who are written about in fiction? As Woolf puts it:
‘Indeed, if woman had no existence save in fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various;heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.’
As I type this my mind instantly turns to characters like Lady Macbeth. If your only knowledge of women came from this character alone, you would certainly think women ruled the world and that their husbands were there to do their bidding. Obviously she doesn’t have a happy ending, but she does persuade her husband to commit murder so she is a formidable woman.
A Room of One’s Own helps to encapsulate a world where women were just starting to enjoy the freedom granted to them by movements such as the Suffragettes and gaining the right to vote. Woolf’s essay seems to be encouraging (admittedly quite forcefully in places) women not to miss this opportunity and to be spurred on to help rewrite history, to ensure that women find their rightful place in literature and write their history…even if it is a tad mundane in places. One section in particular struck a chord with me. Below is my favourite section of the book:
‘Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook. Or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourself of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.’