Saturday, September 13, 2008

Adrienne Rich on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Rereading Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken,” I was struck by what she wrote about Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:

In rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious--as she always was--of being overheard by men: by Morgan and Lytton and Maynard Keynes and for that matter by her father, Leslie Stephen. She drew the language out into an exacerbated thread in her determination to have her own sensibility yet protect it from those masculine presences. Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound.

I wonder, is Virginia Woolf “almost in touch with her anger” or is she in fact in touch with her anger and angry, but working to not “appear angry.” I think that there is a crucial difference there. When I reread the book, I was moved by how profoundly angry and hopeful Woolf was. I think that the remove that is in the essay, that is in the tone, as Rich describes it, is necessary for Woolf to write the hopeful vision that she is able to muster for the book. I’d argue that she is in touch with her anger, but yes, she keeps it in a location where it is productive. Yes, by the standards of anger for women while Rich was writing this, Woolf’s anger was “in check” even muted, but I think she was in touch with it. By the standards of today for women’s anger, I think that Woolf is more angry, more vitriolic, more biting than many women are today who call themselves feminists. I’d like to see more anger, but I think that Rich saw and experienced that anger and wanted more from Woolf. So my rereading of Virginia Woolf is astonishment at the tone of anger and I am struck by how thirty-five years has changed the landscape to the point that this reader finds Woolf angry and Rich slightly off in her assessment of Woolf. I think it has to do with the women who surround each of us as we read and write.

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