Saturday, September 06, 2008

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Re-reading A Room of One’s Own may be one of the most triumphant ways for me to begin my first semester as a PhD student. When I was an undergraduate in the last millennium (EEK!), my most beloved professor was Helen Maxson with whom I studied Virginia Woolf. In one semester we read nearly every Woolf book available. All I wanted to do at the age of twenty was to study Virginia Woolf and write a dissertation on her work. It took me eighteen years, and now I probably won’t write a dissertation exclusively on Woolf, but re-reading A Room of One’s Own is a powerful way to begin this new chapter of my life.

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction--what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain.” Thus, Woolf begins her treatise on women writers and what is necessary for women writers to achieve additional literary success and contributions. A Room of One’s Own is divided into six chapters. In the first, Woolf meditates on Oxbridge, a fictional women’s college, and ponders why women have no money to endow their colleges. Her primary answers are their obligations for raising children and keeping homes and their lack of time to earn money necessary to endow colleges. She writes, “At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, an as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex” (p. 21.)

In the second chapter, Woolf moves from Oxbridge to the British Museum. Here she looks at all of the books men have written about women. This chapter includes some of Woolf’s most powerful meditations on anger. She also reflects on the significance of women inheriting money - the time and space it buys them for their own creativity and self-determination. She writes, “Anything might happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.

The third chapter is Woolf’s exploration of the history of western civilization and literature as a way to determine why women have been left out. Woolf thoughtfully explores the reasons why women haven’t written and the ways that female creativity has been stimatized and ridiculed. The fourth chapter is Woolf’s meditation on women and writing. In particular, she writes about Aphra Behn, both of the Brontes, and Jane Austen. She also postulates a different sort of sentence to be written by women writers. Woolf also celebrates the advent of women being able to earn money “by their own wits. The fifth chapter is Woolf’s reflection on contemporary women writers, especially Mary Carmichael. This chapter is both interesting and vexing to me. Woolf seems to set up a hierarchy of literary achievement from spiritual writing to plays to fiction to poetry. While she is in some ways reflecting prevailing views of the time (and earlier in the first chapter disparaging what she calls “modern poetry”), she both reifies that hierarchy and in her wry way, questions it. The fifth chapter, however, ends with Woolf’s visions that “in another hundred years’ time, she [the mythic woman writer] will be a poet.”

The final chapter, which may be the most beautifully rendered, is Woolf’s call for women to transcend gender and work in the spirit of Shakespeare’s sister. She concludes, “But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while” (p. 118.) Is there anyone who reads this book all the way to the end who is not in tears by the time Woolf writes this final sentence? Even on my third or fourth read of the book, I was in tears sitting outside in the heat reading the book.

What is extraordinary about A Room of One’s Own? Many things. First, Woolf’s power as a prose stylist cannot be underestimated. There is both a refinement and an urgency to her words throughout the book. She constructs arguments beautifully and renders her prose with delicacy, power, and exactitude. Second, much of what Woolf writes in this books becomes foundational to feminist theory. Gilbert and Gubar in their new Norton reader on feminist theory include the fifth chapter and reading that in isolation, most elements of feminist literary theory over the past thirty years have the kernel of their ideas in Woolf’s treatise. Third, Woolf is funny; sometimes wickedly so. Finally, for me, this is also just a powerful essay about writing and feminism. It is both reassuring to read one writer affirm the significance of writing and at the same time to read her searing and at times bitter, but realistic analysis. These are some of the many reasons why this book is a classic.

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