Author– Virginia Woolf
Genre and subgenre– Nonfiction/ Essay/ Feminist literary criticism/ Modernism
Themes– Position of women in fiction and real-life/ Sexist attitude in or towards literature/ Effect of the gender of the writer on their characters or theme or style/ Critical analysis of patriarchal society/ Women’s rights/ Materialistic approach to intellectual freedom and hence literary freedom/ Freedom for creativity in the form of private space as opposed to confinement in a common environment vis-a-vis Edwardian, Elizabethan, and Victorian women.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own‘ is one of the earliest and iconic texts of feminist literary criticism. It is an extended essay based on two lectures that she delivered on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’ at Newnham College and Girton College( two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) in 1928.
It is interesting to note that the essay begins with a ‘But’- emphasizing the contrarianism in the topic of women and fiction. She explores her famous argument/ opinion, ‘ A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction‘, and develops and amends it freely through her ‘train of thought‘ method similar to the modernist ‘stream of consciousness‘ method used by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner and utilized by Woolf in her novel,’To The Lighthouse‘. While developing her argument, she cautions the audience to be wary of lies that might flow from her lips amidst truths and facts and to parse the prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and limitations of her argument before drawing one’s own conclusion. And she indicates that fiction might have more truth than fact. The methodology used is historical and sociological analyses, fictional hypotheses, philosophy utilizing symbolism, and motifs. ( Enjoy the brilliant symbolisms as in the other Woolf works)
Woolf invents a fictional narrator, Mary, to serve this purpose ( Woolf tells us that her name does not matter), and a fictional University of Oxbridge. It is the character, Mary who takes the arguments forward on the course of visiting the fictional colleges and The British Museum while scouring documents for asserting her arguments.
Review and analysis
The essay starts with Mary sitting on the banks of a river near the college, lost in serious thought about women and fiction. Woolf compares the thought as ‘letting its line into the stream‘, and idea as ‘ a small fish tugging at the end of one’s line, a sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating‘.
Mary, intent on developing the thought, slowly walks over the grass turf of the college, while she is being intercepted by the Beadle with horror and indignation. He literally (and figuratively) shows her path as the gravel and not the turf and stresses that only Fellows and Scholars( all men) are allowed to use the turf. Though the turf is better than gravel for walking, it has been protected as an all-men privilege that has been rolled out in succession for the past 300 years and the interruption sends her little fish( idea) into hiding. She thinks of literary geniuses like Charles Lamb and Thakeray who had set their feet on that ground hundreds of years ago. She opens the library door and is again being intercepted by a gentleman who tells her that ladies were not allowed, but with a Fellow of the college or with a letter of introduction. Mary vows never to enter there again- ‘ let it sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again.’
She passes a chapel watching a congregation flow inside and hesitates to enter, lest she might be denied entry again. Reflecting on the amount of money, gold, and silver that might have flowed into the basements of these buildings from the coffers of kings, queens, and nobles during yesteryears, nowadays donated by wealthy civilian men ‘when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come’, who endows chairs, lectureships, and fellowships. She goes to lunch, describing the gourmet food on display that she compares with the minimal dishes for dinner in a women’s college. Suddenly she sees a tailless Manx cat walking across the quadrangle and feels something is lacking. The tailless cat is symbolic of the post-war period that changes the music of pre-war England to meaningless regular conversations. It might also be symbolic of women as second-class citizens, lacking the qualities of men and so unwelcome on the grassy lawn. The luxurious lunch is symbolic of the wealth possessed by aristocratic men whose thoughts and conversations are unimpeded unlike the dinner at the women’s college which is striking and representative of the inequalities endured by women for centuries from a patriarchal society.
The narrator searches for answers in the British Museum, London by scouring the section on women and fiction, hoping to consult the learned and the unprejudiced, thereby straining off personal, accidental, prejudiced impressions and so to reach the pure fluid, ‘the essential oil of truth’. Here, she finds institutionalized sexism, the books about women were written by men and never in the other order. Instead of answers, she starts thinking more questions, primarily why women were poorer than men. She evokes the famed authors belittling women, citing Samuel Butler (‘ Wise men never say what they think of women’), and Alexander Pope (‘ Most women have no character at all’). Napoleon thought them incapable, Mussolini despised them. Yet, some like Dr. Johnson and Goethe honored them.
Figuring the truth running through her fingers, it seems a pure waste of time to consult those gentlemen who specialize in women. ‘One might as well leave their books unopened’. She draws a figure of Professor X engaged in writing ‘ The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex‘ as if he were killing a noxious insect, looking very angry and irritated. The figure itself was a reflection of the narrator’s anger upon seeing the title of his creation. She wonders how anger had snatched her pencil while she dreamt-‘Had anger, the black snake been lurking among the other emotions?‘. She wonders if the book had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.
She reads a newspaper at lunch, pervading with misogynist, patriarchal condescension and notices the presence of the professor in it in the guise of the editor, sub-editor, foreign secretary, Judge, shareholder and so forth. It was his money, power and influence talking. But, still, he was angry and this perplexes her. She concludes that one would not have been angry if the professor had written dispassionately in an unbiased manner using indisputable proofs. He might well be concerned with his superiority while insisting emphatically upon the inferiority of women. Had he been objective by not utterly focussing on the inferiority of the other sex, he would have attained the freedom of thought for literary creation. Woolf, in the same manner, remains detached from the essay in an impersonal manner, by creating a fictional narrator, though she gives voice to the narrator, and ultimately could think objectively without personal prejudices.
She uses the ‘looking-glass‘ metaphor here-‘ Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and the delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’. So, if she begins to criticize men, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks. She emphasizes the power of money/ inheritance on the freedom of thought, something valuable than the right to vote-‘ Remove the protection from the other sex and expose them to the same activities and exertions, make them soldiers and sailors…..’. Woolf stresses money as a means of personal freedom and thus creativity and the aesthetic ideology is conveyed as metaphors of the brilliant light on the sky as ‘ a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes, a tawny monster roaring with hot breath……’
The narrator is perplexed with the perennial puzzle of why no women wrote a word of that extraordinary literature or why the details about the life of women are completely absent from literature during the Elizabethan period. Woolf uses the metaphor of the spider web to describe the imaginative work needed for fiction, its intricacies, attached as it is to the various points of realities of life. Creating fiction is totally unlike the dropping of a pebble as science may be. The narrator finds a book titled ‘History of England’ by one Professor Trevelyan, in which issues like wife-beating, lack of freedom to choose a husband, marriages made out of family avarice and not personal affection are discussed. He mentions a paradox in which fictional women, Shakespeare’s heroines, for example, were never wanting in personality and character. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, Rosalind….. all of them have burnt like beacons in fiction. Thus a queer, composite individual emerges who has the highest importance in imagination, but worthless in reality, ‘ An odd monster that one made up by reading historians first and poets afterward, a worm winged like an eagle.’ One needs to think prosaically and poetically to conjure up this queer creature. She is a passing shadow, whisking away into the background, concealing, a wink, a laugh, sometimes a tear.
Thinking of an old gentleman, a bishop, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or future, to have the genius of Shakespeare, she conjures up an imaginative character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, with the same genius as himself. The privileges consigned exclusively to the male sex transforms him to the Bard, while she, struggling to surmount the obstacles, is nipped in the bud. Thus she concludes that a genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people except for some rarities sometimes. She mentions Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Robert Burns as novelists who transcended the many barriers to create fiction. Chastity was something to be guarded, in addition, that anonymity was the preferred mode of escape from slander- Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand….. and many others were victims of this inner strife. With this, the narrator asks a pertinent question- what is the state of mind that is propitious to the state of creation?
Though we do not know what Shakespeare, Carlyle, Flaubert or Keats went through while composing their masterpieces, the narrator presumes from the enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that ‘to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty’. Both material circumstances and the physical and psychological environment might have impeded them at their task. “ And mighty poets in their misery dead”- William Wordsworth( Resolution and Independence, stanza 17.
And the obstacles might have been formidable for women writers without a supporting income or a room of her own. The world was indifferent to Keats, Flaubert, but outright hostile to women writers. This presumption and declaration of the intellectual inferiority of the female writers and outright environmental hostility must have ‘lowered her vitality and told profoundly upon her work.’ Nick Greene had said that a woman acting reminded him of a dog dancing. Here, she offers a slice of advice to writers to ignore the criticisms leveled against their works. Still, she maintains that it is the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them and that it is the nature of an artist to do this. ‘ Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others’.
The actual gravestone text of John Keats reads:
“This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’
Here, Woolf brings out the light symbolism again. She writes, ‘ the mind of an artist in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him must be incandescent like Shakespeare’s mind. There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.’ The works of Shakespeare do not reveal any personal grudges compared to those of Ben Jonson or Milton. Hence the unimpeded flow of Shakespeare’s poetry. His mind was incandescent. Woolf is at odds with criticism, which dilutes the incandescence according to her. Contemporary feminist and minority literature theorists disagree. They use protest literature to reclaim their voices.
Discussing the freedom of female writers, the narrator mentions about aristocratic women who would take advantage of their comparative freedom and comfort to publish something without the risk of being stamped as a monster or witch. She mentions Lady Winchilsea who wrote poetry during the 17-th century, who was noble by birth and marriage, childless, all fruitful environs for her writings to flourish, still the indignation was palpable in her poems. Alexander Pope or Gay is said to have satirized her as ‘ a bluestocking with an itch for scribbling’. The incandescence in her is consumed by hatred for the opposite sex. Woolf equally mentions this point for both male and female writers. Another gifted female writer, Dorothy Osborne, out of sense and modesty, wrote letters instead of books. And the narrator discusses the works of Aphra Behn( Oroonoko, The Rover), which was a turning point in female literature. She, after the death of her husband, wrote to make a living and raise her children.
Aphra Behn thus changed the landscape of female literature and in the later 18-th century women began talking, meeting, writing based on the solid fact that women could be financially independent by making money by writing. ‘ Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’. Middle-class women began to write. Here, the narrator turns her attention to the four famed female writers- Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. Their masterpieces definitely echo the collective voices of the female writers who came before them like Fanny Burney, Eliza Carter, and Aphra Behn.
She saunters to the section of 19-th century literature by women and wonders why all of them were novels but not poetry, with a few exceptions. Nothing seemed congruous about the four writers mentioned above except for the fact that all wrote novels, all four were childless. A middle-class family in the early 19-th century possessed only a single sitting room and amidst the interruptions cutting short their concentration, it would have been easier to write prose than poetry or play. Jane Austen is said to have hidden her manuscripts while there were visitors to her house. Their only training was in observing the character and analyzing the emotions, naturally, the prose for fiction came easily to them. Still, they might have been capable of other pursuits like poetry, play, history or biography, could they been given a room of their own. Jane Austen and Shakespeare share the qualities of writing without hate, bitterness, protest or without preaching. In fact, they had consumed all their impediments.
Opening chapter twelve of Jane Eyre, the narrator’s eye gets stuck at the sentence ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. She wonders what they were blaming Charlotte Bronte for. Laying the book beside Pride and Prejudice, the narrator infers that Charlotte Bronte has more genius in her than Jane Austen, still, it is not being expressed whole and entire as a result of her indignation and rage that deforms and twists her characters by infusing herself into the pages. She reflects on the range of freedom of life circumstances offered to men and even they commit sins, never do they need to seclude them from the righteous or else Tolstoy could scarcely have written ‘War and Peace‘. Life conflicts with something that is not life in a novel. What holds the work together among the readers is its integrity. It is the ‘invisible ink that nature traces on one’s mind, a premonition which these great artists confirm’. This is what makes War and Peace a masterpiece, she concludes. On the other hand novels with bright colors and dashing gestures bring to light only a faint scribble on the mind, a blot over there, a failure that comes to grief somewhere.
The narrator wonders how the sex of the writer interferes with the integrity, how the imagination falters under strain, confusing the insight to distinguish between true and false. Anger was clearly impeding the integrity of Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’. She left it in the midst to attend some personal grievance. Anger tugged her imagination, swerved and deflected it from its path. But, there were many more, ignorance for instance. She draws the portrait of ‘Rochester‘ blindly, in the dark, we feel her fear, a ‘buried rancor smoldering beneath her passion, contracting those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain‘.
And next, the narrator links the difference of value among both sexes, transferred from life to fiction, ad how the critic evaluates the significance of the work according to these. For instance, football and sport are ‘important’ while the feeling of women in a drawing-room, what she does, how she feels is not. Woolf thus vindicates writers like Charlotte Bronte, who had to fend off these barbs by aggression or conciliation, docility or diffidence, anger or emphasis depending on what her temperament dictated. The flaw in her work comes from her head, from the center- ‘ Think of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others’. The kind of genius and integrity to ward off the criticism in the midst of a patriarchal society without withering is a commendable feat. Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte did that. They wrote as women write and not as men write, a feather in their caps. They were deaf to persistent admonitions, pedagogueries, patronizing speeches. She quotes Egerton Brydges, the English bibliographer, and genealogist- ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex’. This sentence was written not in 1828, but in 1928, the narrator stresses. She calls those defiant women novelists, firebrand, to say to themselves that literature is open t everybody. ‘Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no bolt, no lock that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’.
Now, she comes to another difference between men and women writers- the absence of sufficient precedent for women writers and the mind of the two sexes. The pace/ stride of a man’s mind is too unlike her own to use any of his words or style, ‘The ape is too distant to be sedulous’. There is no common sentence ready for use. Thackeray, Dickens, and Balzac created their sentences with their own tint without ceasing to be common property. A man’s sentence is unsuited for women’s use. Charlotte Bronte, a genius, but she fell with clumsy use of the words. Geroge Eliot committed atrocities with them. It was Jane Austen who with her freedom and fullness of expression, shaped the words into her own squares, circles, arcades, and domes. So, with less genius that Charlotte Bronte, she got said more. She could build sentences and not just write. Thus, all the other forms of literature except the novel were shaped and hardened by her male peers by the time she started to write. Only the novel was pliable, young and soft in her hands to be shaped into one that she desired. Woolf laments that poetry was still denied an outlet from women. She hopes for a future where they would compose epics in verse or prose when she will be free to use her limbs to knock them to shape. Woolf herself provides the example by not just copying the Modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ style, but, modifying it into a free indirect discourse in her novel ‘ To The Lighthouse’. One of the great English stylists, she shaped her works with wit, elegance, and focus into natural cut out sentences.
The narrator finally gets to the shelves of contemporary writers, men, and women, she finds that women no longer write solely novels. There are Jane Harrison‘s books on Greek archaeology, Vernon Lee‘s books on aesthetics, Gertrude Bell‘s books on Persia. There are poems, plays, and criticisms, history, biography, and philosophy. She has begun to take writing as an art, something for a living and not solely as a means of self- expression. Here she creates a fictional author, Mary Carmichael who wrote’Life’s Adventure’, her first book. The narrator starts reading and wonders if the author has a pen or a pickaxe in her hand. The sentences lacked the melody of Jane Austen, to read her was like ‘out at sea in an open boat’. Maybe, she was being too conscious of the flowery prose in female literature and wants to provide a superfluity of thorns instead? The sentences and sequences were broken. Then she stopped at the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ and the immense change struck her. Sometimes women do like women, she thinks and muses how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered if Cleopatra liked Octavia instead of feeling jealous of her. Excepting a few like Diana of the Crossways, in Racine and the Greek tragedies, almost without exception women were shown in relation to men. Even Proust is hampered and partial in his knowledge of women as a woman in her knowledge of men. Carmichael’s female characters like each other, they share a laboratory and are working mothers. So much has changed in the course of years in female literature. Woolf once again uses the light symbolism, of Carmichael lighting a torch in the half-lights and profound shadows inside serpentine caves. The narrator watches curiously as the author captures ‘the unrecorded gestures, unsaid or half said words, which form no more than the shadows of moths on the ceiling when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and colored light of the other sex’.
The narrator heedlessly starts to praise women as ‘infinitely intricate’. ‘highly developed’ and so forth, but realizes the absence of yardsticks to measure the qualities of a good mother, devotion of a daughter or fidelity of a sister. Yet, greats like Goethe, Carlyle, Cowper, Sterne, Shelley, Voltaire, and Browning have for one reason or other admired, sought out, lived with, confided in, made love to, written of or trusted in women, and not all could be said as platonic. And from these relationships, it was not just flattery, comfort or pleasure that those men sought, but some stimulus for renewal of creative power which only the opposite sex can bestow. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to be a contemplative novelist rather than a naturalist one as she needs to draw a lot of pictures of characters from the drawing-room to the street. Each gender has a blind spot ‘the size of a shilling on the back of their head‘ but through mutual observations, they can gain full enlightenment. The narrator dares the author to go behind the head of the other sex and point out the black spot. Reading further, the narrator compares Carmichael to other authors and notices that she had no love of nature, the fiery imagination, the wild poetry, the brilliant wit or the brooding wisdom of her predecessors. Nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked— fear and hatred to men had gone, or if present in traces were shown in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to be caustic or satirical. She had that capacious sensibility that brought buried things to light and she mastered to write as a woman without conscious of being a woman. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to do her best in the test, to ignore the bishops, deans, professors, patriarchs, and pedagogues warning and shouting at her, to not stop or curse, to not laugh or fumble, imploring her to think of jumping over the fence and she flew like bid over the fence. But, there were many fences beyond the first one, and though her staying power was doubtful, she did her best considering she was no genius, but an unknown girl writing her first novel without a room of her own or five hundred bucks a year income. Give her these and in another hundred years, she will be a poet.
In the final chapter, the narrator discusses ‘the unity of mind‘, a hypothesis that she puts forth, the mind having both male and female components in both sexes and which need to be united in harmony in order to attain satisfaction and happiness. She refers to Coleridge‘s saying that ‘ a great mind is androgynous‘. She infers that a purely masculine or feminine mind could not create. By the term androgynous Coleridge had meant a resonant, porous mind transmitting emotion without impediment, naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. Shakespeare’s mind could be taken as an example, but, it is difficult to say what he thought of women. She thinks of how much harder it is to attain a state of mind now than before, that does not think specially or separately of sex. The books by the men on women on the shelves is an example of this. She blames the Suffrage campaign for this, one which roused self-assertion in men by challenging them. The response has been excessive since they had never been challenged before.
She reads a novel by a well-respected male writer, written clearly, strongly, using a free mind, but balks at the self- assertive ‘I’ that pervades the novel. This feeling of superiority, that hides the other sex in its shadow impedes the creative energy of the author and he is protesting equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority, The narrator hints that Elizabethan literature might have been different if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century instead of the nineteenth. Thus, the author writing with only the male side of the brain will never be understood by female readers, the sentences fall plump to the ground. But with Coleridge’s sentences, the mind explodes and gives birth to all kinds of ideas and this sort of writing has the secret of perpetual life. She notices that the works of Kipling and Galsworthy cannot find in them the fountain of perpetual life, they lack the suggestive power and cannot penetrate deep inside the mind.
Woolf stresses the necessity of financial independence in creativity, the symbolic five hundred bucks a year and a lock on the door for the power to contemplate. She quotes the Cornish writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch next. ‘ Poetical genius bloweth where it listeth and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth’. ‘ The poor poet has not in these days nor has had for 400 years, a dog’s chance…..a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom’. Intellectual freedom depends on material things and poetry depends on intellectual freedom. Of all the great poets of the last few hundred years only Keats, Browning and Rossetti had not attended university. Of these three poets, only Keats was not well- to do and he died young. Women had even less intellectual freedom than sons of Athenian slaves. And women have always been poor.
Thus, Woolf makes her case on stressing on the material aspects of life- a room of one’s own and 500 bucks a year- for intellectual freedom. She urges women to write and read. And she explains that when she asks women to earn money and have a room of one’s own, she means for women to live in reality. She exhorts women to utilize the privileges of education, to bear fewer children, to escape the common sitting room and write what one thinks is right. Judith would come again ‘if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile’.