Virginia Woolf, a founder of Modernism, is one of the most important woman writers. Her essays and novels give an example into her own life experiences and of women of the 20th century. Her most famous works include Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928), The Waves (1931), and A Room of One’s Own (1929) (Roseman 11).
A Room of One’s Own is an essay, based on Woolf’s lectures at a women’s college at Cambridge University in 1928. Woolf bases her thoughts on “the question of women and fiction”. In the essay, Woolf asks herself the question if a woman could create art that compares to the quality of Shakespeare. Therefore, she examines women’s historical experience and the struggle of the woman artist. A Room of One’s Own explores the history of women in literature through an investigation of the social and material conditions required for writing. Leisure time, privacy, and financial independence, are important to understanding the situation of women in the literary tradition because women, historically, have been deprived of those basics (Roseman 14).
The setting of A Room of One’s Own is that Woolf has been invited to lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction. Her thesis is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction (Woolf 4).” She creates the character of an imaginary narrator, “call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please, it is not a matter of any importance.” The “I” who narrates the story is not Woolf, yet her experiences and thoughts provide the background for Woolf’s thesis.
The narrator begins her search going over the different educational experiences available to men and women and the more material differences in their lives. She then spends time examining the scholarship on women, which has been written by men and in anger. After doing some research she finds so little data about the everyday lives of women that she makes up their existence imaginatively. She thinks about the successful women novelists of the 19th century and reflects on the importance of tradition to an aspiring writer (Woolf 23). Woolf uses fiction to replace gaps in the factual record to stand up to the biases.
Fernham represents the institution of the women’s college. The founding of the women’s college involved a discouraging effort to raise enough financial and political support. Male universities have been continually and generously supported for centuries.
So why have women always been so poor? She thinks about how different things would have been “if only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the art of making money and had left” it for the education of their daughters (Woolf 22). Law and custom stopped those women from having any legal property rights at all; they were themselves considered property.
Woolf’s thesis is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” These are the basic material and social conditions in which achievement becomes possible (Roseman 17). She hopes to settle the problem of women and fiction objectively, rejecting that women are naturally inferior to men. Woolf frequently returns to the material details of the situations: the food that was eaten, money that was spent, comfort of the accommodations, and demands on people’s time. This assures the reader of the relevance of these conditions for intellectual and creative activity (Periodical 32).
By exaggerating the effects, a private room is a requirement for creative work. The fact that women have not historically been granted space or leisure for uninterrupted thinking is a factor in the history of their literary success. Her thinking is then cut off by an authority figure trying to keep her in her place. Where a man would have been free, she is restricted to a narrow path on the Oxbridge campus, and not permitted to enter the college library. These obstacles symbolize the effects of an educational culture that restricts a woman’s intellectual mind (Roseman 17). Woolf sees the fact of being denied access as another type of violation on the freedom of the female mind.
She asks herself many questions such as: “Why do men drink wine and women water, why is one sex so prosperous and the other so poor, what effect has poverty on fiction, and what conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” She notices one professor’s statement of “the mental, moral, and physical inferiority of women.” She decides that these studies had all “been written in emotion and not in truth (Woolf 25).” They betray an anger that prevents them from approaching their subject objectively. Her next question is “why are they angry?” She decides that male scholars have been less interested in the inferiority of women than in preserving their sense of male superiority (Woolf 32).
She thinks that it is impossible to say whether the kinds of labor that have traditionally been performed by women are more or less valuable than the work done by men. Cultural value changes “from decade to decade.” She sees a future in which there will be no gender-based division of labor (Woolf 38). Woolf is careful not to blame men for the unequal treatment of women over the centuries. “Life for both sexes is a difficult struggle. It calls for courage and strength, and confidence.” For men, over the ages, women have served as an instrument for reinforcing that necessary self-confidence. Women have been the mirrors in which man wished to see only the reflection of his own self (Roseman 18).
The narrator’s ability to consider gender inequality with disinterestedness comes from her financial independence. She has five hundred pounds a year, and that income is to destroy the frustration and vulnerability that would affect her thinking and writing in a negative way. It is for this same reason that the writer must enjoy the luxury of financial freedom (Roseman 18). History turns up legal rights of women in the early modern period, which were non-existent. This topic of women, and their powerlessness, contradicts their strong female characters from ancient times to the present.
“It would have been impossible, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare.” She makes up the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare (Woolf 46). Judith is as gifted as her brother, but receives no education except that which she can create for herself. Although she is “the apple of her father’s eye,” her family expects her to be something that leaves no room for her talent. She writes in secret, but hides or burns her work for fear of finding. When she begs to be allowed not to marry her father beats her. Afterwards she runs away. She wants to go into acting and is finally taken up by a theater-manager, becomes pregnant, and commits suicide.
The narrator turns to history to look for “facts” about the relationship between women and literature. Relevant facts prove to be few. “Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; or what they did from eight in the morning till eight at night (Periodical 2).” Never-the-less, the narrator gives an analysis of the conflicting values and impulses to which such a woman would have been capable. She points out that sexist assumptions come from within as well as from without (Roseman 19). Judith Shakespeare takes us beyond facts, touching the tragedy that would have been at the heart of an intelligent woman’s experience at that time.
The narrator elaborates more that genius depends on certain conditions, material and social. All art is permitted by a historical, social, and economic reality, whether or not that reality finds articulation in the art itself. The different outcomes of the Shakespeare’s serve to dramatize this point, and account for the fact that women were not writing literature at that time. Good art should not betray the personal circumstances surrounding its production. The fact that we know so little about Shakespeare as a person is a reason for the greatness of his art (Roseman 20).
Incandescence would have been impossible for a woman in the 16th century. She continues her history by tracing the slow emergence of women writers out of that blank past. The first would have been women of “freedom and comfort” who had the resources not only to spend their time writing, but also to brave public disapproval. Such examples are Lady Winchilsea, Margaret of Newcastle, Dorothy Osborne, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen and George Eliot (Woolf 65). The narrator gives several reasons why they all might have been attracted to the novel. These women wrote in the space of the sitting room. Without any formal literary training, the education 19th century women received in reading character and behavior would have been their main asset (Woolf 67).
The statement that there is a female way of writing a woman’s sentence is one of Woolf’s most provocative claims. She argues that women see, feel, and value differently than men, and because of this they must also write differently if they are to be true to themselves and their experience (Roseman 21). As women change, and their social roles and realities evolve, what is “natural” to them will change for the better: “She may begin to use writing as an art.” Woolf wants to preserve the richness of difference between men and women. But it must be as flexible and evolving as women themselves. Women have a creative power that differs from that of men, one that has found expression (Woolf 90). Education should bring out those differences, and enhance the variety of human culture. “Women and Fiction, it is fatal,” she concludes, “for anyone who writes to think of their sex (Woolf 104).”
Woolf takes over for her narrator, and begins to think about the objections people may raise to the character’s “failings.” She has not offered any comments about the merits of the two sexes as writers. This is what the artist must avoid. One might object, “that I have made too much of the importance of material things,” when we expect great minds and art to rise above their circumstances (Woolf 108). But the facts show that the odds are against any who has no money or education. She sums up her argument: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years, but from the beginning of time. Women, then, have not had a chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.” Good writing is good for society. She urges women to write not only fiction, but books of all kinds, “for books have a way of influencing each other (Woolf 110).” She urges them to remember their advantages, their unwritten history, and to see their own work as part of the preparation for future women writers.
Woolf ends the fictional narrator with the essay on “Women and Fiction” still unwritten; the point has been to show the thought process behind her theory that fictional writing requires a private income and a private room, and that the process has become the substance of the essay itself. It is a story that promises to continue (Roseman 23).
All of the above bolded words are continuous examples that women were not equal to men in any way. Even if you gave them their own sitting room they still would be prejudged. Men did not make anything for women. They held much power over women. Women differ greatly from men in the many ways that Woolf has demonstrated. I wouldn’t say that women are better but they are not hung up on holding power as men are. I believe that it is their social class that differs them from men because if they were held to the same level as men then they could be just as successful. A big factor here in this essay is fear.
Periodical: Virginia Woolf Periodicals, 1882-1942. v.: ill.; 28 cm. Semiannual. Issue
no. 33, 32, 1989. Vol. 1, no. 1, 1973; no.2, 1974. California State College,
Sonoma, Dept. of English.
Roseman, Ellen. A Room of One’s Own: Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity.
Twayne Publishing, Inc., New York, 1995.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.