A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, has become a classic of feminist writing, yet it also stands alone as a superb example of essay. It was based upon two college lectures Woolf gave in 1928 after she had been asked to speak on the topic “Women and Fiction”.
While Woolf herself defines the topic “Women and Fiction” as being “women and what they are like… women and the fiction they write… or women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together…”, A Room of One’s Own addresses a single theme: how an author’s circumstances are reflected in his or her work1. Woolf considered the question “Why are there no female Shakespeares?”, and came to the same conclusion of so many men before her: It was, or had been, impossible for women to write the plays of Shakespeare.
Woolf, however, maintained that this was not because of any inherent gender predisposition, but because women did not possess the necessary tools to write Shakespeare’s plays, summed up in the well-known phrase “500 pounds per year and a room of one’s own.” Women, she argued, were deprived of the necessary setting for genius to flower—they lacked independence and privacy; they were uneducated; they were incessantly patronized, discouraged, and thwarted; they were poor. Because of this, they were angry, and it often intruded into their writing, flawing what would otherwise have been masterpieces.
The poverty of women is the first issue addressed by Woolf. One of the qualities of the essay that makes it so readable is the author’s use of novelistic conventions to make her points. She begins as a narrator in “Oxbridge” college in the fall of 1928, a mere nine years after British women have been given the vote, and about ten years after they have been permitted to enter the professions. Oxbridge is an old university, where “an unending stream of gold and silver… flowed perpetually into this court to keep the stones coming and the masons working.” The narrator is there for a luncheon party, and Woolf describes the soup, the wine, the partridges, the soles, and a “confection which rose all sugar from the waves… to call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” This is contrasted with the subsequent meal at the women’s college of Fernham, with its gravy soup, plain dishes, and prunes and custard, where “the amenities will have to wait.” These are only the first in a series of depicted events as the narrator tries to answer her question.
Another example is Woolf’s imaginary history of “Shakespeare’s sister,” who was as wonderfully gifted as her brother, but ended tragically. “For it needs little skill in psychology,” Woolf wrote, “to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.”
The tone of A Room of One’s Own, while exalted, is also accessible. The narrator’s voice is pleasant and charming to hear; one feels as though she is conversing with us in a room and not declaiming a prepared speech. Although the essay touches upon many facts, themes and circumstances, they all pertain to her main point: “Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor… Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.” Woolf’s thesis in a nutshell.
So what is to be done? In the last few pages of the essay, Woolf abandons her narrator and speaks directly to us. Women should acquire money and a room of their own in which to write, and they should write. By their writing, they will pave the way for Shakespeare’s long-lost sister, and she will come among us again. This is a logical assumption, if writers are products of their times: Chaucer paved the way for Marlowe, and Marlowe for Shakespeare; and when the intellectual and social climate is right for our female Shakespeares, they will appear.
This is why Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. She was necessarily interested in the subject of Women and Fiction, and though she was a gifted writer, she felt the lack of her education keenly. In a 1929 letter to G. Lowes Dickinson, she wrote: “I wanted to encourage the young women—they seem to get fearfully depressed.”
Times have changed greatly since 1929. Women have gained a far greater foothold in society; the articles Woolf quotes (“female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex”) would be laughed out of modern books and newspapers; and, perhaps most importantly to the essay, women are making greater and greater contributions to literature. Yet A Room of One’s Own remains an important essay. At the time of its writing, the great contributors to English literature were almost without exception wealthy, educated, upper-class men. “A room of one’s own” was denied not only to women, but to working-class people and minorities—again something that has begun to change greatly. It is not merely a snapshot of the post-World War I feminist climate, but a call for intellectual freedom, for women and for the rest of the world.
1 Although a few very interesting questions are raised about the relationship, or mutual exclusivity of, self-expression and art.