I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?
I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.
A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.
Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.
Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.
“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).
“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).
“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).
“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).
“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).
“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).
“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).
A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.