And how we all envied those undergraduates who had attended the lectures, and I was reminded that my mother, Rachel, who went up to Oxford in 1930, could almost have been in that group.
There was so much to talk about: firstly, the book itself. It had developed from two talks Virginia Woolf had given in 1929 to two women’s colleges at Cambridge. She describes how she came to her conclusions whilst wandering around ‘Oxbridge’, enjoying the beauty and at the same time experiencing rejection from the men-only privileges of the well-endowed college libraries, museums and even dining halls serving lavish meals (unlike the prunes and custard she was given in a women’s college!).
Her style is humorous, inclusive and compelling – she tells these women that they have the advantage of material independence, they can’t afford to be angry – they must get up and write, the power is now in their hands, as independent females, to do so…
She accepts that they have no tradition to develop from. Women in the past were not free to write: they had no time to call their own, and had been brought up from the cradle to be passive and compliant, merely reflecting and not competing with their husband’s talents. Because of their silent role in society men in general considered women as very secondary if hardly worth considering at all – Alexander Pope had considered that ‘most women have no character at all’.
By the 20th century things were improving slowly. After the passing of the Woman’s Property Act in 1870, women were allowed to own their own property. Previously, everything they might have brought to the marriage was deemed the sole property of their husband. Until 1919, less than 100 years ago, they still weren’t allowed to vote, and when they were allowed to, they had to wait until they were 30!
Probably the 1st World War and later the second did much to start changing people’s attitudes significantly. Virginia In A Room of One’s Own concentrates in particular on women writing fiction. Her thesis is that one has to be independent to write fiction; she identifies this as having a room, or a private space of one’s own, and the financial freedom to enjoy it productively: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.
Assuming that her audience in Cambridge in 1929 had achieved this, she has excellent advice for them and all would-be women writers.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters.”
Don’t be a ‘skimmer of surfaces’ but ‘look beneath the depths’.
“The power of suggestion is all important…’it explodes and gives birth to all sorts of other ideas’…giving it ‘the secret of perpetual life”.
Virginia Woolf is often described as a rabid feminist, presumably by people who haven’t actually read A Room of One’s Own. Our feeling was that here she is no feminist. She is encouraging women, but not at the expense of men, feeling that in many ways the men have not had it easy either, being churned through a masculine machine of school, university, professional career; expected to be strong, powerful and successful. She acknowledges that ‘The Suffrage Movement must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion…which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged’.
She does not argue that we are all the same. The differences are valuable: both men and women have strengths as writers which can and must complement each other. ‘If two sexes are quite inadequate…how should we manage with only one?’
But no one is purely one sex or the other. She wonders whether’in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female’…’when this fusion takes place then the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties’. Women mustn’t try to write like men – “It is much more important to be oneself than anything else.”
Our group talked into the night, and broke up with our minds still buzzing and I wishing so hard that I had talked to my mother more about her experiences at Oxford in the early 1930s. What a wasted opportunity!
12 thoughts on “A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf”
A beautifully written piece on a seminal book. Thankyou Marion. I read recently that Switzerland did not give the vote to women until the 1970s, which was surprising. I am happily writing poetry in Greece in our simple apartment overlooking the sea.
Thank you Gill. You writing poetry, Mike photographing birds…? It sounds idyllic. Are your poems for public consumption? In spite of the fact my brother is a poet, I’ve never found poetry easy to enjoy. One silly reason is that I read too fast, too keen to move on rather than linger. Perhaps now I have more time I should try again. I loved the refrains from ‘Maud’ that Virginia Woolf quotes – perhaps I should try with Tennyson… (Never thought I’d say that!)
I guess poetry is an acquired taste!
Alas, the flamingos are not here, and I have come with my new bridge camera, Fuji HS50 EXR. All very disappointing. We suspect the water is too saline, and the swish new golf course has been taking the water from the two small rivers. Gialova lagoon is supposed to be a world class wetland site for migrating birds. Otherwise, this place is heaven.
I’m sure you’re right about poetry being an acquired taste – I’d better get a move on! Pity about the birds but are you painting, even if not photographing?
I remembered I wrote a poem about Virginia Woolf.
“There is anguish here. The roots make a skeleton on the ground.”
Virginia Woolf, “The Waves”
I watch the sharp beak flare
as the bird dives for the kill,
the fish leap high from the water
and sink like a knife
under the black mud
of the stream.
The willow trails its fingers
at dusk, shaking the silk
from its roots,
and a face, pale,
rises from the depths,
dead long ago.
The stones from her pockets
give shelter to the fish,
cloth shredded to silt.
I sit by the window,
watching the bird,
the paper stiff under my hands,
immersed in her words.
Thank you, Gill. How lovely, if that is the right adjective. You’ve captured the bleak atmosphere. She was such a tragic figure, but could write with such cheer and enthusiasm at the same time. The contrast is rather bewildering really.
Well done Marion. Gill passed me the link. I am now subscribed.
Delightful comments on your review of “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. Yes, it is sad to look back on one’s life and remember missed opportunities to discuss things with interesting people now no longer with us.
Thank you Mike, all the way from Greece – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. A Room of One’s Own is mentioned so often I think we all imagined that we had read it, but actually none of us had… What a lot of missed opportunities for interesting chats we’ve all let slip, concentrating more on the here and now. Your Aunt Dorothy was at school with my mother, wasn’t she? Did she go on to Oxford too?
Yes Dorothy was at school with your mother whom she remembered well as a gifted linguist at Sherborne School. Dorothy did not go to university though I am sure she could have done. When war broke out in 1939 she joined the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army and rose to become the commandant of the officer training college in Edinburgh where she personally interviewed and vetted all women who became commissioned officers in the ATS during WW2, so she did reach the heights, with an appropriate senior rank. After the war her main interest was charity social work in the east end of London. Dorothy is a classic example of how women were treated in those days. Her family disapproved of her social work. Her mother died in 1940 so her eldest sister, my godmother had to abandon any idea of a career to look after her father. Her eldest brother, also a linguist, and my godfather, was in the Burmese Civil Service, then on Mountbatten’s staff at the Independence of India and Pakistan, and eventually in the Foreign Office with NATO in Paris. When his father died, most of his estate was left to the eldest son, with just modest income to the daughter’s from capital held in trust by the Public Trustee. This is a classic example of how women were treated in those days. The eldest son went to Charterhouse School and New College Oxford. His sisters could have gone to university.
Mike, how very interesting! Was she resentful, or simply accepting? I think my mother was luckier, in that her parents were happy for her to go to the Sorbonne after school, and then Oxford. There as you know she met my father, and thereafter – I always felt – most willingly committed her life to being a supportive wife but also working in her own right at the same time, after we children were past the infant stage.
No, Dorothy would never have been resentful. As the youngest sibling she lived in the shadow of her distinguished brother and elder sister who became a JP. They all lived into their 90’s and it was only after her elder siblings died, she came out of her shell and revealed to me what a wonderful person she was, deeply committed to her faith, full of compassion and caring about the weak and disadvantaged in society. As her executor and with power of attorney for her affairs I was privileged to get to know her very well in her waning years.
How very interesting, Mike. You were privileged to be in a position to get to know all this. As a youngster it is very easy to be unaware that behind the older exterior lies someone who has also been young once and probably led a most interesting and useful life. It’s something that carers and nurses ought to be reminded of. When my father was old and ill and treated often very patronisingly by carers who were ‘superior’ to him only by virtue of their youth and ignorance I used to wish I could convey an understanding of his true worth. (I feel a blog post coming up…)