Friday 17 December 2010

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
It is encouraging to read inside the front pages of my somewhat battered second hand copy of 'A room of one's own' that it was first published by Grafton Books in 1977, and then "reprinted in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 (twice), 1982, 1983, 1984 (twice), 1985 (twice), 1987, 1988 and 1989 (twice)". Having been first published by the Hogarth Press in 1929 it is nice to know that such a book was still in demand throughout the 80's. I have to confess I thought this book was going to be about women writing, when it turned out to be a feminist treatise that uses the example of creative writing to say something about the changing position of women within society. The book is an expansion of two lectures on the subject of women and writing given by Woolf in which she argues her (much quoted) point that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Woolf puts herself into the character of an unspecified woman who is pursuing her curiosity on the subject of the historical background of women writers, discovering that there are so few of them and why this might be so. The book takes the form of simply following her thoughts and musings that are forthcoming from the discoveries that she makes along the way. As she points out at the beginning Woolf is not trying to express some grand 'truth' but simply to explain why she came to hold the opinion about the money and the room. She has this very symbolic moment early on in her travels which bought a wry smile to my lips as I read:

"But however small it was (this thought of mine), it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind - put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man's figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was a path. Only Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face resumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession, they had sent my little fish into hiding." (p.7-8)

A few paragraphs later she is ushered from the library because she is not accompanied by a Fellow of the College, but then, being Virginia Woolf, she proceeds to waffle on about luncheon and poetry and the war until you loose the thread of her argument a little. She goes on to examine some of the writing done about women ... by men, most of which is utterly dismissive of their talents and abilities, demonstrated by their lack of contribution to human progress and culture, she quotes several pieces that to a modern woman just feel quite unbelievable. Yet this is contrasted by the appearance of women within literature written by men; female characters who are strong and forthright and who's choices and decisions have influence on the outcome of events. She sums it up quite concisely thus:

"A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. 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." (p.43)

But she goes on to make the argument that it is not just the contempt in which women are held by intellectual men that holds them back, coupled with their relative social isolation that affords them such limited worldly experience, but also the practicalities of putting pen to paper. In order to write you must have somewhere to write. Even educated women did not the privacy and solitude necessary, their lived being subject to domestic and social duties that would continually interrupt the thought processes necessary for creative writing. And even if they were of a social class that meant they had some education this would be geared towards enhancing their marriageability. On the subject of the need for money she says this:

"Next I think that you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men." (p.101)

Except of course she goes on to say that this is not a true accusation. She makes a list of poets, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth and so on, and points out that all of them were university men, educated and therefore from affluent backgrounds, only Keats was truly a poor man:

"It is - however dishonouring to us as a nation - certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog's chance. Believe me - and I have spent a great part of ten years in watching some three hundred and twenty elementary schools - we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born." (p.102)

Having established firmly how human society and culture has conspired to keep women in a subjugated and controlled position she then proceeds to berate women about all the changes that have occurred and how they should have jumped at the chance to enjoy their new freedoms; two colleges have been open to women since 1866, since 1880 married women have been 'allowed by law' to possess their own property and since 1919 (nearly 9 years) women have had the vote! It's as if she expects 40,000 years of being downtrodden to be brushed aside almost instantaneously:

"When you reflect on these immense privileges (!!!) (my exclamation) and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you would agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good." (p.107)

This sentence exposes the privilege she lives with and how remote she is from the lives of ordinary women. She goes on to admit that her motives in wanting to stir women to write are quite selfish and makes this call for women to go out and write:

"Lately my diet has become a trifle monotonous; history is too much about wars, biography too much about great men; poetry has shown, I think, a tendency to sterility, and fiction - but I have sufficiently exposed my disabilities as a critic of modern fiction and will say no more about it. Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, i hope you will possess yourselves of enough money to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter on street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream." (p.103)

What I like about the book is that it is very polemical and uncompromising. But it is very much a period piece, written in the optimism of the post WW1 years, before the economic problems of the 30's, and also reflects Virginia Woolf's social class, her expectations and experiences. It is stylistically very like her prose, she wanders off at a tangent at the slightest excuse, though thankfully the sentences were a little more easy to digest (linking back to my review of Mrs Dalloway). It is very short, you could read it in one sitting. It is definitely a book to go to for a little inspiration, to remind yourself what life used to be like for women. When she quotes a book entitled "The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex", you get just an inkling of what women were up against at the beginning of the last century. It is always important to remember how far we have come.

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