60 in 60: #18 – Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Memorable Line
“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture her gift had put her to.”

The Skinny
A rich and evocative work on the creativity of women.

Relevance? Argument?
I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in my first year of college, more than twenty years ago. Woolf shares some similarities with Proust, and thus my memories of the book faded almost as soon as I finished it, except for some specific descriptive details and ideas. Woolf’s prose seems to float, and the meaning of her work exists often in the sentence, in the paragraph. Like Proust, you live in it for a time, immerse yourself in it, and when you are done you disengage as if from a dream.

Even though A Room of One’s Own is nonfiction, it shares some of those same qualities–indeed, Woolf is one of the few (full-blooded) novelists included in this series, which presents its own difficulties. That would make it hard enough to re-read and explicate in a day, but Penguin’s wise decision to reproduce over 130 pages of it made any such attempt ludicrous.

As I do when re-reading Proust, then, I dipped into Woolf’s text, and sampled it here and there. While recognizing this is a cheat in a sense, it was the only sane solution.

What I found, from beginning to end, was a sensual, patient, passionate examination of a woman’s role in the society of the day, focusing in on the constraints placed upon female writers. But my pleasure in it, I’m ashamed to say, existed as much at the sentence level as at any higher level. Woolf writes so well, includes apparent digression so smoothly, and makes her points so well that I found myself applauding first the prose and then the intent. As Woolf literally glides across the lawns of “Oxbridge,” she can be both funny and angry in the same phrase. “That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library,” she writes, giving an example of inequality. Describing men issuing forth from a chapel, she can be both generous and cutting: “Many were in cap and gown; some had tufts of fur on their shoulders; others were wheeled in bath-chairs; others, though not past middle age, seemed creased and crushed into shapes so singular that one was reminded of those giant crabs and crayfish who heave with difficulty across the sand of an aquarium.”

From library and chapel to luncheon we go, with Woolf reflecting on the “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.” Throughout the book, I found Woolf commenting on writers and writing in a general way as well as making her case for women needing a room, or even a world, of their own. Much of this commentary contains a question in its tail: “Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction–so we are told.”

Woolf also offers meditations on the works of the poets Rossetti and Tennyson, using them to advance her argument in defense of female creativity, along with a fascinating ongoing discussion on the fate of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister. As the book progresses, her arguments overwhelm her aesthetic sense, in that she has used her novelist’s eye to give the reader an easy entry into the text. Once that has been accomplished, the more didactic arguments fall into place much more smoothly and are, having been clothed first in such convincing flesh, easily accepted–although she had me with her first sentence.

Some would call this book a polemic, but the textured quality of the prose, the simultaneously dreamlike and precise nature of the discourse, renders it something altogether more nuanced and interesting.*

* It is perhaps jejune to point out that Woolf’s text should be mirrored with Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, just as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense should be read with Rousseau’s The Social Contract…but I will risk it anyway.

Conclusion
This classic work requires a better treatment than I was able to muster on a chaotic New Year’s Day. My problem right now is that I have too many rooms–and they are all too noisy and full of life–when what I need is only one or two. With doors.

Question for Readers
For those who have read A Room of One’s Own, what do you enjoy about the book? Please supplement my weary effort.

Next up, my version of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the form of thoughts on Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents…

7 comments on “60 in 60: #18 – Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

  1. I remember reading A Room of One’s Own many years ago–I forget how many, but I recall the impact it had on me. Woolf is right in saying that a woman’s creativity has rarely been socially sanctioned. And this social sanction has arrived recently, even in India. There is always an attempt to confine women to the kitchen and household tasks, including the rearing of children. In India, formal education for women has only been available from the 19th century onwards–only women from the upper classes received any education at all in earlier periods. It was only in the 1970s that Indian women were able to leave their homes to work–thanks to inflation, which made it essential that urban couples should have a double income. I can understand why Woolf suffered from episodes of insanity–there are times when I find it is the social system, with its inequities, which is insane.

  2. James says:

    I read this in college alongside Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, which made poor Gilbert and Gubar seem almost unimaginably tedious. As you suggested, Woolf’s sentences work so well that it almost doesn’t matter what her argument is. Fortunately, that argument on its own merits is a convincing one, but I think we’re all lucky that she wasn’t an apologist for Nazism or something else repugnant.

    That’s really what makes good literary criticism for me. In that realm, virtually by definition, the best-written prose is the truest.

  3. jeff vandermeer says:

    James, you’re right–she could write convincingly about anything, I believe!

  4. Maitresse says:

    What do I enjoy about this text? What a lovely question to be asked. For so long now I’ve been reading it as a feminist literary critic. But to step back and think about what I enjoy? The idea hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks.

    What gets me every time with Woolf is her archness, her ability to be at once cutting and very profoundly funny at the same time. You mentioned this in your write-up. This is a constitutive feature of her tone, and it’s only amplified in Three Guineas, although, if you were overwhelmed with polemic here, her anger there may put you off (as it did many of her friends and readers when it was published in 1938).

    Personally speaking, I love the passage about women writers thinking back through their mothers. While Shakespeare’s sister is a useful (and affecting) figure, the idea of a maternal lineage of writers seems to me the less pointed and therefore more livable idea.

    “For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey–whoever it may be–never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use” (76).

    Whatever one may think of the helpfulness of male writers (and Woolf, here, doesn’t think much, although the influence on her work of James and Pater, not to mention Proust, is inarguable), opposing a long female tradition to “the canon” (which was de facto a male one at the time of Woolf’s writing) is a rallying point, both in 1929 and in 2009.

  5. karlo says:

    I also wrote about this a few years ago when I first read it: (https://karlomongaya.wordpress.com/2009/06/25/giving-women-rooms-of-their-own/) More than a celebration of the creativity of women, Woolf offers a sharp and correctly indignant riposte on real social conditions that continue to stymie women’s attainment of their full potential.

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