Review: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

a room of one's own by virginia woolf

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I’ve been meaning to pick up a book about feminism for the longest time. It is quite the buzzword and not a day passes without encountering it, so naturally everyone has an opinion about it. I am not an outspoken feminist but I do believe in the equality of sexes, and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion on the subject. I grew up in Eastern Europe in a quite the patriarchal society. A woman’s place was/is in the kitchen, taking care of the kids and the household. This on top of having a full time job, that is. It is an existence I could not tolerate anymore and it pains me to see women accepting it.

That being said, I have read A Room of One’s Own and even though it is not an easy read I have really enjoyed it. If you are new to the subject as I am this is a great way to get into it. A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay based on a series of lectures Virginia Woolf delivered at two women’s colleges in October 1928. The subject of the lectures was women and fiction, so it focuses on the part women played in literature as both writers and characters of fiction. Her basic point is that women need money and a room of their own to be able to write.

The essay is written from the point of view of a fictional character who sets out to discover the role women played in fiction throughout history. Her limits to accomplishing her tasks are visible from the beginning where she is denied access to a library because of her gender. We have come a long way since 1928, a year which marked the 10th anniversary of British women’s right to vote.

‘… – but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library of accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.’

After being denied the right to enter the college’s library she continues her research into the subject of women and fiction at the British Museum. She takes us through history, looking at women in general and then women as characters in fiction and finally at women as writers. She explains why we don’t have many women writers throughout history and in her view it all boils down to the fact that women didn’t have their own space where they could be alone and where they had the opportunity to let creativity flow freely. Women only had their drawing rooms, where they faced constant interruption. Men had the liberty to pursue the career they desired.

Another fact which prevented women from writing is that they kept encountering men who voiced their opinions on the inferiority of women. She finds that all these men had one thing in common, they all wrote with anger. He collectively calls these men ‘the professor’. Here is the picture she paints of him.

‘He was not in my picture a man attractive to women. He was heavily built; he had a great jowl; to balance that he had very small eyes; he was very red in the face. His expression suggested that he was laboring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained. Could it be his wife, I asked, looking at my picture? Was she in love with a cavalry officer? Was the cavalry officer slim and elegant and dressed in astrakhan? Had he been laughed at, to adopt the Freudian theory, in his cradle by a pretty girl? For even in his cradle the professor, I thought, could not have been an attractive child.’

She finds that the professor is angry because the only way he can be superior is if someone else is less than him.

‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. […] Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they are not inferior, they would cease to enlarge.’

I love her humour and train of thought. She goes on explaining how women have become more invested in expressing themselves creatively over time and gives examples, such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. She advises women to carry on without fear and without the framework laid out to them by men. They should find their own voices, and she stresses that a true voice is neither feminine nor masculine. A true voice is both and none. Because as soon as we write with our gender in mind our emotion will distort our writing.

‘All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.’

What she says is: Oh grow up, will you?! We are not children any more. I think she is amazing and everyone should read this book.

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