Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own
But, you may ask, we asked you to speak about women and fiction - what has that got to do with a room of one's own? I will try to explain.

"In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister—a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radica
lly different. This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. If only she had found the means to create, argues Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this classic essay, she takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without. Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create."

How is one such as me supposed to write about this book? Oh, look, I sound British. Anyway, this is such an important work for feminism and "women and fiction", whatever that's supposed to mean. When you think about the fact that this work was written in the 1920's, it's really quite remarkable. The writing is slightly dense, but entertaining, witty, and thoughtful. It's a slim book, but it takes a long time to read and appreciate it - even going slowly I didn't completely "get" the book. It needs rereading, that's for sure, many, many times. The basic argument of the book, that a woman in order to write, needs money, and a privacy, a room of her own, is correct, certainly in that time period, and still to this day. A place to write is very important, and so is the means. It is, after all, very difficult to make a living just out of writing, although it has been done.

A Room With One's Own is definitely one of the most challenging books I've read recently, and I'm not sure that I can, you know, actually write a good review of it. Read Elizabeth's excellent review on Goodreads; it talks about the book well, and captures how radical it was for the time. I also, like Elizabeth, got a lot of good book recommendations from A Room of One's Own.

The book might seem dry sometimes, but those sections are few and far between, and most of the book is both interesting and entertaining. It's obviously not an entertainment though; it's art, and very beautiful. The book is based on several lectures given by Woolf that were lengthened, but it also has novel elements to it, in both senses of the word "novel". The first person narrator styles herself as "Mary" and relates several experiences she has a couple of days before the scheduled lecture, such as not being allowed into a college library because she's a woman. There are, surprisingly, some great descriptions of food in A Room of One's Own which I enjoyed reading. What happens at that banquet, however, is more important; she sees a tailless Manx cat and starts to think about things, and how a woman's banquet is inferior to a men's.

She also points out that a woman with lots of children can't write; she has no privacy, and must constantly take care of the kids. Privacy, and independence, basically, are what Woolf argues for. And she argues very well. One of Woolf's key points is imagining if Shakespeare had a sister who had just as much genius and drive to write as he did. It's a sad story, because such a woman in Elizabethan England would inevitably end up mocked if she tried to write, and depressed if she couldn't, with lack of experiences, and no freedom at all.

My favorite section was that on 19th century female writers: Austen, the Brontes, and George Eliot, even though they're really very different. I'm most interested in them, although I did enjoy reading about female Elizabethan poets. It was interesting that Wolff thought that Charlotte Bronte had more true "genius" than Austen, but squandered it by being too angry and talking about her own feelings rather than that of the character's. Although I would argue that Jane Eyre's feelings are one and the same with the author's. But Woolf doesn't like that, saying , "that the woman who wrote those {Jane Eyre's} pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters." (Italics mine). I don't necessarily agree with that, but I do definitely prefer Austen to Bronte like Virginia Woolf. I think, though, that of course your protagonist's feelings will be colored by your own; that's kind of inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing.

Interestingly enough, Virginia Woolf is concerned not with the common woman's struggle, but with the woman of genius struggling to create. It was a bit snobbish actually, but one can still tell that Woolf really cares about what she's writing about. Her route, rather than one of political action, is to give women financial security, time, and privacy. Political action is all very well, she seems to say, but these things are more important.

Here's one passage in the book that I really liked: "And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are "important"; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes "trivial". And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop - everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." War is life and death, but drawing room conversations are much more subtle. I loved this passage; it was quite thought-provoking, and it's a good come-back to those who think Austen's novels "trivial" and "frivolous".

I loved A Room of One's Own much more than I was expecting. It was challenging, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable, and I loved the writing. It's such a short book, but it conveys so much. I would highly recommend it; it's certainly one of my favorites now, and it merits rereading again and again. I also want to read some of Virginia Woolf's novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway.

114 pages.

Rating: *****

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