Feminist Classics Book Club: A Room of One’s Own

by | May 12, 2011
filed under Feminism

May’s read at Feminist Classics Book Club is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’d read it before in University but for some reason didn’t remember liking it. Luckily I really enjoyed and appreciated it this time around.

Nymeth, the host of this month’s discussion at FCBC does a good job summarizing the book:

“Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929, and it was based on two lectures delivered and Newham and Girton Colleges in 1928. The central premise of the essay is that “every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year” – without economic independence and the freedom that derives from it, women’s achievements in the arts and letters will always lag behind.”

Even though A Room of One’s Own is based on lectures, Woolf chose to deliver her message through a fictional narrator and used an impersonal tone in order to avoid the impression she “had an axe to grind”. Nevertheless, I found myself really drawn into the narrative, which moves with Woolf’s characteristic flowing, compound sentences.

Woolf takes us from the women’s college at Oxbridge, where the academics are served inferior meals and possess inferior resources for study than their male counterparts, to the childhood home of Shakespeare and his fictional sister Judith, to the shelves of the library where books about women authored by men predominate. The writing doesn’t feel like a lecture and throughout all we get the message that there is a gaping hole where women’s writing should be, and that this cannot be filled until women gain economic independence through advances in social equality.

The part that I found most interesting and which I’d somehow overlooked on my first go-round was Woolf’s defense of the depiction of lesbian “friendship” in books:

“Chloe liked Olivia…” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in teh privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change there was. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature…For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.

One of the key pillars in Woolf’s argument is to contend that women’s creativity is inherently different than men’s, and therefore needs to be promoted in order to advance the richness in our culture. But while that argument  might appear overly essentialist on the face of it, what Woolf is saying is more that women should not be forced into a masculine ideal in order to succeed: “It would be a thousand pitites if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”

In the end, this section is my big take-away:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were present; and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imaginatino the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from teh violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.

All that you will have to explore, I said to Mary Carmichael, holding your torch firm in your hand. Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’s bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo-marble.”


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