A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own is a compilation and expansion of two papers Virginia Woolf presented in response to the prompt, “Women and Fiction.” It’s an essay of just over 100 pages, in my edition, in which she meditates on the subject, does a little research, and muses as to what we can expect from women in the world of fiction, what we’ve gotten from them in the past, and why. The final conclusion drawn, which forms the title, is that if a woman has five hundred a year and a room of her own she can be another Shakespeare. She points out that these requirements are symbolic: “five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate… a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” She acknowledges that her demands are rather materialistic, and defends them by pointing out that resources are required for great art, that all our greatest artists and poets have been (almost entirely) men of means.

She makes some interesting arguments about the differences between men and women, and claims that women shouldn’t try to write like men; we are different, she says, and shouldn’t try to be the same. I guess this is a liberating argument in some ways, and I certainly agree that women shouldn’t try to be men; but in some ways this argument strikes me in a separate-but-equal fashion. I don’t necessarily appreciate having the “innate” differences harped upon, between sexes or ethnic groups or any of it. Part of celebrating diversity is about recognizing the diversity of the different groups, meaning their innate differences, yes, but part of tolerance and acceptance of diversity is about acknowledging our basic sameness too, right? It actually reminded me a little bit of VS Naipaul’s extraordinary and controversial remarks about female writers last year. Some of the response to his ignorant statement that women writers are always inferior to men came in the form of quizzes where, given a short excerpt of writing, the quiz-taker was to guess the writer’s sex. We all got a lot of them wrong, proving that a good writer is not necessarily a “woman writer” or a “man writer” but just a writer, which is a position I tend to agree with. (Same goes for poor writers, too, of course.) It’s odd to me that she also spends a certain amount of time exhorting women not to react to men’s exclusion or prejudice, but to write, as it were, in a vacuum, to not let the “opposition” color their work – either by apologizing or aggressing. Also a strong point, but seemingly a little at odds with her “women are different” point, perhaps. I got a little muddled here.

All in all I did not have the reaction to A Room of One’s Own that I expected to. I wholeheartedly applaud her basic sentiments, and I respect her for being the female writer in the face of male disapproval that she was. But some of her arguments got a little bit questionable to me; I suspect they may be a little dated. The course of the essay, too, was a touch rambling for my taste. As a persuasive essay it was a little more poetic and meandering than I was expecting. Is this slightly genre-bending? Maybe I came at it from a strange angle. At any rate, I respect it, I enjoyed it somewhat, and I congratulate Woolf; but I was not enraptured.

6 Responses

  1. I haven’t read this, but I was enraptured by her Mrs. Dalloway. Now I want to read this and compare the two.

  2. Don’t forget that when this was published, women in Britain had had the right to vote for one year — so feminism and women’s rights was a whole different world than the one we know. And I think material concerns are very important in the ability to write — historically, writers were either independently wealthy or had wealthy patrons. More recently, except for big bestsellers, most of them rely on academic jobs to pay the bills. But very few have ever made their living just by writing.
    I haven’t read this in many years but if you want to read some nice nonfiction Woolf, the collection of her memoirish pieces, Moments of Being, is excellent.

    • “Don’t forget that when this was published, women in Britain had had the right to vote for one year…”
      Which explains why it felt a little dated to me, right? 🙂 Yes, I realize that. It didn’t feel timeless. Just a mild criticism, if anything; really more an observation. And I don’t disagree with her point about material concerns. I’m not sure where this failed to click for me. I didn’t hate it; it just didn’t grab me. Ah well. Maybe some of her fiction next?

  3. When you compare A Room of One’s Own to Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Margaret Fuller (Woman in the Nineteenth Century), Woolf’s essay is not at all rambling. 😀

    I’m glad you got a chance to visit this one, Julia! I still have the postcard. 😉

    (I’m going to check that link you posted above!)

    • Ha! I tried Fuller and put it down a few years ago; same story with Wollstonecraft a few years earlier. Maybe I’m not up for 19th century women’s manifestos. Is that bad? Good point though.

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