A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Essay, published in 1929, ★★★✫
My first longer book by the author (I had only read and much enjoyed another essay, How Should One Read a Book? in a collection of essays by various authors.
This essay is aimed to answer the question of the role of women in literature. Woolf starts by not truly wanting to answer the question in the classic terms of what’s the value of women’s literature, whether or not they are inferior, superior, or equal to men as writers. She approaches the essay dramatizing the mental process in the character of an imaginary narrator. That had me a tad lost initially, until I realized she was using fiction somehow, to answer and write non fiction. Through that imaginary woman, (“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance”), she takes us to Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge), where she’ll explore the conditions of the educational experience for both men and women. And, -quoting from Sparknotes:
She then spends a day in the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, all of which has written by men and all of which has been written in anger. Turning to history, she finds so little data about the everyday lives of women that she decides to reconstruct their existence imaginatively. The figure of Judith Shakespeare is generated as an example of the tragic fate a highly intelligent woman would have met with under those circumstances. In light of this background, she considers the achievements of the major women novelists of the nineteenth century and reflects on the importance of tradition to an aspiring writer. A survey of the current state of literature follows, conducted through a reading the first novel of one of the narrator’s contemporaries. Woolf closes the essay with an exhortation to her audience of women to take up the tradition that has been so hardly bequeathed to them, and to increase the endowment for their own daughters.
Woolf sustains that women, (and writers in general), require some space and monetary solvency to write. That brought me directly to another book I’m reading, A Circle of Quiet, published the year I was born, 1971. In it, Madeleine L’Engle shares her experience as a woman, wife, housewife, mother, teacher, and writer. If Woolf, writing in 1929, expresses the impediments for women to write as having to do all the work for man, having to overcome numerous obstacles to finding their own voice, being severed from travel, experiences, and that total freedom to devote themselves to their art, L’Engle, writing in 1971, shares how it was possible for her to cultivate her art, and not only juggle it along with her other many demands, but how she drew from her family life, her life in her own community and as a teacher to adults and youngsters alike. How life and people gave to her, and how she gave to them, thus the circle image. And not any circle, but a circle of quiet, (her own personal place at Croswicks, where she retrieved to when the noise and tension of life became unbearable.)
I admit that, despite feeling very accomplished after reading this book, there were some dry parts to my XXIst century discombobulated mind. But they moved fast, and I arrived at more enticing moments, specially the one where she delves into XIX century women novelists. I was nodding my head with a grin on my face when she talked about Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. Yes. Austen seems a happier writer, no bitterness or pungency can be seen in her prose. It’s either she was happy with her circumstances, or her circumstances made her happy, as Woolf remarks. But there’s resentment in Brontë. Her sentences are flamant. Nobody can deny that’s the reason why many of us love Wuthering Heights, even Jane Eyre, and why some rather enjoy Austen. (Which it’s to say nothing in terms of taste, since many may love both. Her remark was about the effects of living conditions on women’s literature, once more, to point to the tremendous obstacles for the blooming of the female talent.)
I want to believe there’s been improvement, which doesn’t diminish the relevance of this book. It reads as an ‘older book’, maybe because of the many references to authors and titles of her time, but it surely doesn’t feel like the nonagenarian book that it is.
I can only say that I am quite ready to one of Woolf’s novels. I’ve chosen her renown To the Lighthouse. I believe I’ll enjoy it. I’ll surely let you all know, -in case you want to hear. I’m also interested in hearing what you have to share about this author and her work.