Reviewed by Simon
There are plenty of copies of Virginia Woolf’s famous feminist essay A Room of One’s Own available, new and second hand, but I couldn’t resist reviewing it now that Penguin have published their Pocket Hardback series. Undeniably, I have been lured in by the beautiful covers – designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, with almost kaleidoscopic patterns on them, albeit in subtle, sophisticated shades – but I try not to miss any opportunity to bring this non-fiction work to people’s attention. It now sits alongside work by Marx, Freud, Kierkegaard, Sun-Tzu, and others in Penguin’s series, but I doubt any of them could provide entertainment and insight in the irresistible combination Woolf provides.
Many of us are probably familiar with the central tenet of A Room of One’s Own– that, in order to write, a woman must have a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year – but it is surprisingly how slim a section of the work this mantra occupies. You might (like me) also recall Woolf recounting her experiences at an Oxbridge college, forbidden from using the library and chastised for walking on the grass. And Judith Shakespeare, the playwright’s hypothetical sister with equal talent but no chance of fame. But these are only small elements within a much wider exploration of women through history, through literature, and in contemporary society. Like most of Woolf’s writing, she meanders (in the best possible way) from topic to topic, from thought leading to thought, so that one is at the end, far from where one started, without ever seeing the joins. The whole essay (originally delivered as two talks, and later edited into its current form) winds beautifully through so many thoughtful and striking ideas that to explore them all would be simply to type out the whole essay.
And how tempting that is! I want to quote it all, to demonstrate the beauty and astuteness (in more or less equal measures) that Woolf fits into A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is so intoxicatingly good a writer that it feels almost an affront to write about her. So I shall mostly quote.
Having been turned away from one library, Woolf (or, rather, the essayist – she is probably being playful with truth and personalities at times) takes herself to another, trying to discover what has been written about women by the scholars, theorists, and novelists. That dry, sardonic, slightly self-deprecating wit that Woolf uses so often in her essays comes to the fore when reading a psychological tome (while doodling the author’s face):
It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that. One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man – I looked at the student next me – who breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight. One has certain foolish vanities. It is only human nature, I reflected, and began drawing cart-wheels and circles over the angry professor’s face till he looked like a burning bush or a flaming comet – anyhow, an apparition without human semblance or significance.
Her conclusions, after journeying through much that has been written in literature, history, and psychology, says (of course) more about the ways in which women have been treated in these fields than it does about women themselves:
A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.
As I say, there is far too much in A Room of One’s Own to be able to do it all justice. As an essay, it deserves and requires slow, careful reading and re-reading. Woolf’s writing is too rich for skimming. I can only imagine how frustrating (as well as wonderful) it must have been to hear the lectures – to hear such genius (yes, I will use the word) and not be able to jot it all down for later! How fortunate are we, to have the book readily available. But amongst the many glorious elements of Woolf’s essay, I perhaps loved most her journeys through women’s writing over time:
For if Pride and Prejudice matters, and Middlemarch and Villette and Wuthering Heights matter, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour’s discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing. Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter – the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek. All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is,most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
So much of what A Room of One’s Own addresses are battles that have been now won. Woolf is not arguing about the numbers of female CEOs; she is arguing for women’s education and entitlement to positions of intellectual credibility. But one point did stand out to me, a battle which is still unwon:
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 battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
How many times have we heard this! There are still (but how?) intelligent people who disregard, say, Jane Austen because she does not feature the Napoleonic Wars. And many middlebrow novelists fall victim to the same outdated views about what do and do not constitute viable literary topics. This isn’t as important as the battle for women to have university education, but it is a battle nonetheless.
However, I don’t think one even needs to be especially interested in feminist non-fiction to value A Room of One’s Own. What makes A Room of One’s Own so sublime in my eyes is not Woolf’s arguments and ideas, but her writing. It flows so exquisitely; Woolf is so amusing and sharp, laughing at every turn, realising that aggression is far from the only way to make a point. It is a book to read and re-read and re-read again – and a happy reminder that Woolf is not a writer for the elite or pretentious, but simply for those who admire ability, don’t abhor thinking, and enjoy having a smile at the same time.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and would love a room of his own, thankyouverymuch.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Penguin, London, 2014), ISBN 978-0141395920, 144pp, hardback
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