“A Room of One’s Own” is an essay by the writer Virginia Woolf that was first published on October 24th, 1929. The essay was based on a string of lectures that she gave at Girton College and Newnham College, two women’s colleges in Cambridge University.
The essay employs the device of a narrator to illustrate Woolf’s thesis on the topic of women and fiction. The essay explores explanations for why women writers are a newer breed, how a woman writer in the sixteenth century would have been treated and other topics such as Woolf’s idea of “incandescence” the act of burning away all unnecessary aspects to get at the pure nugget of truth in your writing. Woolf assures readers that she is not judging if men or women are better writers, but only explaining the difference between how they are treated and how they are taught to view themselves.
The idea of a “room of one’s own” is important to a writer, Woolf posits, and until recently, a woman was not allowed a room of her own or the time to write. The essay is seen as an important feminist literary work. It was adapted into a stage performance and a television adaptation on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater in 1991.
Woolf opens the essay by insisting that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is a basic thesis, she admits and one that leaves the problem of the true nature of women and the true nature of fiction unsolved. But having been asked to write about the topic of women and fiction, she hopes to shed some light on how she arrived at this thesis.
To tell the story of how she did this, Woolf proposes that she use her abilities as a novelist to write a fictionalized version of the events that lead to this thesis and the two days that preceded this realization. Thus, begins the narrative portion of the essay.
On the banks of a river in the fictional University of Oxbridge, the narrator sits, fishing. As she fishes, she ponders how to write about women and fiction. She uses the act of fishing as a metaphor for thinking, saying that her thoughts had let their line down in the stream and were waiting for an idea to bite. As she sits, she interrupted by the Beadle, a security guard at the University. The Beadle tells the narrator that women are not allowed to walk on the grass, and she hurries back to the gravel path, noting that she lost her “little fish” idea in the conversation.
Next, the narrator tries to go to the university library to view an essay by Charles Lamb only to be told that ladies are not allowed in the library unless they are accompanied by a man. Angry, the narrator vows never to ask for hospitality again. The narrator is distracted by an assembly outside the chapel and the sound of organ music. She thinks about the university as sort of a laboratory with the students as specimens that have no place outside of it.
At lunch, the narrator is again distracted by the sight of a cat without a tail. She uses this as a metaphor to relate that there is something missing in the lunchroom atmosphere. The narrator recalls a similar lunch that she attended before World War I. She feels that the conversations that people have over lunch have changed since the war as well as the poetry they write. No longer are the romantic poems of Tennyson and Rosetti welcome in the post-war country. The difference between the pre and post-war poetry is, to the narrator, a difference of celebrating feelings that one used to have, versus new feelings that people cannot even fully comprehend.
The narrator describes a meal at Fernham, a relatively new women’s college. The meal is lacking, and the narrator feels that a condensed sense of advantages begins to reduce ones feeling of power and ambition. The conversation is not as deep as one would expect at a school and the narrator retires to her friend Mary Seton’s room with a feeling of disappointment. She and Mary talk about how difficult it was to get funding to start a women’s college versus how easy it is to fund a men’s college.
The narrator wonders why women have always been so poor. Why Mary’s mother and her mother before her did not learn the art of making money and preserving it for their daughter’s education. She notes that until recently, women had no legal rights to their money or land and were considered property themselves. She reflects on the gentility and privacy which are the privilege of only the rich and the effect of tradition in this sense on the mind of a writer.
Back in London, the narrator continues to ponder these questions as she tries to write about women and fiction. She decides on a trip to the British Museum to “strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth.”
In the catalog section of the British Library, the narrator searches for books about women and marvels at how many there are. When she checks for books on men, she finds no archive on the topic. Reading through a few of these books at random, she pauses in anger at one professor’s assertion of the “mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.” She feels that these types of assertions are the result of a deep-seated anger that does not allow these experts to view the sexes objectively. She wonders why they are angry and then realizes that their anger made her angry. She decides that these male experts are more interested in preserving their own high opinion of male superiority than they are of anything to do with women.
After she eats lunch and pays the bill, the narrator informs the reader that she was left a legacy of five hundred pounds a year by her aunt, Mary Beton. She recalls that she was told about this through a letter on the same day that women were given the right to vote and that the money was more important to her personal freedom. The money relieved her of the need to work and seemed to give her a lighter temper toward many things in life, including men. She began seeing men as victims of their own devices in a sense. She feels that having financial independence gave her the “freedom to think of things in themselves.”
The narrator thinks about the differences between the historical labor provided by men and woman and thinks that there is no way to quantify which was more valuable. She dreams about a future where there will be no gender-divisions in labor. Disappointed at not having found the truth that she was looking for at the British Library, the narrator returns home.
She begins to think about the lives of English women in the Elizabethan era. This was a period of unquestionable literary achievement, but only for men. The legal rights of women at this time were nonexistent. This fact seems, to the narrator to be not in keeping with the progressive and strong female characters from literature from ancient times to present day. Says the narrator, “A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.” Although in real life, this woman would have probably not been able to read or write, some of the literature’s most inspiring and witty words come from her mouth.
The narrator wonders if the sum of this problem could be arrived at by combining both real history and fiction. The narrator explores this idea by conjuring up a female version of Shakespeare. Judith Shakespeare is as talented as William but does not receive a man’s education as he did. Although she is gifted with more free time. Although Judith is the apple of her father’s eye, she is expected to conform to society’s standards for women and would not have been allowed to explore her talent. She writes when she can live in secret but then hides or destroys her work so that it will not be found. When she becomes engaged at a young age, she begs her father not to marry and is scolded and beaten. Afterward, she runs away. She wishes to go into acting but is shamed and ridiculed for this. She is eventually taken in by a theater manager who gets her pregnant. She later commits suicide.
This is an example of how a woman with Shakespeare’s gift might have lived at that same time. However, the narrator asserts that such a woman could never have existed, as genius is not found among the laboring and uneducated people. In that time, if a woman was a genius she was thought to be a witch or a lunatic. Many “Anonymous” authors of that time were most likely women.
Having dissected this question, the narrator wonders what the ideal state of mind is for creation. She observes the obstacles against creating works of genius, the indifference of the majority of the world and the different forms of discouragement. While this is true for all artists, it is even more true for women. Unless a woman came from an exceptionally wealthy family, she would not even have a room of her own and her spending money and free time were totally at the discretion of others. Also, being told all her life that women were less intelligent than men, she would probably have a lowered view of her own abilities. The lack of any female role models in this area would make this low self-confidence even worse.
Although humans like to think of genius as being interchangeable between all genders, the mind and confidence of an artist are especially susceptible to rejection. The narrator holds that an artist’s mind must be “incandescent” and that “there must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.” This incandescence simply would not have been possible for a woman in the sixteenth century.
The narrator traces the slow, creeping emergence of female writers from the blank canvas of the Renaissance. At first, female aristocrats, women of freedom and comfort (comparatively) would have emerged. These women not only had free time to write but the resources and education, in the more recent centuries. She also had the resources to endure public disapproval. Take, for instance, Lady Winchilsea of the eighteenth century. The narrator says that though she was allowed to write, Winchilsea’s poetry was bursting with indignation over a lot of women of her time. Then there is Margaret of Newcastle, who might have been a poet or scientists but “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense” instead. Margaret was an aristocrat like Lady Winchilsea and like her also had no children and a kind husband.
The narrator then talks about Aphra Behn, the turning point for women and fiction. Aphra was a middle-class woman who made a living as a writer. She started off a trend of professional female writes, including Jane Austen and George Eliot. Says the narrator: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it showed who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Except for the fact that all of these women were childless, they seem to have nothing else in common, so why were they all novelists and not some other form of a writer? The narrator offers several conclusions.
Firstly, these women would have written in a shared room with their other family members, so perhaps novels offered a hardier distraction than poetry. Secondly, as they would not have had a literary education, the characters from the novels they had read would have been their main education. Emily Bronte might have made a better poet. George Eliot, a historian or biographer. But they wrote novels.
Jane Austen was said to hide her writing when someone came into the room, and her novels are light and without hate or bitterness. The narrator thinks that Austen wrote in such a way that the writing “consumed all impediments.” Charlotte Bronte does not have this same incandescence. Her writing may have been more genius than Austen’s, but it bears the marks of her own personal demons. The narrator thinks that in reading Bronte’s work, the reader can define what parts were influenced by criticism by which parts are more aggressive or conciliatory.
Integrity is the conviction in a novelist that shows that he or she is giving their own personal truth. Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are excellent proponents of this integrity. They maintained their truth through criticism and opposition. Their achievement becomes even more impressive under that knowledge.
The lack of great female writers preceding the nineteenth-century was, in the narrator’s opinion, the greatest impediment to female writers at that time. The great male writers were no help in creating a story from a female perspective. This, the narrator says, may be another explanation for the female novelists choice of genre, as the form was “young enough to be soft in her hands.”
But the narrator predicts that women may not always choose to write novels as they have poetry in them that has not been let out. However, they may turn this poetry into some new form of the genre that has not yet been thought of. This line of thought moves the narrator on to current female writers. The narrator finds that women these days are writing almost as many books as men and that not all of these books are novels. These books are on subjects that even a generation earlier women would not have been allowed to touch.
Take, for instance, the novel “Life’s Adventure” by Mary Carmichael. This is the authors first novel and the narrator looks through it to find what she has inherited from her foremothers of prose. She finds that the writing is not as good as Austen but that the attempt to achieve something completely different is very Austen-like. At first, the narrator is dismayed by the strange flow of the sentences before realizing that it is intentional and subversive.
The true marker of greatness and change in Carmichael’s book is a simple sentence that stuns the narrator. The sentence is “Chloe liked Olivia.” The sentence is so stunning because rarely in fiction have women been thought of about each other. They are usually only referenced in relation to men.
“Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity—for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy.” The women in Carmichael’s book also have interests and ambitions outside the home. In fact, Olivia and Chloe work together in a laboratory and this effects the kind of friends that they can be. The narrator considers this type of relationship between women as untouched ground in novels.
The narrator acknowledges that Carmichael will probably still be dragged down by the lack of self-confidence that will keep her from considering herself and artist. She will have to learn the truth about women and tell the truth about men that has gone untold because they cannot see it themselves. But if Carmichael does have Bronte and Austen’s genius, she has an advantage over them in that she gives no anger against men in her writing nor over her situation in life. The narrator says that in another hundred years with five hundred pounds and a room of her own, Carmichael could be a poet.
In the final chapter, the narrator wakes and looks out at an indifferent London. The city does not care about “the future of fiction, the death of poetry, or the development by the average woman of a prose style so completely expressive of her mind.” The narrator emerges from her cocoon of thought over the last two days and begins to think about a perfect unification of the sexes in one androgynous mind. The harmonious balance of the two schools of thought would be the perfection of genius. In contrast, she thinks that her time is more concerned with the differences between the sexes than any other. She thinks that it is fatal for a writer to think of their sex when they write.
At this point, Virginia Woolf casts aside the narrator and covers some of the objections that the reader may raise to the essay. She says that she hasn’t given any comments about the comparative merit between the two sexes as writers and thinks that this type of comparison should be avoided. She simply states that the facts are against a new poet with no money or education. She says that Intellectual freedom depends upon material things and poetry depends on intellectual freedom. Thus, women haven’t had a change to write poetry. That is why she has stressed the idea of money and a room of one’s own.
Woolf ends by saying that good writing is good for society and urges her readers to start writing books have a way of influencing each other. She tells the reader to see their work not only as for how it is worthwhile in itself but how it will be worthwhile for future generations of women writers.
The Narrator – the narrator, is an unnamed female scholar whom Woolf uses to dissect and illustrate her main thesis. At the beginning of the essay, she tells the reader to refer to the narrator as “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or any other name you please.” The narrator assumes all of these identities over the course of the essay.
The shifting nature of her identity further complicates the narrative as the reader must consider who the narrator is at any given moment. This is probably meant to give her a more universal voice. She is an everywoman character who could be any young female writer. By giving her narrator this universal voice, Woolf acknowledges that her thesis applies to all women and not only herself.
Though the setting for the essay is Woolf’s preparing to give a speech about women and fiction, the narrator is supposed to be a separate and distinct person from Woolf. This offers a more novel-like aspect to the essay, which is further enhanced by Woolf’s ability to blend fiction and fact to make a point. Her freedom with facts shows that she is suggesting that there is no incontrovertible proof in the world and that all truth is relative.
The assumption that men were better writers than women was widely held at the time of the essay’s writing. The narrator’s job was to make the reader question this belief and wonder why there were less famous literary works by women. Of course, the answer is clear to us now, women were not as often educated or encouraged in their art as men until fairly recently. But the narrator makes this point in a world that was still coming to said conclusion.
The narrator uses the literary device of actual journeys around the British Library and the Oxbridge College campus to illustrate the journey that women have taken as fiction writers. Included in the thesis is the idea of “incandescence” a theory that Woolf posited was the act of burning away all unnecessary embroidery on a novel to get to the “nugget of pure truth.” The narrator is an intelligent woman and a capable storyteller. She brings the reader through the thesis as a helping hand and an avatar of sense.
Virginia Woolf Biography
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English novelist and critic whose stream-of-consciousness technique and poetic style are among the most important contributions to the modern novel.
Woolf was born in London, the daughter of the philosopher Sir Leslie Stephen, who educated her at home. In about 1905 after the successive deaths of her mother and father, Woolf and her sister, Vanessa (an artist) made their home a gathering place for the former university colleagues of their older brother. The circle, which came to be known as the Bloomsbury group, included in addition to other members of the London intelligentsia, the writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912. With her husband, she founded Hogarth Press in 1917.
Virginia Woolf’s early novels – “The Voyage Out” (1915), “Night and Day” (1919) and “Jacob’s Room” (1922) – offer increasing evidence of her determination to expand the scope of the novel beyond mere storytelling. The next novels, “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) and “To The Lighthouse” (1927), the plot is non-existent. Instead of psychological effects are achieved through the use of imagery and metaphor.
Woolf was a critic of considerable influence, as well as a biographer and feminist. In “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), she was among the first writers to espouse the cause of women’s rights.
Throughout her life, Woolf suffered many bouts of mental illness. It is thought that she suffered from what is now known as Bipolar disorder.
In March of 1941, Woolf, deeply depressed, committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her husband Leonard buried her ashes under a tree in the garden of their home.