By Joanna Kieschnick
Virginia Woolf is celebrated for her innovative modernist novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. However, her essays are often overlooked. As a woman writer, Woolf was passionate about proving that women were just as creative and intelligent as men and equally capable of producing quality writing. Woolf often read at conferences for women in an attempt to motivate them and help them to overcome the negative attitude of many members of the opposite sex. One of Woolf’s more famous essays, A Room of One’s Own, conflates two papers read to literary societies at Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, The Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf asserts that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ To develop her thesis, Woolf introduces a number of fictitious or semi-fictitious accounts of women whose circumstances prevent them from either creating or publishing fiction.
Her first account details, in first person, the experiences of a woman visiting ‘Oxbridge’ for a day. ‘Oxbridge’ is both the usual combination of Oxford and Cambridge and a microcosm representing all intellectual pursuits. First, her narrator settles down on the river bank where she is met by a man whose ‘face expressed horror and indignation.’ She soon discerns that he is disgusted by her presence because, ‘He was a beadle; I was a woman… Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me’ (Page 9). Though she soon dismisses his disgust, she is again thwarted when she goes to a college library to consult a manuscript and is told, ‘ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College…’ (Page 12). Ironically, ‘Oxbridge,’ which initially allows her ‘mind, freed from any contact with facts… to settle down upon what meditation was in harmony with the moment,’ (page 10) is found to be clouded by its masculinity, preventing any meditation or creativity at all.
As her day continues, so does the message that she is unwanted at ‘Oxbridge.’ Even within the fictional Fernham Women’s College, patriarchal influence is all-pervasive. She is told that the poor quality of the food and buildings are the result of the college’s difficulty in finding funding. Though women at this time could own property, Woolf notes that society’s expectations made it almost impossible for a woman, especially one with children, to earn money independently of her husband; her husband would naturally prefer to donate his own money to men’s colleges. Yet, paradoxically, if the female students’ mothers had devoted their lives to earning money for donations rather than raising a family, the students would probably not have been born in the first place.
Woolf felt the male exclusivity of ‘Oxbridge’ personally. While her father and brothers all attended Cambridge, she and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, did not. Most of the men closest to Woolf were also Cambridge educated. Of the original members of the ‘Bloomsbury Group,’ Woolf’s circle of influential friends, only she, her sister and Duncan Grant had not been at Cambridge.
Once outside the physical ‘Oxbridge’, nothing Woolf examines is free from male influence. To her horror, she finds that literature about women is written exclusively by men and is largely derogatory. She concludes that men paint women as inferiors to preserve or reinforce their own feelings of superiority. It is not until women write that they can be accurately represented in fiction, because male writers can only see women ‘in their relation to men.’ This is because they are excluded from women’s relationships with each other, and from women’s endeavours independent of their husbands, lovers or children.
Woolf argues through a series of examples. The most vivid and memorable is Judith, a fictitious sister of Shakespeare who is just as gifted as her brother, but confined by the burden of female responsibility. While her brother attends grammar school and moves to London, becoming a successful actor, Judith is kept at home. She is told ‘to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers’ (page 71), until her father arranges a marriage for her which she finds repulsive. Burdened by her pending nuptials, Judith escapes to London where she attempts to find a job in theatre, but is rebuffed: ‘no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress.’ Finally ‘Nick Greene the actor took pity on her; she found herself with child by that man also’ and Judith, overcome by shame, kills herself. Woolf’s point is that the men who claim ‘a woman could never have written the plays of Shakespeare’ are right, but only because women were not given the training necessary to write like Shakespeare did.
Marveling that any woman was able to write given her circumstances, Woolf highlights the achievements of Aphra Behn who, despite the male-dominated literary culture, was able to make a living through writing. Woolf sees Behn’s success as opening a new door for women: ‘Now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen.’ (Page 96). Woolf emphasizes that the freedom of expression that she and her female contemporaries experienced is the result of centuries of other women’s hard work and achievements.
Despite its brilliant insight, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own exemplifies the very challenges faced by female authors Woolf highlights in the essay. It was published not by an outside firm, but by the Hogarth Press, Woolf and her husband’s own company. Furthermore, the essay is a compilation of talks given only to women, when the primary forces suppressing women’s creativity were products of a male-dominated society. These factors prove that when Woolf wrote the essay in 1928, women still had a long way to go before their male counterparts would see them as equals.
Bell. Q, Virginia Woolf: A Biography (Orlando, 1972)
Woolf. V, A Room of Ones Own (London, 1928)
Woolf. V, Mark Hussey, ed, Three Guineas (London, 2006)
Woolf. V, On Women and Writing: Her Essays, Assessments and Arguments, selected and introduced by Michele Barrett (Reading, 1979)