I’m a little sorry that Feminism Month is almost over. I knew from the beginning that my goals were too ambitious, but I’m still sorry I didn’t reread Mating, which is one of my favorite contemporary novels, and I also wish I had read John Dollar – the “feminist retelling of Lord of the Flies” that gets a lot of flak in Salman Rushdie’s recent memoir; it’s written by his ex-wife. But A Room of One’s Own has been on my to-read list for a long, long time, and if it weren’t for the Classics Club’s decision to devote March of 2014 to Feminist literature, I probably would have left it on the list indefinitely.
I’m glad I read this book. This is one of those nonfiction books that seem full of clichés to a modern reader – until we remember that this book, among others, is one of the primary origins of these clichés. The passages in which Woolf writes about the importance of an independent income for a woman who wants to be a writer could have been written by Suze Orman. This book feels modern because this book, and others like it, helped create the attitudes and beliefs that we call modernity.
The occasion of this book is a speech Woolf was asked to give on the subject of Women and Fiction. The book begins in media res, and slowly the reader figures out that Woolf is 1) on the campus of Fernham College, which is Woolf’s fictitious name for Newnham College, the first college of Cambridge University (did you know that there is a Wikipedia page devoted to “fictional Oxbridge colleges”? Now you do!), and 2) meandering around both physically and mentally as she considers the topic of women and fiction. The first chapter is charming, and it lays the foundation for many of the points Woolf will make later, but it definitely roams around more than it settles in. I think this discursiveness is probably the reason that I never read this book when I was in college. I don’t think I was ever assigned to read it, but I knew of it and wanted to read it. I think at some point I must have picked it up, read ten pages or so, and then put it back down, sad but convinced it wasn’t for me. At moments its language is wonderful, from flippant statements like “Meanwhile the talk went on among the guests, who were many and young, some of this sex and some of that” (12) to this wonderful description of prunes: “an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in miser’s veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor” (18).
But what is Woolf doing even bringing up prunes at all in a book about women and fiction? I don’t know. All I know is that now, at thirty-eight, I finally find this kind of silliness charming.
Woolf makes several key points in this work: the first is that women who want to be writers should have an independent income of some kind. Woolf herself had an income of 500 pounds per year, received as an inheritance from her aunt. She provides several reasons this kind of income is essential, many of which are obvious, but the most interesting reason, to me, is that women must have a consistent supply of money of their own in order to donate to women’s issues. Woolf posits – and is likely correct – that one of the reasons it took Oxford and Cambridge so many centuries to found a women’s college was that women didn’t have the money to donate to such a cause, and men chose not to. Even women living lavish lives as wives of rich men had little access to the kind of money needed to endow a college. Men gave enormous sums to these universities and to many others but rarely saw the need to give to women’s colleges.
The bottom line, Woolf emphasizes, is that money is closely connected to freedom. People with money – people of both sexes with money, I think – develop a habit of freedom that is essential to a writer. The idea that the first step to writing fiction is this habit of freedom is an interesting one. I think it is mostly true, but I also think there are exceptions: Solzhenitsyn and Frederick Douglass are the first two that come to mind. Woolf would point out that neither of these writers were women, and I would reply, “But they were slaves! Actual slaves – Douglass literally (though not at the moment of writing his book, I know, but I can’t imagine that he had a ‘habit of freedom’ after living a quarter of a century in slavery), and Solzhenitsyn during his years in the gulag.” Is a male slave really freer than a middle-class woman married to a doctor or lawyer? I have a feeling Woolf would say he is, and I disagree.
The second major point Woolf makes in this book is her famous thought experiment about Shakespeare’s sister. This idea was so consistently present in the ether of my education that I was able to answer several questions about it easily on the Literature in English GRE that I took a couple of years ago, without having read the book. Woolf asks us to imagine that Shakespeare had a twin sister who shared his genius. She describes Shakespeare’s sister as “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as [Shakespeare] was. But she was not sent to school” (47). Woolf theorizes that Shakespeare’s sister would be betrothed to “the son of a neighboring wool-stapler” (47) and would run away from home in order to escape that marriage. Like her brother, she would run away to London, but unlike William, she wouldn’t be able to get the odd jobs that sustained him until he acquired the patronage needed to sustain him. Woolf imagines that Shakespeare’s sister got pregnant by “Nick Greene the actor-manager” and then “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle” (48). Next, Woolf writes, “When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to” (49).
I want to type out the next couple of pages. But you can get hold of a copy of the book if you want to read more. You can probably even get it for free on Kindle.
This book says about gender something similar to what Invisible Man says about race. Whatever the original state of nature may have been for men and women, that nature has been warped by centuries and centuries of social conditioning, and women as a result are different from men. Society – even societies centuries and centuries before we were born – determined who we would be even before our parents and grandparents were born. I don’t know if I agree, but I do like thinking about this idea in the context of Richard Hugo’s poem “To Women”: “That is release you never expected / from a past you never knew you had.”
The final element of this book is several dozen pages of cogent literary analysis. She writes about the major nineteenth-century female novelists – Jane Austen, the Brontes, and George Eliot – and about others I’m not familiar with (and she writes about male authors a good bit too). Some of her ideas are quite startling; for example, the idea that women in the 19th century were too sheltered and protected to create rounded characters. It makes perfect sense, right? As great a novel as Wuthering Heights is, almost all of its characters are flat. George Eliot and Jane Austen managed a bit better, in my opinion, though Woolf has some interesting things to say about how their lives as women impacted their lives as novelists.
This book is difficult to write about. It’s densely packed and a little disorganized, though I don’t mind the disorganization too much. After all, Woolf was a modernist, and she was playing around with written language that mimics the patterns of thought and whatever else modernists like to do. I will definitely come back to this book and read it again. I feel I’m handing you a very incomplete review, but it’s a start.