∝Virginia Woolf’s long essay A Room of One’s Own germinated when she was asked to speak on women and fiction to a group of female students. Instead of making a simple literary assessment, she questioned every premise that had been laid down by generations of male judges of female art.
Why did women for centuries lag behind in literature and intellectual thought? To illustrate what would have happened to a talented female writer of Elizabethan times, Woolf drew a fictional picture of Shakespeare’s sister, who ran away to London to act in plays, was seduced by a stage manager, and died at a young age.
Beyond her startling hypotheticals, Woolf’s genius in this essay lies in tying the pursuit of art to the mundane impact of pounds and pence on any woman who attempts to exercise her talent.
A room with a lock on the door is Woolf’s famous requisite for women writers, but she also specified “five hundred pounds a year”, or a competent income that allows a woman to study, write and think. It seems a rich woman’s demand, but Woolf spells out how generations of male thinkers and writers were bred in colleges, fortified by camaraderie, generous dinners, mental expansiveness, time, space, libraries, and the guidance and example of the old boys. She reminds us that kings and queens poured gold into the foundations and built up the walls of those institutions, endowing wealth enough to support students for centuries. She contrasts that with the one women’s college that was to suffice for all of Great Britain and its colonies, built and run on sparse funds begged from various donors.
No wonder, she says, that women had written so little. She also talks of the impact of steady discouragement, and outright hostility, on the artistic temperament. It’s no use, Woolf says, to say that the artist should not mind what others say. After all, the artist is precisely the kind of oversensitive person to mind what others say. Yet, with inadequate means and no tradition to back them, women wrote. And some of them—Woolf cites Jane Austen and Emily Bronte—miraculously found their own voice instead of adopting a man’s.
Woolf’s thesis is simple: “Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.”
In her own more hopeful times, Woolf finds a refreshing openness, self-confidence and profusion about women’s writing, though men have adopted a more masculine style in reaction.
A Room of One’s Own is highly readable and often funny. Even when telling the most tragic truths Woolf retains an ironic lightness of touch. She offers these words in closing to the young women in front of her: “When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends.... it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.”