Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf.  Whenever I'm not reading her, I have slight doubts in my mind - is she really as brilliant as I remember?  Does a little bit of me just love Woolf because I think I ought to love Woolf?  And then I re-read one of her books, and realise that she is as brilliant as I remember - I find it very hard to believe that there is a better writer in the twentieth century.  Suggestions on a postcard.

Even those who wrinkle their noses at her fiction (listen up, Colin) tend to admire her non-fiction.  For my thesis I had the pleasure of re-reading A Room of One's Own (1929), bringing the total to three reads I believe, and it has confirmed my adoration of the book.  Many of us are probably familiar with its central tenet - 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 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 Vilette 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 (why this is ever held up as a statistic, I can't imagine - how dreadful it must be to be a CEO!) 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 of us have heard this!  There are still (but how?) intelligent people who disregard, say, Jane Austen because she does not feature the Napoleonic Wars.  And many of our beloved middlebrow novelists fall victim to the same absurd 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 (although sooner or later nobody, male or female, will be able to afford this, at the rate we're going) but it is a battle nonetheless.

However, I don't think one needs to be especially interested in feminist non-fiction to value A Room of One's Own.  I suppose, come to think of it, I am not especially interested in feminist non-fiction (however much I support the cause) because I've just realised that I haven't really read much else in this field.  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.  If you've not read it - oh, do, do, do!

32 comments:

  1. Woolf seems to be having a day amongst bloggers lately, doesn't she?

    Love this - breathless yet reasoned enthusiasm about Woolf is important, as so many people think she is beyond them and it's simply not true. She is very accessible if you know HOW to access her, which is sort of a paradox but its after midnight so I'm allowed to not make sense! I must re-read A Room of One's Own. My old Hogarth hardback is so well read it has a sellotaped spine. No idea where it is though, at present. In a box somewhere.

    Coincidentally I started Night and Day this morning but I am not loving it so far. It feels a bit contrived. I will plug on though.

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    1. Thank for your comment, Rachel - I'm glad that Woolf is getting a few more mentions around the blogosphere. Her reputation puts so many people off, but I don't think she's so different from, say, Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day. Just even better!

      Night and Day is the only novel of Woolf's that I didn't finish, actually...

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  2. Woolf is on my short list of authors that I really must try again. I read Mrs Dalloway in college, and at the time, I was not a fan of stream of consciousness writing, and I hated it. It turned me off Woolf for years! But I've read lots of intriguing quotes from her nonfiction, and I feel sure that I'd like this book, as well as her literary criticism. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm better equipped today to appreciate Mrs Dalloway than I was 20 years ago, so I may even give that another try after delving into her nonfiction.

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    1. I had exactly this experience. I did To the Lighthouse in school and hated it. Then fifteen years later did it in university and fell head over heels for it. And I found so much to respond to in it as an adult, a grown woman, I really don't know why they insist on foisting it on 17 year-olds.
      Also love A Room of One's Own. Highly recommend both.

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    2. There you go, Teresa, an example to encourage you!

      I didn't study Woolf at school; I first read her when I was about 17, I think, after seeing The Hours - and I was lucky enough to fall in love instantly. But I can see how studying her, if taught uninspiringly, would put you off for ages.

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  3. I hate, when I see how many other readers adore her, that my general reaction to Woolf so far has been "meh". I can read her books but I have zero emotional reaction to her work. A Room of One's Own is the closest I've ever come to liking her but, even then, it wasn't particularly close. I think I may just have to put Woolf aside for a few decades and hope my tastes will change with age.

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    1. What a shame, Claire! But some authors just don't work for each reader, so it's not worth struggling against the tide, is it? I certainly feel like this about some authors whom bloggers love - Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers...

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  4. Your introduction was brilliantly put... do we like her because we ought? no - she has most definitely earned it! I appreciate what you said about Jane Austen (of course)... and yes, I think too few novels are given the critical attention they deserve =/ ah well, just one more reason to become a literary critic, I suppose =)

    For those who struggle/have struggled connecting to Woolf, may I strongly suggest "Moments of Being"? I am very grateful to have been "introduced" to her brilliance through her own life's stories. Being as I do NOT believe in the death of the author, this really helped put things into perspective for me.

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    1. That's an interesting place to start, Samara, and could definitely work as a crossing-point for people interested in her life but not eager to read one of her novels. Great suggestion!

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  5. As someone who doesn't love much Ms Woolf's novels (I haven't read many) I have indeed generally liked her essays (extended or brief) and think they many are certainly well worth reading.

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  6. "[Orlando's] concoction of disjointed paragraphs that amount to nothing greater than a vague sense of tone with a total absence of form reminds me a little of the opening pages of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (beyond which I could not get). Both novels, I believe, aspire to wit.
    In short, this is a book which may be appreciated by students of literature looking for textbook examples of literary affectation, but it is unlikely to be enjoyed by anyone who actually wants a book to read."

    I know it's poor form to quote oneself, but I stumbled across this today, and very much agree with myself.

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    1. I takes this to get a comment from you, Col! Well, it pains me to tell you that you're wrong. Actually, no, it doesn't pain me ;)

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    2. I haven't read Orlando, but I love so very much the wonderful film "based upon it" made by Sally Potter. As I haven't read it, possibly Ms Potter only uses the title and I'm sure Simon will leap in here, but I think it is a truly fabulous film and might even make me have a go at the book. Of course maybe I'm swayed by the delicious Ms Swinton who stars in it ...

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    3. I have to admit, shamefacedly, that I didn't love the film. I think my tastes are often more lowbrow with films than with books - with some notable exceptions, but I did find the film a little ponderous. I think the problem is my poor attention span - I can pick up and leave off a book when I like and, while I suppose I could do the same with films, I almost invariably watch them straight through, from beginning to end.

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  7. I ve recently been stockpiling Woolf books as I tried her in my teens and hate her but ready to try again .But this sounds so relevant still ,all the best stu

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    1. Do try, Stu! I think you'd appreciate her now.

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  8. A Room of One's Own has been important for me for ages, as the lecture on which it was based was delivered at Newnham College, where I was for my PhD. Newnham is still a women's college, but MOST IMPORTANTLY (!) one is allowed to walk on the grass there, unlike in so many of the other colleges.

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    1. We can't walk on the grass at Magdalen for two-thirds of the year! Some battles are still to be fought... ;)

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  9. "Happiness is in the quiet, ordinary things. A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent." — Virginia Woolf, The Waves

    She's just amazing basically - everyone in the world should be made to read her.

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    1. Kaggsy, while admiring your enthusiasm for Ms Woolf, I completely disagree with your last sentence. Nobody should be made to read anything! That isn't to say we shouldn't open many windows onto many new and diffrent worlds, but not all will like a particular view.

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    2. True - I just got a little over-excited and intense at the thought of VW's genius!! If we all liked the same thing the world would be dull!

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    3. What a lovely quotation, Karen!
      And yes, I suppose we shouldn't force people to read her - I just wish there was a switch I could turn on so that everybody would appreciate her! It can be frustrating, when one has derived so much joy from a writer, that she is generally disliked.

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  10. Oh, I do so share your admiration for Virginia Woolf! I read all of her books, even the letters and diaries, when I was a teenager and fancied myself as being in her mould (and wrote the most amazingly dreary stuff to mimic 'The Waves'). Then I lost touch with her for a few years, and, with distance, she became this remote, rather po-faced and cliquey, 'difficult' writer, as she is often portrayed.
    However, recently I rediscovered her (I wrote a little bit about 'A Room of One's Own myself, although that focuses on mostly other issues http://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/a-room-of-ones-own/ ). And she has proved so much funnier, wittier, easier to read than I had remembered, that I have fallen in love with her all over again. Still can't write like her though. Just listen to this description of writers trying to grasp reality:

    What is meant by reality? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech…Whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.

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    1. Isn't it wonderful? Thank you for the quotation, Marina, and for your lovely enthusiastic comment. And haven't we all tried to imitate her writing, and floundered hopelessly? She makes it look so possible, and yet only a select few genii can write with the fluidity she has. And only one person in a century could have written The Waves.

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  11. I'm afraid I'm one of those people who love Woolf's non-fiction more than her fiction but AROOO is just a work of genius. Thank you for such an inspiring appreciation of it, Simon. Makes me want to read it again. Can you ever forget the prunes & custard for dessert? I happen to love prunes but I see the point she was trying to make!

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    1. Thanks, Lyn! I'll definitely be re-reading it many times. (And, since I share her distaste for prunes, that image hit home!)

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  12. I think she is writer whose effect improves on rereading, taking time and requires reflection. But she has certainly stood the test of time and is an interesting role model. Great post and comments!

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    1. It's been a fun discussion, hasn't it?

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    2. Yes! They usually are where there is a divergence of opinion.

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  13. Hi! Sorry for dropping by in such an old entry. I have just written a review of A Room of One's Own and I've referenced you (giving you credit, of course). I hope you don't mind :-).

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