Review: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf book cover
A Room of One’s Own (1929) is an extended essay (originally composed as a series of lectures to Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge) by Virginia Woolf on the role of women within literature. Firmly she puts the case that women must be afforded the same level of autonomy and freedom as men if they are to produce works of genius comparable to those of the finest male writers. This freedom, she argues, is wholly reliant on material things – that in order to write well, women must have their own money and a space of their own in which to practice their craft. Put succinctly, to write well, one requires freedom. To be free, one requires money.

Looking back over the history of literature, Woolf dissects the ways in which women have had their opportunity to write restricted, and laments the lack of great female poets (perhaps brushing over a few who could bear further scrutiny). Among a number of fictional examples she uses to illustrate her point, Woolf develops the idea of a sister to Shakespeare, pushed into domestic life while her brother is off exploring the world and producing great art inspired by all that he experiences. It’s an effective method for drawing out a sense of indignation in the reader as the thought of lost potential is pressed home. Woolf discusses not only the limited opportunities for women to excel as writers, but also the female as represented by male authors – the shapeless form that comes to represent the feminine, frequently indistinct and insignificant in the face of male characters full of agency. In considering this, she draws prescient points about power, social constructs, and the patriarchy of her society.

In considering the art of writing, there is an interesting discussion on how the emotions, particularly in rebellion, of the author – external to their art – affect the content of their work. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is used to illustrate the point as Woolf laments the failure of Bronte to contain within herself the emotions – as Jane Austen did – rather than letting them infect and detract from her writing. Woolf claims – in a rather pleasing metaphor – that the “I” casts shadows over works where the author does not rein in their own emotion. Woolf concludes that to write well a mind must be free to think as it chooses, without being shackled and weakened by bitterness and disharmony.

In advancing her own argument, Woolf does not attack men as fiercely or directly as she might, and her argument is all the more persuasive for this. That she is able to write with controlled anger, and coolly analytical insight, is a perfect demonstration of the advice she offers writers: to write well, one must control one’s emotions and transfer onto the page what achieves one’s aims and not what proves emotionally cathartic only. Indeed, she writes so engagingly that in Woolf’s hands reflective practice becomes tolerable as exposition, and one enjoys reading the machinations of the author’s mind as she constructs the essays presented here.

Despite arguing for a difference between the sexes approaches to literature for most of the essay, Woolf turns briefly, and posits the idea of the androgynous mind – the blending of male and female – as the perfect state from which to produce writing. This is rather an appealing idea, even if it contradicts much of the rest of the essay. Early on in this passage, Woolf entreats her readers not to simply accept her arguments, but to challenge and treat with scepticism all that she posits, creating a fruitful dialectic between author and reader. This attitude is refreshing and powerful, Woolf a woman more than confident in addressing a point, and defending it. Her style itself is wonderfully lucid and almost clinical – but one would not be far wide of the mark to suggest this logical form of discourse is far more male than female, as Woolf defines the terms. That is far from a criticism, and indeed, shows Woolf’s own conviction that each writer must write as they see fit, that to buckle to outside pressures is to compromise artistic vision. The purely logical argument free of arrogance, the bubbling anger held in check, everything in Woolf’s writing points to a writer in control of both the male and female aspects of her mind, and offering not truth but well-argued opinion.

A Room of One’s Own is one of the landmark works in the history of feminist criticism – many would argue it is the very genesis of that strand – and indeed female writers today owe a great debt to the work of writers like Virginia Woolf. This is a book about writing, however, and every piece of advice applies as equally to men as it does to women. That women were, and possibly still are, further from Woolf’s conception of the ideal writer’s lifestyle is important, but there are many people, not just women who will identify with the problems faced by the women writers Woolf discusses, and equally as many who will draw a huge amount from Woolf’s discussion of what it means to write well, regardless of gender or position. Despite being topical to its time, A Room of One’s Own already has a sense of permanence within the critical cannon: Woolf’s ideas are timeless, and it is hard to envisage a period when a writer’s mind would not be enriched inestimably by reading this essay.

The clean, sharp style of Woolf's writing won me over immediately. She has a lot to say on the craft of writing, and her points here are all worthy of serious discussion.


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2 comments:

Petra said...

I bought this book last week along with The Feminine Mystique, which I decided to read first. But A Room of One's Own sounds great, I read a few pages just to get an idea and I enjoyed her style. And after this review I'm really looking forward to reading it. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Excellent - come back and tell me what you think when you've read it. :) I hope my review doesn't prove to wide of the mark!