Virginia Woolf was one of those classic authors I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read yet (beyond a few excerpts in college), which led me to pick up A Room of One’s Own back in December. I appreciated it enough that I wanted to add a copy to my shelves, and inadvertently ended up with an edition that also contains Woolf’s “Three Guineas” essay. I read the latter last month.
In “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf considers why women have not been as successful as men in the arts- particularly in writing. She argues that women cannot be judged by the same standards as men if they have not experienced the same advantages as men, and claims that in order to pursue their interests in the way that men have been allowed to pursue their interests, each woman needs a room of her own and 300£ per year.
“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.”
Though Woolf’s involved and intelligent style demands the reader’s full attention, I would be flabbergasted by any reader who could read this piece without completely understanding Woolf’s perspective on this matter; such is her power with written argument. Though it is not impossible to disagree with some of the conclusions that Woolf draws, she goes to such painstaking efforts of showing how she’s reached those conclusions that any disparity of opinion must come from differing personal beliefs than any flaw in Woolf’s ability to persuade.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
This piece is structured as though scripted for a speech at a women’s college graduation, and though probably most relevant to the audience of its time, it certainly has the feel of a timeless work. Originally published in 1929, “A Room of One’s Own” serves today partially as a historical reference point, as a glimpse into the ongoing struggle of feminism in the recent aftermath of woman’s secured right to vote, to work in professions outside of the home for a fair wage, and to own property (in Britain). Conditions for women today are not as outrageously unfair as during Woolf’s time- in this first essay she mentions visiting a university where she is not allowed to set foot in certain buildings, and even the meals vary according to gender- but enough similarities remain that the crux of her argument has not yet lost its urgency. And for its historic relevance, I doubt it will ever lose its importance.
“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”
In “Three Guineas,” Woolf examines how one might prevent war, in response to a letter supposedly asking for advice and a donation. In the course of her argument, she also answers a letter from someone seeking a donation to build a woman’s college, and pens another aimed at female writers; she believes both can help to prevent war, and by donating and asking others to assist with these causes she can aid in that prevention.
Though at first the possible prevention of war may seem to have little to do with women’s rights, Woolf wastes no time explaining that war has always been a man’s profession, and how the historical and habitual silencing of women’s voices may lead to war. It does seem a fitting piece to accompany “A Room of One’s Own” in such a volume as this, though it does advocate more openly for equality between all people rather than focusing solely on assisting women. Indeed, in “Three Guineas” Woolf wants to eradicate the word feminism altogether, because she does not believe it conveys the spirit of total equality the term is meant to invoke.
Sadly, the argument appears to have come too little, too late- it was first published in 1938, only a year or so before Britain entered WWII. Perhaps this essay did not fall into the hands of enough people willing to act on her advice… Who can say?
Nevertheless, Woolf is just as persuasive and convincing in this piece as the first, and the prevention of war feels as timeless a topic as feminism. This second piece is somewhat longer, and unfortunately I did think that it felt longer, as well; this is a multi-faceted argument with many tangents that cause the pacing to ebb and flow more dramatically than in “A Room of One’s Own.” It’s a solid piece that makes some great points, but I wouldn’t recommend “Three Guineas” as a starting point with Woolf’s nonfiction.
“Is it not possible that if we knew the truth about war, the glory of war would be scotched and crushed where it lies curled up in the rotten cabbage leaves of our prostituted fact-purveyors; and if we knew the truth about art instead of shuffling and shambling through the smeared and dejected pages of those who must live by prostituting culture, the enjoyment and practice of art would become so desirable that by comparison the pursuit of war would be a tedious game for elderly dilettantes in search of a mildly sanitary amusement – the tossing of bombs instead of balls over frontiers instead of nets? In short, if newspapers were written by people whose sole object in writing was to tell the truth about politics and the truth about art we should not believe in war, and we should believe in art.”
On the whole, these are not the most accessible or timely classics I’ve read, but I did find them worthwhile. I would highly recommend reading the first piece, to anyone interested in classics or feminism or Woolf’s writing; I would recommend the second only based on a thorough appreciation of the first piece, as it does seem more a continuation than a work that will change any minds about Woolf’s writing on its own.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I rated both essays individually since I read them so far apart, and they both came out exactly the same for me at 4 stars each. I appreciated both, but I wouldn’t call this book a “fun” read; I found it rewarding, and did enjoy Woolf’s voice- I think she would’ve made a great presence on Twitter, though her strength clearly lies in more complex sentences than would fit in a tweet. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to checking out some of Woolf’s fiction!
Have you read any of Virginia Woolf’s work- fiction or nonfiction? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant