Review: A Room of One’s Own

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.

aroomofone'sownIn “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 Originally published in 1929, “A Room of One’s Own” serves today partially as a historical reference point, as a glimpse into the ongoing struggle of feminism in the recent aftermath of woman’s secured right to vote, to work in professions outside of the home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

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13 thoughts on “Review: A Room of One’s Own”

    1. Thank you! I hope you have better luck with her nonfiction! Not having tried her fiction yet I can’t make a fair comparison, but A Room of One’s Own did work well for me.
      I’m not entirely sure where to start with her fiction though, and curious which of her titles didn’t work for you?

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      1. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway (which lots of people recommend starting with), and a slim volume of short stories. Her prose is undoubtedly beautiful, and there are definitely interesting themes in her work, but I really struggle with the meandering nature of a stream of consciousness style.

        That’s why I hope I’ll have better luck with her nonfiction, which presumably has a more cohesive sense of focus and drive.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s good to know! Stream of consciousness doesn’t always work for me either, so I’ll have to be careful about my expectations. I could see how her style might have a tendency to wander, but I did think these were fairly structured. Even in her tangents there’s a formula: present misconception, show evidence, draw conclusion. And the purpose of each essay is laid out clearly right away, which helps give it direction. But the fact that I noticed moments of wandering even without having read her stream of consciousness fiction makes me wonder whether that might stand out more to you here, having already struggled with it, than it did for me. I hope not!

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    1. I thought this duo of essays was a pretty great place to start. It might be worth a try even if you don’t get on with her fiction, but I haven’t tried her fiction yet so I’m not entirely sure how they compare. I think I’m going to read The Waves next from Woolf- I haven’t heard of any bad experiences with that one yet!

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  1. I did read Mrs. Dalloway in college and about died of boredom. I’m not sure who thought stream-of-conscious writing was an interesting new technique, but that person is mine enemy.

    I am surprised to read that Woolf felt that “feminism” as a word didn’t capture the spirit of what it means. To be honest, I’m not sure what she means. does the work just not sound right on her tongue? Does it not have the correct Latin roots, or something?

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    1. I’ve chatted with several people online and off since posting this review, and none of them have actually liked what they’ve read of Woolf’s fiction, lol. Apparently the nonfiction is really the way to go! I still plan to give her fiction a try to see for myself, but I’ve definitely adjusted my expectations. Stream of consciousness doesn’t always work for me, either.

      She explains herself pretty thoroughly about disliking the term (actually as I double check now it’s technically “feminist” she dislikes, though I think the same principle applies). In the essay, she states that the dictionary definition for feminist at the time of her writing was “one who champions the rights of women.” She thinks that the legal rights that feminists set out to attain have been achieved (the right for women to earn their own living, primarily), and thus the word no longer has meaning. She wants a new word created that better embodies the spirit of the feminist fight- which she claims was never for women’s rights only, but for all people to respect Justice, Equality, and Liberty. She’s not denying that women are the ones who’ve been at a disadvantage or that society is not yet equal; I actually think she might approve more of the current definition for intersectional feminism, though I’m not sure what she’d think of the actual term. She’s certainly not trying to say the fight for equality is over, but I think she’s basically saying that the fight has changed from the legal battle it began as, and the new era of feminism needs a different term. I wouldn’t say I wholly agree, but she makes her point understandably in the essay.

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      1. Ah, I see now! I know from working in an English Department that people can spend a whole lot of time on diction, fighting over finding just the right word for arguments that seem inconsequential, let alone something as important as women’s rights. I wonder if Woolf would call herself a humanist.

        I know a few writers who can spin a wonderful tale, using clear, brilliant prose in one collection of fiction, and then in another published work of short stories try their hand at experimental styles that just do NOT work for me. I always wonder what is at stake that people want to experiment in such a way that confuses the writer, but I acknowledge that without innovation, we’d never more forward.

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      2. Ha, wording is important, I suppose! It wasn’t the key focus of this essay, but it did come up a few times.

        I know what you mean, sometimes when an author tries something new it feels like they leave all their strengths behind in the process. But I do get bored essentially reading the same thing over and over, so I can at least appreciate the attempt even if it results in a few duds.

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      3. One book I thought found a great balance between innovative and narrative-driven is The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. A couple of years later, he came to The University of Notre Damn to do a reading, and he was so much like Carrot Top with props, etc.

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      4. I will have to look that one up! It’s always great to find a book that manages to be the best of both worlds in terms of story and structure.

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