If you are a student of English Literature, chances are, you have either read “A Room of One’s Own” or have at least stumbled across the name in your class lectures or references. The text is a series of lectures delivered by Virginia Woolf in the year 1928 and was published as a long essay in 1929. It explicitly emphasizes women authors, their lack of representation in literature, and the different treatment that men and women received in hostels, public places, and even in the books.
The book that I read also had some wonderful notes from Dr. Sutapa Chaudhuri. An alumnus of Calcutta University and Wayne State University, Dr. Chaudhuri puts forth some thought-provoking facts, concepts, socio-cultural context, and a lot more in association with Woolf and her works. This makes it a lot easier to understand the nitty-gritty of the text.
A Room of One’s Own (Review)
When Woolf talks about ‘women and fiction,’ she brings out the fact that the term holds layers of meanings. Fiction written about women, fiction by women, fiction mentioning women, and so on. When talking about women fiction, she breezes through some exceptional women writers of that century. In this book, Woolf is not just looking at the multiplicity of representation but also insists on the material conditions required for the production of a fictional work. These are privacy and inheritance. Throughout the essay, we see how Woolf focuses on money and a private room as the two essential key elements for a woman to be a writer. The money would free the woman from the anxieties of livelihood. It would also make her independent, and she would no longer be at the mercy of the men of her household. When she stresses having a ‘room of one’s own,’ she has Jane Austen in her mind who did not have this privilege. Room is not just about space or privacy but also about real and metaphorical space that can be claimed as one’s own.
Woolf challenges the claim of one single truth and talks about endless perspectives. ‘Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact’ – She is destabilizing the binary of true and false. Fiction, which is often claimed as a make-belief or a false narrative, is a prerequisite, especially for women. It is not unknown to us how history can often be flawed, disrupted, fabricated, and missing. She constantly uses ‘I’ as a vehicle, a fiction to move away from the logos of patriarchy. The power of the physical presence of the speaker here challenges the very notion of ‘I’, the pronoun – It debunks the idea of one stable man preaching or giving away one truth. The text questions what is absent in the archives and history – women as creative writers of fiction in the sixteenth century. Renaissance in Europe was, by and large, a male-dominated phenomenon. We had merely a handful of educated women, and they too belonged to the well-to-do aristocratic families. Since time immemorial, women putting utilizing their tongue and learning have always been a threat to patriarchy. The very foundation of patriarchy trembles and shudders at the thought of women empowering each other and putting forth their viewpoints. Shakespeare’s sister is an absent presence in “A Room of One’s Own.” She is a fictional character, a brainchild of Woolf, for highlighting the different ways in which society treats a talented man and a gifted woman. Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, in the text, runs away from her home to expose her creativity and knowledge with like-minded writers and creative thinkers. Sadly, she is thought of as a whore, and people leave no stone unturned to humiliate her and question her morality. Ultimately, she dies of suicide. The very question is Shakespeare had a sister is downright revolutionary. Do you realize how different this is from the way in which Shakespeare is read and celebrated? What if he really had a sister, even more, brilliant than him, whose talent couldn’t see the light of the day just because she was a woman? Did she exist? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes, fiction is truer than the truth.
Woolf also talks about poverty. There was no endowment in colleges for women. So, no scholarships either. There was a complete economic dependence on males while the women of the Victorian households stayed indoors. They didn’t even have a penny in their pockets. Well, did they even have pockets? They never earned enough to leave behind something, some sort of savings for future generations. “Nobody can pour from an empty cup.” You can only give if you have a surplus. I find most interesting when Woolf compares women to a looking glass through which men see themselves twice as strong. This ego boost, this impression of magnification, gives us a clear sense of the Self and the Other. A ‘poet’s heart’ and a ‘woman’s body’ are seen as antithetical. A woman’s body is to be raped and impregnated, right? Well, that’s what society thought back in the day. This was the crux of tragedy, pain, and helplessness. There was no possible public place for women. She was barred from libraries, universities, parks, and clubs. The gendered, political, and social context of a woman’s very being makes her a whore in the eyes of patriarchy. There is no concern about her skills and talent such injustices prevailing before and during the sixteenth century could have driven them towards insanity.
In Chapter 5, we see Woolf looking at women writing modern fiction in her contemporary times. She is feeling the change taking place. Women, like men, are also a part of a tradition. This might be a parallel alternative to female literary tradition but a tradition nonetheless. The domain of heterosexuality is the central theme in most of these writings. She is intrigued by non-linear sentences that would break the conventions and the realist form of writing. In Chapter 6, the final chapter, Woolf attempts to escape from painful femininity. She talks about an interesting concept of a ‘man-womanly’ mind. The gender of writing can’t be wholly masculine or feminine as per Woolf. It’s vital to cultivate a self where neither of the genders gets prominence. The balance of the mind is what she is talking about. The mind that writes has to be free from the determination of the sex. That’s how one creates an avant-garde form of writing.
“A Room of One’s Own” is undoubtedly a must-read for the feminist thinkers and the students of literature, but I find the text tad problematic. When Woolf stresses owning a ‘room of one’s own,’ she is instantly assuming that all women are middle-class, White, and privileged. She is overlooking other feminists as well as those women writers who were economically very backward, say, like the African women slaves, who had no money and, of course, no room of their own, yet they were producing splendid writings. Black women surviving torture and oppression have time and again used the power of creativity and writing to express their woes to the world. In my opinion, Woolf’s way of generalizing women across the globe and shoving them under the same category is very ignorant and offensive."I find most interesting when Woolf compares women to a looking glass through which men see themselves twice as strong." Click To Tweet
Moreover, she also takes several detours in the text, which takes away the gravity and compactness of the text as a whole. At a time when the slaves and working-class women were struggling to free themselves from their cruel masters, even the thought of owning a room was far-fetched. And literature is not just about novel writing. What we see these slaves coming up with are fascinating songs, oral narratives, and so on. Woolf’s way of preaching about having one’s own physical space was unthinkable for a huge chunk of society when they couldn’t even have a roof over their head, forget having a room. All in all, even though this book does open up our minds to endless possibilities for women writers and women’s representation in writing, it fails to impress me just because it addresses the existence of the Bourgeoisie women and not the working classes and slaves. Had the text been a little more serious and inclusive, it’d have won a lot more hearts than it did.