A Room Of One’s Own / Virginia Woolf

I read A Room Of One’s Own to participate in the Year of Feminist Classics discussion, but then I didn’t get around to writing up my experience in time. C’est la vie.

Cover of A Room of One's Own

The thing that struck me most about A Room Of One’s Own was my mis-impression of its argument. I’ve thought her premise was that women would write more and better fiction if they had the means to do so. If a woman has to do housework (and the like) rather that writing, she has to snatch bits of writing time between her other duties and between interruptions. That is obviously not conducive to writing extended works of fiction.

However, on reading her essays, I think my assumption as to her argument is off. The focus is less on the room than I expected. Rather, idea seems to be centered on one’s own. Time and again Ms. Woolf returns to the idea of the female author being free to make her own decisions. The room is important. But so is not having that room be at the mercy of someone else, usually a man.

If the woman chooses her own path, there are a number of benefits. For instance, one of the things that Ms. Woolf identifies that is wrong with a lot of literature written by women is that the women are angry. Angry at their lot in life and angry at men. This is not wrong. It’s just that thhe angry bits often don’t fit in the flow of the story, or cause the authors to choose mediocre phrasing instead of great passages. Ms. Woolf’s position is that the freedom that comes with one’s own income can free women from that anger.

Beyond that, I was struck mostly by lots of little observations that Virginia Woolf made regarding the battle of the sexes. Following are a couple of my favorites:

Hence the enormous importantce to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power. But let me turn the light of this observation on to real life, I thought. Does it help to explain some of those psychological puzzles that one notes in the margin of daily life? Does it explain my astonishment the other day when Z, most humane, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, excalimed, The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs! The exclamation, to me so surprising — for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? — was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.

And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are important; the worship of fashion, the buying clothes trivial. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. 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 battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

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