Of Women and Literature: A Room of One’s Own

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain.”

Thus begins one of the most famous essays on women and literature, by the one and only Virginia Woolf.

 Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

It always takes me a while to read Virginia. Her books are fairly short, but I am never capable of finishing them quickly. Sometimes it’s because if I don’t slow down I won’t get it, sometimes it’s because I need to pause for a few seconds and really think about what I’ve just read. With this book, it was mostly the latter. I read for a few minutes, and then I’d find something that made me pause and think. I marked some sections with post-its, I highlighted others with a bright yellow marker, and I thought what she was saying, I thought about her, and about the history of women and literature and of women in literature.

“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Anthony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques – literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”

There is something oddly familiar about that quote. Women that are only represented in literature as the lovers of men. This phenomenon does not stay in the realm of literature. It extends to other forms of media as well. It is present in the big and small screens, it is present in radio dramas; despite the changing times, it is still there. I want you to think of different movies you’ve seen with only male protagonists. Chances are, there are women in them as well, but I want you to think about their role in the movie. Who are they? What do they want? What do their lives look like? What are their dreams and hopes and aspirations? What are their virtues? What are their flaws? Can you identify them? Or, is there a chance that you only remember those characters as the wife (or worse, the dead wife), the girlfriend, the romantic interest, the ex?

So, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia sets out to explore at least some of the reasons why this happens.

Her thesis is simple: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write”. Virginia understood the limitations that were imposed on women by men, by societal norms, by gender roles, and she understood that, if there are more men in history who are known and celebrated for their creating and their thinking, it’s because they have had the freedom and the space to do so. And by freedom, she also means financial freedom.

Regarding this statement, however, there’s a point that need to be made. Yes, it is true that, throughout history, men have had more freedom to write than women, and women have been consciously and deliberately held back from such achievements. But one thing to keep in mind while reading this book is that, when Virginia advocates for the cause of genius women, she sees it only in women of a certain socioeconomic group. In the words of Mary Gordon:

“Woolf is concerned with the fate of women of genius, not with that of ordinary women; her plea is that we create a world in which Shakespeare’s sister might survive her gift, not one in which a miner’s wife can have her rights to property; her passion is for literature, not for universal justice.”

Mary Gordon (2013): Good Boys and Dead Girls: And Other Essays

Yes, Virginia was harsh towards those she deemed unworthy, uninteresting, or simply bad, and some of her written thoughts in this essay are no different. But she did have a point: a person who has the means to sustain themselves without having to work from dusk till dawn has more time to write as much as they please. They have more freedom to write.

I suppose it’s a good thing that our contemporary plea for social justice encompasses everyone: from all ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

 My edition: Paperback, published in 2004 by Penguin Books.
My edition: Paperback, published in 2004 by Penguin Books.

But Virginia leaves us with words of encouragement and some advice that I’ve decided to put in a short numbered list:

  1. “…when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.”
  2. “Do not dream of influencing people. Think of things in themselves.”
  3. Have “the courage to write exactly what [you] think”.
  4. “escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in the relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves” for “our relation is to the world of reality”

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