Book Review: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

“A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.” A thought-provoking read on ‘Women and Fiction’ written in 1928 but posing many questions that are still relevant 85 years later, e.g. What effect has poverty on fiction? Why are women more interesting to men than men are to women?

It was interesting to read this immediately after The House of Mirth in which Miss Lily Bart’s future is entirely dependent on a legacy. Woolf writes about receiving an inheritance at the same time as female suffrage came into being and the money “seemed infinitely the more important.” She estimated that £500 a year (the equivalent of anything from £27,000 to £170,000 today – my grandparents 1930s semi cost them £350) could give a woman the freedom/space/choice to write. I wonder if that is still true today?

Woolf contrasts the lives of women in drama, fiction and poetry with those in histories where woman is virtually invisible, especially in the Elizabethan era (a topic dear to my heart and which I attempted to address in my BA thesis). I still me across it all the time when researching family history and wherever possible I try to rectify it, e.g. the lives of men are followed through to death and obituary but women’s are seldom covered after marriage. If they remain unmarried their histories are barely covered at all. I like to trace them through to the end. It is remarkable how many leave legacies to nieces and nephews, perhaps enabling some of them to take up writing!

“Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,

Are the accomplishments we should desire;

To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,

Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time…”             Virginia Woolf, quoting Lady Winchilsea’s (b.1661) poem

It almost exactly corresponds to a piece I read last week about the perils of online dating for women. Apparently, if women state in their profile that they are interested in reading books, watching TV and computing, then they are far less likely to attract dates. Plus ça change…

I was also intrigued by her lack of examples when searching for fiction in which two women are represented as friends. It would seem that in 1928 women were only seen in relation to men. Which made me wonder whether writers today paid attention to the Bechdel Test? It is usually applied to films but it would be interesting to see how many works of fiction pass.

Woolf damns with faint praise many of the great classic works of fiction written by women: 

“Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.”

And she contends that of them all, only Jane Austen and Emily Brontë ‘held fast to their values’, the others presumably wrote “of herself, where she should write of her characters.” 

Nevertheless, she exhorts her female audience to write. And that surely is the best advice of all. Be it good, bad or indifferent… just write!

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