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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Dreaming up my debut novel

I’m going to tell you all about my dream. No, don’t stop reading, bear with me, I might be on to something…

In my dream I was walking with my husband and contemplating the fact that at 50 I was getting a bit old to be writing my first novel. I know, I know, you can talk all you like about Mary Wesley, but there you go.

Anyway, as we’re walking, the semblance of a story and its characters start coming to me. It’s a complex story of the relationship between a man and a woman whose relationship diverges then comes back together again, then diverges again. As the story begins to take shape, so their relationship takes on a physical shape: a double helix, like in DNA. Wacky, eh?

And then I woke up. Typical! And my first thought is: Is Thomas Piketty actually French? Well. After boggling for some time at the fact that I was thinking about Thomas Piketty at all I realised that I had been reading an article about him rejecting the Legion d’Honneur so it would seem, yes, he really is French.

My very next thought was: Wouldn’t it be awful if New Year’s Eve was your Hogwarts Day. It took me some time to realise that there was something not quite right with that thought although, being half-asleep, for a little while I thought there was absolutely nothing wrong with it at all. I pondered the awfulness of being forced to relive New Year’s Eve over and over again until eventually it dawned on me: Groundhog Day! I knew there was a hog in it somewhere. Yet more minutes passed before I remembered that Groundhog Day was an actual day in the calendar and therefore it was impossible for it to co-exist with New Year’s Eve…

Anyway. Putting all of that together, maybe I have the basis of my novel? A clever, forthright man who is not afraid of expressing his opinions (Thomas Piketty type) meets a woman who is a teacher and also happens to be a witch (that bit might need some tweaking). Theirs is a complex relationship (DNA is involved) and the action takes place on successive New Year’s Eves year after year after year… Sort of a Bridget Jones-OneDay-When Harry Met Sally mashup.  © Denise Jackson, 2015.

Whaddya think? Makings of a classic?

You read it here first. Sort of.