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A Room of One's Own ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (4)

    ...a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction...
        -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Such is the basic message of this long essay--adapted from two lectures the author gave in 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, Cambridge.  Her basic thesis is that there was no extant body of great women's literature because, in the past, women did not have the education, the income, the privacy, the experiences of the broader world, or the time to write.  As a result, not only is the body or works written by women fairly small, most of the little that is known about the women of the past was also written by men.  Therefore, there is no tradition of women's literature, nor a history of womankind, from which prospective authors could draw upon.

Her call then is for women to acquire for themselves the intellectual freedom which economic self-sufficiency will provide and to create a women's literature, which metaphorically, will also occupy a room of it's own.  She encourages them to write about all of the "minutely obscure lives" which men have ignored and about themselves and their feelings and their reactions to the world around them.  But she does not envision a complete dichotomy between male and female:

    It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.  It
    is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in
    any way to speak consciously as a woman.  And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written
    with that conscious bias is doomed to death.  It ceases to be fertilised.  Brilliant and effective,
    powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow
    in the minds of others.  Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and
    the man before the act of creation can be accomplished.  Some marriage of opposites has to be
    consummated.  The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer
    is communicating his experience with perfect fullness.  There must be freedom and there must be

Ms Woolf seems to have had little interest in politics or feminism or anything much else, except for art itself.  But the dichotomy she was trying to do away with in writing is fundamental to men and women and does not simply manifest itself in books.  Boiled down to simplest terms, there is a male impulse towards freedom and a female impulse towards security (peace).

The several thousand years of Western Civilization consist of nothing more than the struggle between freedom and security, a struggle in which freedom finally has the upper hand.  In politics this is reflected in the rise of the modern liberal democracy; in economics by the triumph of capitalism; in religion by the ascendancy of protestantism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; and in literature it is reflected in novels ranging from Moby Dick to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  It is no surprise then that a women's literature, a literature that must be rooted in the desire for security, was repressed, found no audience or was not written--it would after all have tended to provide succor to the enemy, the powerful repressive institutions which held mankind in thralldom until recent centuries.  It is a little acknowledged and vastly underappreciated fact that it was only once freedom had been won that men granted women full civil rights and societal privileges.  Woolf in fact was writing in the first light of this moment.

What then has been the result of her call?  well, the overwhelming majority of fiction by women has not met her androgynous standard, instead it has been the literature of grievance and feminine causes.  But that was to be expected, if, as Woolf herself perceived, the female ethos is one of peace (security), then the fiction (and the politics) of women would be expected to celebrate security at the expense of freedom, to elevate the particular over the general, to emphasize the moment rather than age, and so it does.  [There are, of course, exception, including : Sharon Kay Penman, Hope Muntz, Flannery O'Connor, and Harper Lee.]

More interesting is the fate of Woolf's fiction and her own attempt to write androgynously.  Here is an assessment by Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer Prize winner The Hours which is based on Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway:

    To a greater extent than any novelist except Joyce, Woolf invented the modernist novel, a drastic
    departure from the traditional form, with its heroics and high emotions; its morality; its unwavering
    point of view and its unambiguous beginning, middle and end. The novel, in Woolf's hands,
    became prismatic, ambiguous, at least slightly chaotic, amoral and poetic, and concerned itself
    primarily with outwardly unremarkable people. It strove less to tell an uplifting tale and more to
    render life as lived, in its endless overlaps of the quotidian and the profound. Since Woolf's time,
    novels in the traditional mode have continued to be written by the boxcar load, but the novel as an
    art form has never been the same.

In essence, Woolf and the Modernists rejected morality, objectivity, heroism, and linear form, all of them necessary antecedents to the establishment of liberal, capitalist, protestant, democracy.  In their fiction, they replaced these ideals with amorality, subjectivity, formlessness, and ordinariness.  When conservatives speak of moral relativism or the death of outrage or the decline of the West, they speak with particular reference to these Modernist intellectuals and to the tremendous influence they have had on the culture.  But it is hard to see how these androgynists differ much from women in general.  The fundamental mission of both is to replace a culture based on freedom, morality and justice, with one based on security, egalitarianism, anti-heroism, and sameness--a sort of dictatorship of the lowest common denominator.

The same thing has happened, perhaps more demonstrably, in politics.  At the time women were given the vote, Western democracy was at perhaps it's most unfettered.  Since then, government, though democratic, has become an enormous restraining force upon people's freedom in general and on their economic freedom in particular.  Commentators often speak of a gender gap in politics, but only acknowledge the gap in the women's vote in favor of Democrats.  In fact, the Democrats--the party which favors big government and equality of economic results and opposes risk, morality, and choices--have become the party of women.  The Republicans--the party of small government, equality of opportunity, and freedom generally--has become the party of men.  The political system is androgynous to the extent that it tries to balance these fundamentally male or female concerns.

Virginia Woolf may be right that it is possible to write (or to govern) androgynously; I doubt it.  The long history of Western man suggests that the ideological divide between men and women is inherent in the gender (as groups not as individuals).  One suspects that the next great political crisis in the West will be the struggle of men to overthrow the repressive government imposed by women.  Such has been the previous pattern as mankind has suffered under periods of tyranny but has always eventually won through to greater freedom.  A more happy alternative would be that our rapidly increasing technological prowess might provide such a universally high standard of living that women's security concerns will gradually retreat.  Either way, we needn't look for Woolf's androgynes to show up anytime soon.

A Room of One's Own tiptoes right up to the door of perception but then retreats.  No one can seriously quarrel with the right of women to create their own literature.  It just should not be expected that this literature will go much beyond the political concerns of women, nor that it will have a salutary effect on society.


Grade: (C+)


Virginia Woolf Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Virginia Woolf
-ESSAY: The upside-down world of Lewis Carroll: The author was a man who spoke to the child in all of us. (Virginia Woolf, 9 December 1939, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: ON NOT KNOWING GREEK (Virginia Woolf, 1923)
    -OBITUARY : Virginia Woolf Believed Dead: Novelist Is Thought to Have Been Drowned Friday--Had Been Ill (The New York Times, April 3, 1941)
    -PODCAST: A Room of One's Own Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Virginia Woolf's highly influential essay about women and literature: "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." (In Our Time, 3/30/23, BBC)
-PODCAST: Mrs Dalloway: Andrea Pitzer and Matthew Hunte join host Catherine Nichols to discuss Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel (Lit Century)
    -ESSAY: We Will Always Need Virginia Woolf: A Common Reader’s Defense: Emma Knight Contemplates the Legacy of a Literary Icon (Emma Knight, January 25, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Virginia Woolf’s Only Play: Based on Woolf’s own family, Freshwater was a tongue-in-cheek comedy full of inside jokes, written to entertain members of the Bloomsbury Group (Emily Zarevich March 23, 2023, JSTOR Daily)
    -ESSAY: Tramping With Virginia: A seminal essay about walking the streets of London can present challenges in the classrooms of today (Emily Fox Gordon, March 4, 2024, American Scholar)
    -REVIEW: of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf audiobook review (Fiona Sturges, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Work of Living Goes On: Rereading Mrs Dalloway During an Endless Pandemic: Colin Dickey Finds Deeper Dystopian Meaning in Virginia Woolf’s Classic (Colin Dickey, December 6, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: The Virginia Woolf of 'The Hours' Angers the Real One's Fans: At conferences, over dinner and through e-mail lists, many Woolf aficionados are fuming over the writer's portrayal as a pathetic, suicide-obsessed creature. (PATRICIA COHEN, 2/15/03, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Hours (Joseph Phelan and Colin Pearce, Claremont Institute)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: "virginia woolf"
    -ESSAY: The Movies and Reality by Virginia Woolf  Anna Karenina and other literary excursions into the new medium of film. (1926, New Republic)
    -EXCERPT: From Virginia Woolf's   A Room Of One's Own (Thineownself)
    -EXCERPT: from ''The Diary of Virginia Woolf,'' Vol. 5, by Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (NY Times Book Review)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Virginia Woolf (NY Times Book Review)
    -Virginia Woolf Web
    -The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
    -The International Virginia Woolf Society
    -Lotta's Virginia Woolf Page Brings You 100 Women of the Millennium: #36 Virginia Woolf
    -Virginia Woolf on Women and Fiction (created by Joel Rich and Nancy Henderson)
    -Mrs. Dalloway's London
    -Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse
    -To the Lighthouse Study Guide
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (SparkNote by Selena Ward)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: A Room of One's Own (Matilda Santos, Spark Notes)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)(Professor Catherine Lavender, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York)
    -Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own"
    -CHAT: Virginia Woolf Lecture Hall (mobydicks)
    -WEBRING: Virginia Woolf Webring
    -LINKS: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)(
    -ESSAY: Virginia Woolf : The Quiet Revolutionary (Michael Cunningham, Salon)
    -ESSAY :    World Wide Woolf (Brenda R. Silver, author of Virginia Woolf Icon)
    -ESSAY An Introduction to A Room of One's Own : THE FATE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS (Mary Gordon, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Virginia Woolf, Her Inner Circle And Inner Self (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Way Behind Every Great Man . . .  (Emily Eakin, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: ENCOUNTERS; A Literary Critic and Truths About Incest (ERIKA DUNCAN, NY Times Book Review)
  -ESSAY:  The Stain on Vanessa Stephen's Dress:  Virginia Woolf suffered not from the "patriarchy" but from everything she embraced in opposing it. (Elizabeth Powers, Commentary)
    -ARCHIVES: "woolf" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of To the Lighthouse (Louis Kronenberger, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE WIDOW AND THE PARROT By Virginia Woolf. Illustrated by Julian Bell (Wendy Martin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LUGTON'S CURTAIN By Virginia Woolf. Illustrated by Julie Vivas (Wendy Lesser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ESSAYS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF:  Volume I 1904-1912. Edited by Andrew McNeillie (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. II. 1912-1918 Edited by Andrew NcNeillie  (NONA BALAKIAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ESSAYS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF Volume Two: 1912-1918. Edited by Andrew McNeillie (Peter Ackroyd, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE DIARY OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Volume IV, 1931-1935. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Mary Cantwell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE DIARY OF VIRGINIA WOOLF Volume Four. 1931-1935. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell. Assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Robert Kiely, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE DIARY OF VIRGINIA WOLFE: Volume 5, 1936-1941. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (ANATOLE BROYARD, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of A PASSIONATE APPRENTICE The Early Journals, 1897-1909. By Virginia Woolf. Edited by Mitchell A. Leaska (Isabel Colegate, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Congenial Spirits The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf Edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Lives: Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson (Carol Peaker, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Lives: Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson (EILEEN BATTERSBY, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of VIRGINIA WOOLF By Hermione Lee (Daphne Merkin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of VIRGINIA WOOLF : A Writer's Life. By Lyndall Gordon (Carolyn Heilbrun, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of VIRGINIA WOOLF. A Writer's Life. By Lyndall Gordon (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Very Close Conspiracy Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf By Jane Dunn (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of "Virginia Woolf" by Hermione Lee This absorbing biography tackles Woolf's dramatic life -- feminism, friendships, lovers, recurring bouts of madness -- and work. (Elizabeth Judd, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF VITA SACKVILLE-WEST TO VIRGINIA WOOLF Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska (Thomas Mallon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LETTERS OF LEONARD WOOLF Edited by Frederic Spotts (Leon Edel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Letters of Leonard Woolf Edited by Frederic Spotts (Herbert Mitgang, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of Great Books My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. By David Denby (Joyce Carol Oates, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE HOURS By Michael Cunningham (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BEYOND EGOTISM The Fiction of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence By Robert Kiely (Michael Rosenthal, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham Michael Cunningham's new novel, "The Hours," is neither an homage nor a sequel to "Mrs. Dalloway." It is, rather, an attempt at osmosis with the spirit of Virginia Woolf. (Georgia Jones-Davis, Salon)

    -ESSAY: WHERE BLOOMSBURY FLOWERED (Quentin Bell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bloomsbury Recalled By Quentin Bell (Janet Malcolm, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BLOOMSBURY/FREUD The Letters of James and Alix Strachey 1924-1925. Edited by Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick (Peter Stansky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Bloomorama! Bloomania! Bloomsburiana! (Bruce McCall, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ON OR ABOUT DECEMBER 1910 Early Bloomsbury and Its Intimate World By Peter Stansky ( MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY times)

    -The Orlando Project : An Integrated History of Women's Writing in the British Isles
    -VICTORIAN WEB:  (George Landow,
    -REVIEW: of NO MAN'S LAND The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume One: The War of the Words. By Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Christine Froula, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MARRIAGE AND MORALS AMONG THE VICTORIANS Essays. By Gertrude Himmelfarb (Neil McKendrick, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: LITERARY FEMINISM COMES OF AGE (Elizabeth Kolbert, NY times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Women Writers: Coming of Age at 50  (Carolyn G. Heilbrun, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. By John Carey Hitler, Spam, and Modernism (Roger Kimball, First Things)