“For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own is an essay Virginia Woolf originally gave as a series of lectures at two small women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where she was asked to come and speak about “women and fiction.” It’s likely the students expected a typical speech about aspiring to the rare successes of Jane Austen or Emily Bronte, but that’s not what Woolf decided to discuss. Through Virginia Woolf’s famously eloquent stream of consciousness, the reader follows her brutal realization that the patriarchal laws governing her world have repeatedly deprived her and her predecessors of the resources necessary for producing works of art.
Woolf fixates on Shakespeare as the ideal male author, and imagines the possibility that he had an unknown sister who was his intellectual and creative equal. Woolf does some research in the British Museum library to give this fictional “Judith Shakespeare” some personality and to see if she would have had a chance to succeed as a playwright. After finding scarce historical accounts of women from the Elizabethan era, she turns to literary descriptions of women in poetry and plays to research more about their day-to-day conditions and lifestyle. An eerie vision of the Elizabethan woman emerges:
Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerers in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could hardly spell, and was the property of her husband.
As Woolf begins her quest to answer why women are so poor and why so few women have been famous authors, she realizes women’s sole occupation has always been marriage and motherhood. Instead of becoming financially independent, women were impoverished and dependent on men. Even the laws were against them: if a woman had somehow managed to have a job in the Elizabethan era, she was legally incapable of owning any property or money she might have earned. Woolf discovers wealth and the luxury of creativity are inextricably linked, and presents the thesis that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she wants to become a novelist.
The foreword explains the historical context of the essay potently: “A Room of One’s Own was published in October 1929, at a time when feminist writings was so little in vogue as to be effectively moribund, when the Feminist Movement, connected as it had come to be almost exclusively with female suffrage, considered its work finished.” It was actually published the week of the stock market crash of 1929; when the creative plight of women was so far removed from man’s mind that it’s remarkable anyone bothered to read it.
*This book is featured on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential Nonfiction Books
Image Source: Barnes and Noble