A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

virigina woolf

Virginia Woolf is NOT my homegirl. I mean, this is my first experience with anything that she’s ever written or said, but A Room of One’s Own sufficiently annoyed me SO many times that I can safely say that we wouldn’t have been on cool terms in real life.

This is an essay (or collection of essays) by Woolf in which she uses a fictional narrator, but overall I put this in the non-fiction camp, since she used her narrator to express her own points and since it was originally based on a bunch of lectures she was giving on the topic of “Women and Fiction”. The description on back of the copy I read was a bit misleading. It made it seem like the entire book was about the imaginary sister of Shakespeare that Woolf creates, and how that sister was just as smart as her brother but how differently her life went because she was a woman. Interesting enough premise. What actually follows is a boggled, offensive discourse on women and writing.

Woolf states that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, a statement that I can see the logic behind but still rubbed me the wrong way. Okay, sure – women in earlier centuries were definitely held back because they were poorer than men, because they had little to no privacy, and because they were always too busy with housework and kids. I get that. I don’t agree that women HAVE to have money and her own room in order to write. And not just any money, mind you – Woolf (or rather, her narrator) further states that it has to be inherited money or an allowance – it can’t be money you’ve worked for yourself.

alan rickman what the fuck

Woolf apparently had a major lady-rod for Shakespeare, as he is the one she puts up on a pedestal and compares every single writer to. THIS crap was extra infuriating though:

“For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes.”

exasperation

The bolded emphasis is mine. So according to her, “genius” is a rich-folks only thing, not because of the advantages that they have but because they are born with it. What the hell. I hope that the ghost of Virginia Woolf felt like a giant idiot when poor J.K. Rowling came and wrote one of the best-selling books of all time, making her richer than the freaking queen. She goes on to say that any genius woman born in Shakespeare’s time would have gone crazy and killed herself, which is how she imagines things for Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith. Well, clearly I disagree with that. On a rare occasion? Sure. But I have no doubt that there were genius women born in Shakespeare’s time who managed to not kill themselves. It bothers me that she paints intelligent women back then as these horribly tortured creatures whose fragile, genius minds couldn’t take the injustice of not being able to publish their poetry. And who the hell decided Shakespeare was such a genius anyways? I have no doubt that he’s impressive, since his work has survived for so long. But really, what makes him ultimate shining example of literary genius? And why does Woolf feel that he is SO much better than female writers?

She goes on to attack pretty much every successful woman author – Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, etc. According to her, things like being poor, not travelling, and being upset at the injustices in your life are things that negatively affect writing. She claims that Charlotte Bronte might have been a genius, but Jane Eyre isn’t a masterpiece because Charlotte’s own longing to travel and see the world shows through. So Woolf thinks it’s a literary sin to allow ANY of your personal experiences or feelings into your fiction. A poem by Lady Winchilsea (never heard of her before today, but whatever) that rages against the unfairness of being a woman in the 1660’s isn’t good enough for Woolf – though she finds the writing itself admirable, apparently it’s wrong for feelings of bitterness and resentment to show in your writing. SAYS WHO, WOOLF? SAYS WHO?

She wonders why these women chose to write novels, and then decides it’s because “it would be easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. Less concentration is required.” Well, maybe it was different for her, but it seems to me that writing a novel is every bit as challenging as writing a play or poem, if not more so. She claims that Jane Austen, who it has been said hid her work whenever anyone came into the room and disturbed her, must have found Pride & Prejudice discreditable if she felt the need to hide it. OR maybe Austen just wanted the tiniest hint of fucking privacy when she wrote. I’m sure if Austen found her own work so “discreditable”, she might not have bothered sharing or publishing any of it.

Anyways, this is turning into one giant rant and I had six pages of angry notes for this book, so maybe I should wrap it up. Basically, the very few times that Woolf mentions how poverty, illiteracy, and child-bearing made it extremely difficult for women to write were interesting and good. I liked how in the beginning, she used interruptions in the narrator’s thoughts and actions as metaphors for how often men get in the way of women. But then she completely ruined it by bashing every female author she could think of, claiming that genius is only born into money, and saying that imparting any of your own thoughts, feelings, or experiences into your writing was somehow a bad thing. And maybe it’s the stubborn part of me that just instantly gets cranky when someone tells me that something HAS to be a certain way. I don’t HAVE to have an annual inheritance and my own room to write. I will be fucking poor and homeless, and I’ll write if I want, dammit. I have no doubt that there were plenty of extremely talented writers, both male and female, throughout the centuries that were poor and struggling but still wrote wonderful things. Just because they didn’t get published doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.

downton abbey gif

So screw you, Virginia Woolf. Feminist essay, my ass.

Sarah Says: 1.5 stars

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14 comments

  1. That was an entertaining read 😀 I know roughly what this book is about, but the things you bring out are interesting.

    I always believed it was quite the exact opposite – it was said that you get the best ideas when you are hungry and generally not content and that’s how those images were created of almost-crazy-from-hunger authors writing away somewhere in dark attick apartments in the candle light?

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    1. Right? The whole starving-artist image. But Woolf seems to be a bit of a snob there, and says over and over that if you’re not eating well (and by well, she means fancy food… she considered beef, greens, prunes, and custard not good enough) then you can’t possibly write well. UGH.

      I don’t get why she thought that you couldn’t be a good writer if you were poor, hungry, or in any way discontented. Did she think that Shakespeare was NEVER any of those things?

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  2. I’m so glad I read this review as I’ve been considering picking up this book for a while. You made me laugh with the way you refuted everything in a snarky way. I don’t think I’ll be reading it anytime soon if it’s like this. I always thought it was about having privacy and time to yourself to create this amazing creative space for your writing juices to flow and that it was an inspirational book for other writers. Guess not! Sorry you had to suffer for it but I’m glad I won’t have to now, so thanks for that! 🙂

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    1. My pleasure 🙂

      I definitely thought it was going to be a more interesting discussion about writing, and about how women could still find a way to write, despite it being a man’s world. But she basically pointed out all of the horrible ways that men and life impeded on women writing, and then told women they couldn’t be bitter about it because it would ruin their writing. The whole thing was just kind of ridiculous.

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  3. I see this has riled you up and I think I would feel the same way, the difference being that I would probably be too upset (or too bored, somehow it seems a boring read to me), to finish it, so kudos to you to making it through.

    My knowledge of Virginia is a bit rusty, but isn’t she known as a feminist? Because based on this, I would say she was.

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    1. It actually did get a little boring here and there, but then she would say something ridiculous again to rile me up.

      She, or at least this essay, is supposed to be known as very pro-feminist. Some one the things she pointed out – that men were holding women back, that men created amazing female characters but in reality kept women downtrodden – were really interesting. But then she kind of trampled all over that by criticizing all these female authors. It honestly seemed like she was trying to DISCOURAGE women from reading, even though at the end she’s telling them that they owe it to all their female ancestors to write. So contradictary.

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  4. It’s been ages since I read A Room of One’s Own so the problematic portions have faded a bit from memory. Woolf’s real life struggles with mental health issues are what fascinates me most about her writing so I tend to forgive other aspects. I’ve read some criticism of this piece that suggests the reader read everything as metaphorical in a sense. Not sure if that would have improved your reading!

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    1. I saw the metaphors in some of her narrator’s actions, but mostly it was just the narrator talking, and I can’t help but take the narrator’s words as her own. (Because why would she make a narrator say things that would be contrary to her own opinions?) I’m actually not sure why she chose to even create this fictional narrator, it would’ve been a stronger and more concise piece without it.

      When she claimed that any genius woman in Shakespeare’s time would surely have gone crazy and killed herself, the snarky part of me wondered if that’s why she chose to commit suicide later on. Was she trying to fit the “genius woman” image that she had in her head? I can see why you’d be interested in her mental issues…

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  5. Haaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!! I was all set to love Woolf when I read To The Lighthouse, but I found it pretentious. Your review has ME all riled up now because I feel weirdly defensive of Charlotte Bronte and my beloved Jane Eyre. I didn’t realize Woolf was such an elitist either. I’m giving you a giant high five right now.

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    1. What’s bad is you know that I don’t even like Jane Eyre! And I have a bit of a dislike for Charlotte herself, based on what I’ve read about her. But I STILL was pissed off at Woolf for trying to criticize Charlotte was using her own life experiences and feelings in her books. That’s a GOOD thing for an author to do!

      And yeah, I had no idea she was so stuck-up either. After complaining about how men kept women poor, it’s weird that she basically turned her nose up at the working class here.

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  6. Hahahaha, I laughed so hard when I read this. I’ve never been able to get on with Virginia Woolf when I’ve tried reading her — not her fiction or her essays — and I always feel a bit guilty about it. I feel quite guilty for missing out a big feminist classic like A Room of One’s Own, but GOOD. I shall stop feeling guilty AT ONCE and I shall sneer at Virginia Woolf for bashing lady authors. Virginia Woolf can step off Jane Eyre, that’s all I have to say.

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    1. Yes, no more guilt! Even a part of me feels a little guilty for slamming her so hard, when this is literally the only thing I’ve ever read by her. But her opinions in this are so appalling to me that I really have no desire to read any of her fiction. She can’t claim to be a feminist but then sit there pointing out every single imagined fault women authors had in comparison to Shakespeare. Just…. UGH.

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