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.
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.”
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.
So screw you, Virginia Woolf. Feminist essay, my ass.
Sarah Says: 1.5 stars