A room of one’s own

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

Room_of_ones_ownThe two essays, a Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas were published in 1929 and 1938 respectively.   In the context of the early 20th century both essays are radical feminist polemics of their time and discuss issues such as ‘why women are poor’ relative to men, sexual constraints on female creativity and the relationship between masculinity and militarism. 

Thinking about a lecture she has been asked to give on the subject of Women & Fiction in Girton College for Women, Cambridge, Woolf  considers how she might approach the lecture and what the subject "Women and Fiction" means.

"They might mean simply a few remarks about, Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austin;  a tribute to the Brontes………The title…. might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light"  She concludes that she can do no more than offer her opinion which is that a "woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

The subject of women and fiction forms the basis of the essay by allowing Woolf to raise a number of questions on gender and patriarchy.   The questions may seem pretty basic and even naive today but in 1928 they were radical thoughts.  "Why did men drink wine and women water?" "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" "What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art".  "What effect has poverty on fiction"?  One could ask the same questions today about African women writers of fiction.   "Why is it so hard for an African woman writer to get published"?  "Why are there so relatively few African women writers of fiction"?

She ponders the effect of women’s poverty on women’s writing and decides to investigate men’s writings on the subject of women.  She discovers that men write about the "mental, physical and moral inferiority of women".  She finds that anger is the one common emotion in these misogynist writings of men.    This belief is consolidated when, browsing through a London newspaper she observes that "the most transient visitor to this planet, I thought who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of patriarchy.  Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor".

The men are angry at women because they need to emphasise women’s inferiority in order to establish their own superiority and  give themselves the confidence to rule.  She feels strongly that financial independence is more important than the vote for women as it gives a writer "freedom and integrity".  When she examines the Suffrage campaign and its  effect on men she finds that it led to an "extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged." Here one can easily find a parallel in the colonial and independence movement narratives of post WW2 .  The struggle for independence by European colonies and the effect on the coloniser’s identity and the questioning of his previously uncontested right to rule. 

Woolf  undertakes some research into pre 19th century British women writers and finds there are very few indeed.  Interestingly out of the few women writers in  18th and 19th century Britain, two were Black women.  Mary Prince, born in Bermuda was the first Black British women to escape from slavery and publish her autobiography "The History of Mary Prince" in 1831 in London.  The second woman was Mary Seacole who was born in Jamaica.  Mary Seacole travelled to England on a number of occasions where she moved in royal circles that included Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales.  Her autobiography "Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands" was published in 1857.

Woolf concludes the essay with an appeal to women to write what they want and most of all "to be one’s self".  It is worth working towards a world where "Shakespeare’s sister"  could have been a writer too. 

For Woolf financial independence, and by that she not only means money but the freedom to experience the world, to travel and to have educational opportunity, more than anything else is what prevented women from challenging the misogynist writings of men of the time.   

For more on Black British women writers:

"Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present"    Edited by Margaret Busby and published by Jonathon Cape, 1992Daughters_of_africa_2

Other writings:

Jung Mi Kyung-    Memories of Lily-Coloured Photographs .  A beautifully written short story from Korea on love, photography and other things.

New Online Journal

Online black literary journal – African American Women Writers Finding Voice