A Room of One’s Own
Most of what we have read by Woolf shows how incredibly British society was affected by WWI, and this book is no exception. Though not one of the main points of the book, this is one of the early ideas that stood out to me. Her discussion beginning, “Shall we blame the war?” indicates to some degree how much people were affected, mentally and emotionally. (15) One of the major themes of the book is the problem of money. This first comes up in the discussion of building the women’s college. The initial problem is that women of the previous generation had no money to give. This occurred for various reasons, especially the law (which did not allow women to have or control property until relatively recently in the context of the book) and women’s historical role of bearing and raising children. Another idea explored in the book is power relationships between men and women. Historically, men have been “in charge” of women and have assumed women as their inferiors. Woolf explores this in an interesting way; she concludes that men have insisted upon women as inferiors to build their own self-confidence. Who wouldn’t be confident if at least half the world is inferior to them with no effort or accomplishment required? On the other hand, how could this treatment result in anything but bitterness by women? Woolf resolves this problem through independent income. Independent income allows a woman to go about her business with no negative feelings toward men because men are not necessary to her survival: “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.” (38) Women need, in short, money and privacy to work and write. Additionally, this lack of bitterness will generally improve writing; her example here is Bronte.
Several parts of this book were especially interesting to me. I enjoyed her thoughts on women’s place in poetry (good) versus history (bad). “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.” (43) What a fascinating dichotomy this is and one that I had never before considered. I was also struck by her Judith Shakespeare idea, which was so incredibly poignant yet at the same time so believable.
The latter portions of the book seem to be presented as a series of difficulties which have been and are now faced by women writers. Though Woolf acknowledges the “turning point” for women as the career of Aphra Behn (“Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing…” (64) and “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (65) ), conditions are still not that good. Women still have little “tradition” from which to work: “But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands…” (77) Men’s values were the dominant set of values, and I really question how much this has changed even today. Is not war still seen as a more significant subject than transactions among women in a drawing room? She ends by giving advice to a fictional writer, Mary Carmichael, which is likely advice to all women. Finally, she explains her motivations, one of which is because she is out of good books. This must have elicited a giggle from the audience and was charming even just reading it. However, she also wants intellectual freedom for women. She wants women to be able to purse writing and to contribute to the world: “Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.” (109)
“Sapphistry:” This essay basically sets out several forms of historical context for the book. The book was created out of a series of lectures that Woolf gave at two women’s colleges in October 1928. These talks, which were for women only, were a kind of conspiracy among Woolf and the audience members: “The conspiracy she sets up with her audience is of women in league together against authority.” (166) This “discourse of feminist conspiracy” was partially an attempt to convert her friend Vita (who accompanied her to the lectures) to feminism. (166) The article also sets up the lectures/book in the context of a trial that was going on concerning the obscenity of The Well of Loneliness. This article states that the lectures/book have two purposes: “to inculcate sexual solidarity by establishing difference and claiming that difference as superior, and the recruitment and enlistment of a new generation of women in the cause of feminine scholarship.” I’m not sure about the first claim, as Woolf seems to lean more towards what she calls the “androgynous” writer. She calls Shakespeare androgynous, for example. The second goal stated here seems correct.
CCM: Dekoven explains first that the early years of Modernism were also the early years of feminism. Second, women were important in defining the important characteristics of Modernism. The male writers may not have liked it, but women were important in Modernism. Woolf was especially important. “Woolf revised the association of Modernism with masculinity by associating it with femininity instead.” (187)