Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Reviewed by Meagan as part of the Year of Feminist Classics

Published: 1929

It's about: A Room of One's Own is an essay which expands on two lectures Virginia Woolf gave at Newnham and Girton colleges on the topic of "Women and Fiction". The book recounts Woolf's path of research as she considers this broad topic and comes to the conclusion that  "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

I thought: First, I just want to apologize for sneaking this in at the last second. I had much better intentions but my procrastination has resulted in a very jumbled review. So sorry (: Anyway, a section in the forward of my edition of this book sums up the largest portion of my objections to Woolf's thesis: "A Room of One's Own opened Woolf up to the charges--snobbery, aestheticism--by that time habitually laid at the Bloomsbury gate... To an extent, the accusations are just; Woolf is concerned with the fate of women of genius, not with that of ordinary women; her plea is that we create a world in which Shakespeare's sister might survive her gift, not one in which a miner's wife can have her rights to property; her passion is for literature, not for universal justice."

While I completely appreciate Woolf's censure of the consistent stifling of women's ability to create in comparison to the opportunities afforded to men, my agreement with her arguments about how women can produce great works of fiction pretty much ends there. I've always found the Bloomsbury set to be irritatingly snobbish (even while admiring their genius) and I think Woolf's support of exclusively moneyed, connected artists does a great disservice to the feminist movement as a whole.

In one chapter, Woolf characterizes Charlotte Brontë's writing as stilted, overly passionate, and full of personal angst. This, I feel, is a perfect description of Woolf's writing in this book as well. In fact, on reason Woolf gave for writing the majority of the book in the voice of a fictitious narrator was that if people read the work as autobiographical, they would dismiss her as simply having an axe to grind.

There were many jewels of thought amidst her argument and I marked several passages that were humorous and insightful, but the whole was not cohesive for me and I think her argument is deeply flawed. Woolf spends so much time pushing the notion that women should be the equal of men that she eventually strips them of all femininity in favor of an androgynous existence that I find demeaning to women.

Woolf contradicts herself several times, and one contradiction in particular stuck out as indicative of the true value of women and fiction. While discussing the actual construction of works of fiction, Woolf states:

"The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: ‘The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.’ That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said."

So in essence, Woolf is saying Austen in a measure succeeded where other female authors failed because she refused to attempt to compete with men, and instead created something from her self--something that was perfectly natural. And that act of just being herself produced more truth than anything penned by Charlotte Brontë. Yet Woolf closes her essay with that declaration that "if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality...then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is Jane Austen not famous for creating characters who interact in realistic ways? Did she not write "exactly what [she thought]"? And did not Woolf state that in doing so she said more than those trying to parrot the thoughts of men? Is it then not true that though Austen never escaped from her "common sitting room", she still achieved success and relevance as a female author of fiction?

Austen did not need a room of her own, she made her world her own and by doing so embraced reality and thus produced great works full of truth. I think If Woolf had done a little less obsessing about men and women "in relation to each other" and more pondering of each individual's "relation to reality" as she herself proclaims must be done, she would have achieved more success in promoting the role of women in art.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? In Between. I personally keep my copy on my shelf because it raises some interesting questions and ideas, but I mostly disagree with them so I don't think I can recommend this book as something particularly empowering to women. To me it is more infuriating.

Reading Recommendations: Try and read the book in one sitting. It's short so that makes it easier, but I read it over the course of a couple weeks and because I found her writing stilted and her arguments flawed I would often have to read back quite a ways to pick up the flow.

Warnings: If you don't like female authors of classics being overly critiqued and judged unfairly this probably isn't the book for you (:

Favorite excerpts: Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.

Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

Why does Samuel Butler say, 'Wise men never say what they think of women'? Wise men never say anything else apparently.

What I'm reading next: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot