Tag Archives: Brititsh literature

Virginia Woolf (6) A Room of One’s Own

I  got around to reading A Room of Ones Own, which I have owned for decades. I thought the point was already in the title, knowing that what Woolf thought was needed for women to read was not just an unshared room with a lockable door but also dependable (unearned by their labor) 500 pounds a year (<$20K now).

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Education and being able to get out and about would make for a wider range than domestic novels focused on courting and marriage. Woolf brought up the limitations on Emily Bronte several times, but unless I missed it, did not refer to her sister(s). Woolf has to admit the greatness of Jane Austen and George Eliot, though seeing both as constrained by the restrictions on women. And she noted that all the great English poets, except for Yeats, who died very young, had some inheritances and education.

In wishing that women could get beyond novel-writing, it seems to me that Woolf overlooked a number of women who wrote insightfully about places far beyond the British isles.

I think she mentioned pioneer Gothic novelist Ann Radcliff, but not Clara Reeve, or Mary Shelley’s enduring Frankenstein, which certainly reached beyond the domestic sphere of women. Nor did she mention the pioneering female travel writers such as Isabelle Bird (Hawai’I, Colorado, Malaya West and East Asia), Mary Kingsley (1897-99), Edith Durham (Balkans, 1904-28), Hester Stanethroep (Middle East,1846) Alexandra David-Néele (whose My Journey to Lhasa had only appeared in 1927), Gertrude Bell (the Middle East, 1907-) , Annette Mekin (Turkistan, Siberia, Japan, Charlotte Mansfield (Rhodesia, 1911-16), or Lady Mary Montagu’s Turkish Letters (published in 1737-38; she also wrote poetry). Bird inherited money. Neele bought a house in 1928. Fanny Bullock Workman (lgeria, Himalayas, 1895-1916), Alexin Tinne (Sudan and Central Africa, 1863-69).

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Woolf would not know of Nella Larsen, whose novels came out in 1928 and 1929, and Zora Neale Hurston’s were still in the future. I don’t think that either of them, nor Loraine Hansberry (before “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway) had lockable rooms of their own or the steady support of the equivalent of 500 pounds. Hurston had a patroness, and Hansberry was supported by her husband, though. Larsen went to Fisk and worked as nurse (taking a sabbatial to write Quicksand).

Woolf mentioned Murasaki, but not the whole set of Heian female writers, the only Heian writers of any lasting interest to readers. I don’t think they had lockable rooms or much privacy to write, though financial support from courts, fathers, husbands.

Of Nobel laureates Kipling and Galsworthy, Woolf wrote that “it is not only that they celebrate male virtue, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible”, “crude and immature” (102). The Light That Failed? It is a love story, even with military interludes. I wonder about Maugham (not the Asheden stories or the later The Razors Edge, but “Rain” and “The Letter”, The Painted Veil, the later Up at the Villa and Of Human Bondaeg, each with prominent female characters). Forster she does not mention (nor her companion at the two lectures, Vita Sackville-West). Sterne she sees as androgynous! Surprisingly, she thought that “the impulse for autobiography may be spent” (for women, 79) in 1929 (!)

“Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” she asked (based on cataloging contemporary book titles). (27-28) She said that women did not write books about men (though there are male characters whom I find credible—as well as important—in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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