A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

An Introduction to A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

    

First of all, I wanted to apologise for the fact that this introductory post is one week late. Two of the Year of Feminist Classic project hosts are currently in the process of finishing graduate school degrees, and so we have been struggling with research proposals and looming deadlines. Unfortunately this mean we’re a little bit behind schedule and haven’t been able to update the group blog as frequently as we’d have liked. But hopefully now that the busiest months are behind us things will run a lot more smoothly.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929, and it was based on two lectures delivered and Newham and Girton Colleges in 1928. The central premise of the essay is that “every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year” – without economic independent and the freedom that derives from it, women’s achievements in the arts and letters will always lag behind.

With this in mind, A Room of One’s Own tackles themes such as access to education, literary history, the social circumstances surrounding women’s writing, androgyny, and the taboos surrounding lesbian writing (it’s worth noting that A Room of One’s Own was published the year after the obscenity trial concerning The Well of Loneliness.)

In the introduction to my edition of the book, renowned feminist scholar Susan Gublar notes that Woolf’s use of a fictional narrator for the essay has been a point of contention: some readers find that it makes the text too vague or detached; others that it gives it its wide appeal. There was a reason why Woolf deliberately avoided using a personal tone for A Room of One’s Own, even though there was a lot in her personal background she could have referenced (her education consisted of being tutored at home, while her brothers were sent to expensive schools and universities). Woolf explained her decision as follows in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth:

“If I had said, Look here I am uneducated, because my brothers used all the family funds which is the fact – Well they’d have said; She has an axe to grind; and no one would have taken me seriously.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions about how women’s writing is received, does it not? It also puts me in mind of our old friend Mary Wollstonecraft.

Also, I found the following passage from Gubar’s introduction worth citing:

…While Woolf has been attacked as too angry in her caricaturing of men, she has concomitantly been chastened for being fearful of rage, put off by the all too justifiable rancor of her female predecessors. Similarly, she has been denounced both for inflating and for demeaning women’s cultural achievements. Although praised as a quasi-Marxist in her materialism, she has been trounced for an elitism inculcated by her relatively privileged background. Heralded as an anti-imperialist, critical of England and Empire (with all its embarrassing capital letters), she nevertheless has been taken to task as racist, unconscious of her biases about third-world societies and people of color. Perhaps because of the multiple ambiguities of her allusive text, Woolf has also been adopted as a muse by conservatives hostile to the contemporary women’s movement and by feminists who share a passionate commitment to women’s well-being by whose differences of opinion about sex and gender extend to disagreements over the values, tactics, means, and ends that ought to govern the women’s movement.

It could perhaps be argued that all this disparity says more about the cultural, social and ideological context of several waves of criticism than about the text itself, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider – and it makes me look forward to reading the project’s participants different reactions to the book all the more.

Resources online:

(Do you have any further suggestions? If so, leave the link in the comments and I’ll be happy to edit it in.)

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21 responses to “An Introduction to A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

  1. SilverSeason May 9, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I think you can read A Room of One’s Own without reference to Woolf’s biography, that is, if she had prejudices let’s find them in the text itself and not in what we think we know about her life. Regarding anger (“rage”), she actually takes Charlotte Bronte to task for too much of that in Jane Eyre. I note that in my post about the book, especially as related to education, http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/a-room-of-ones-own-educating-virginia/.

  2. Jillian ♣ May 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    This essay was my first experience with Virginia Woolf. Her passion and arguments (and that awesome creation of Shakespeare’s sister — a creation far more universal and impactful that any personal account she might have offered — have me intrigued to read far, far more of her work. The novels, the essays, the literary critiques. I love that she puts the onus on women to change their fate. The final passages gave me shivers. I will absolutely read this again.

    (I wish I’d waited for the group to read this! I read it a couple weeks ago, in one sitting.)

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  5. Emily Jane May 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    First, apologies for being completely absent last month. Life, you know, it gets in the way sometimes. Anyway, here’s what I thought about A Room of One’s Own when I read it last summer.

    http://bookedallweek.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/a-room-of-ones-own-by-virginia-woolf/

    I found the essay to be unexpectedly complicated and had conflicting reactions to it. Not sure I’ll get to re-read it this month, but I can’t wait to see how the discussion here, and other people’s responses, might change or clarify my own earlier thoughts!

  6. Shelley May 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Virginia Woolf stands, not as the Angel in the House, but as one of the angels who encourages us as women writers. She both strengthens us and warns us to take good care of our sanity.

  7. dangermom May 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I was silly this time–I read the book all in one sitting, and then didn’t write anything about my thoughts for about 3 weeks. Of course it’s all gone now. I have mixed feelings about Woolf; I admire A Room of One’s Own very much, and she has some stunning things to say–but she also really rubs me the wrong way much of the time. Here’s my post, but don’t expect much: http://howlingfrog.blogspot.com/2011/05/feminist-challenge-room-of-ones-own.html

  8. Bonnie Jacobs May 24, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    My reaction to reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is here:
    http://bonniesbooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/room-of-ones-own-by-virginia-woolf-1929.html

    Even though Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of my favorite books, and one I try to re-read at least once a decade, I didn’t manage to find time last month to chat about it with you.

  9. Nose in a book May 24, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I read this back in February and noted my thoughts in a post here:

    http://www.noseinabook.co.uk/?p=601

    but to summarise, I found it more accessible than her fiction by some way. While some of the points Woolf makes are, thankfully, out of date, a surprising amount is still relevant. We do still categorise women writers separately, and make special effort to include them in various lists, because things are still not equal.

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  11. amymckie May 30, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Really interesting book, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I think Woolf is really quite contradictory though. Here are my thoughts: http://amckiereads.com/2011/05/30/review-a-room-of-ones-own-by-virginia-woolf/

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  13. Zee June 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I really enjoyed it. Here are my thoughts http://readinginthenorth.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-room-of-ones-own.html

    Also can someone add me to the participation list in the sidebar?

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  15. onereadleaf July 7, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Late as I am, I shouldn’t forget to post a link to my post!

  16. Pingback: A Room Of One’s Own / Virginia Woolf | Read Irresponsibly

  17. Aaron December 29, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Does anyone know where the letter to Ethel Smyth can be found? What volume of letters or collection?

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