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