A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929, the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled "Women and Fiction", which was published in Forum March 1929, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction. The essay is generally seen as a feminist text and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.
The essay was based on a series of lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. She stayed at Newnham at the invitation of Pernel Strachey whose family were key members of the Bloomsbury Group and was also Newnham's principal.
Women's access to education
The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble". The title also refers to any author's need for poetic licence and the personal liberty to create art.
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.
Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting. Woolf lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society.
In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school." Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.
Building a history of women's writing
In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison. Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar… J ---- H---- herself".
Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'". Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, though Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women". Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage. The essay quotes Oscar Browning through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham: "'… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that…the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'" In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.
The Four Marys
The narrator of the work is at one point identified as "Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael", alluding to the sixteenth century ballad Mary Hamilton. In referencing the tale of a woman about to be hanged for existing outside of marriage and rejecting motherhood, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. It is important to note that Woolf's heroine, Judith Shakespeare, dies by her own hand, after she becomes pregnant with the child of an actor. Like the woman in the Four Marys, she is pregnant and trapped in a life imposed on her. Woolf sees Judith Shakespeare, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, as powerless, impoverished women everywhere as threatened by the spectre of death.
In another section, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness published in 1928. Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator, has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you..."
Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it." Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic." Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.
In this paragraph, Woolf sums up the stark contrast her research has uncovered between how women are idealised in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life:
Woolf's famous demand on behalf of the hypothetical female author, narratively framed by the Four Marys, is articulated in the line:
Inflation-adjusting £500 in 1929 to the present (2013), gives about £25,000 (about US$43,000) (using inflation of the cost of goods) or about £75,000 (about US$130,000) (using inflation of people's earnings). Converting £500 in 1929 to 1913 yields £230 to £310, which is below the group that George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier (published in 1937, but describing pre-War life in this passage) as the lower end of the upper-middle class:
The £500 was just enough to live on without employment but without any extravagance. This (minimal) independent wealth introduces a socio-political element into Woolf's argument which speaks not only to gender dynamics but to divisions in social class. This element of Woolf's argument has been addressed in a number of scholarly and literary attacks.
Alice Walker, to the subject of much criticism, demeaned Woolf's essay for its exclusion of women of color, and women writers who do not have any means for obtaining the independence of a room of their own. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes: "Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day."
Walker recognises that Wheatley is in a position far different from the narrator of Woolf's essay, in that she does not own herself, much less "a room of her own". Wheatley and other women writers exist outside of this room, outside of this space Woolf sets asides for women writers. Though she calls attention to the limits of Woolf's essay, Walker, in uniting womanist prose (women's writing) with the physical and metaphorical space of "our mothers' gardens", pays homage to Woolf's similar endeavour of seeking space, "room", for women writers.
It was adapted as a play by Patrick Garland who also directed Eileen Atkins in its stage performance. The television adaptation directed by Patrick Garland was broadcast on PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1991.
Feminist and LGBT bookstore A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin, was named after Woolf's essay. Canadian literary journal showcasing the work of women writers and visual artists, Room of One's Own, now Room, was also named for Woolf's essay. The Smiths' song "Shakespeare's Sister" is named after a section of the essay. The group Two Nice Girls' third album was called Chloe Liked Olivia. The women's coworking space in Singapore, "Woolf Works", was named after Virginia Woolf as a response to this essay.
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989.