I was nervous when I first picked up Virginia Woolf’s famous feminist essay. As a self-proclaimed independent woman, I wanted to enjoy it but had struggled last year while trying to read , ‘To the Lighthouse’ and thought maybe Woolf just wasn't for me. Would I be a bad feminist if I hated this essay?
Then I started reading… and goddamn, it was good. I fell in love with Woolf’s voice between sick burns of her male contemporaries and genuinely funny anecdotes. Not only do her struggles of the early 20th century still resonate in the 21st , but studying how she put together her argument was a lesson in confronting the patriarchy still useful today. By the end, I just wanted to be her afternoon drinking buddy.
So, how did ‘A Room of One’s Own’ come about?
In 1928 Woolf was invited to Girton College in Cambridge to give a lecture on the topic of ‘Women in Fiction.’This was one of the University of Cambridge’s women’s colleges.
“Better is wisdom than weapons of war.” - Girton College Motto
Published originally in 1929, the printed essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is an expansion of that original lecture. In it, she starts by researching the history of women in literature, the disappeared women of history, the likely history of Judith – Shakespeare’s imagined and equally-talented sister (verdict: dead in a ditch, somewhere), and the effects of poverty and the patriarchy on women in the arts.
Here I break down the different chapters of the essay, explain a bit about the outline of her argument and how the essay is structured, and give you the quotes and page numbers from the 2016 Penguin Random House’s Vintage Classics Woolf series, ‘A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas’ I hope it's a good reference, hope you enjoy it, then go off and read the book!
Chapter 1 – Women Are Poor
Woolf begins by laying out the difficulty in her task, to teach on the topic of ‘Women in Fiction.’
“I should never be able to fulfil what it, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.” - P. 3
Similar to many other philosophers and storytellers of yore, she proposes lying out her argument in the form of a story, based upon her days-long journey to the truth of her argument:
“Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. Therefore I propose, making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming, here – how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made work in and out of my daily life.” - P. 4
From the very start, when she’s walking about town and turning this question over in her head, men bar her way.
“Here I was actually the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” - P. 7
Very early she taps on having financial means as being key to having power in discourse. She imagines the scorn the modern women has for the women who came before her for not ‘doing better,’ essentially:
“We burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother – if that was her picture – may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated it had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face… Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography. If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry.” - P. 20
But Woolf has sympathy to the women of the past:
“It is only in the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband’s property – a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband’s wisdom – perhaps to found a scholarship or to endow a fellowship in Balliol of Kings, so that to earn money, even if I could earn money is not a matter that interests me very greatly. I had better leave it to my husband.” - P. 22
“So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I pondered this and that, s one does at the end of the day’s work. I wondered why it was that Mrs Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind… I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its argument and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge. A thousand stars were flashing across the blue wastes of the sky. One seemed alone with an inscrutable society. All human beings were laid asleep – prone, horizontal, dumb. Nobody seemed stirring in the streets of Oxbridge. Even the door of the hotel sprang open at the touch of an invisible hand – not a boot was sitting up to light me to bed, it was so late.” - P. 23
Chapter 2 –The Angry Professor
To further her pondering and find some ‘truth,’ Woolf heads to the library:
“For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? – a thousand questions at once suggested themselves. But one needed answers, not questions; and an answer was only to be had by consulting the learned and the unprejudiced, who have removed themselves above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body and issued the result of their reasoning and research in books which are to be found in the British Museum. If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?” - P. 25
“Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” - P. 26
“Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex – woman, that is to say – also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.” - P. 27
“Women do not write books about men – a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief.” - P. 27
“Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘wise men never say what they think of women’? Wise men never say anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was a single but by now somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never think the same thing about women.” - P. 29
“It seemed pure waste of time to consult all those gentlemen who specialized in woman and her effect on whatever it may be – politics, children, wages, morality – numerous and learned as they are. One might as well leave their books unopened.” - P. 30
She describes idly sketching out a portrait of ‘Professor von X’ a composite of all the men she’d been reading in the library.
“Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly in my sketch, as he wrote his great book upon the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.” - P. 31
“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” - P. 31
“Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there?... It referred me unmistakeable to the one book, the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I flushed with anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that. One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man.” - P. 31
“Soon my own anger was explained and done with; but the curiosity remained. How to explain the anger of the professors? Why were they angry? For when it came to analyzing the impression left by these books there was always an element of heat. This heat took many forms; it showed itself in satire, in sentiment, in curiosity, in reprobation. But there was another element which was often present and could not immediately be identified. Anger, I called it.” - P. 32
The Professor becomes her caricature stand-in, representing the gaze and actions of the patriarchy.
“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail too detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the Judge. He was the cricketer; he owned the racehorses and the yachts. He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself… with the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry.” - P. 33
“Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.” - P. 34
“Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half of the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power.” - P. 35
“Women have served all these centuries as a looking-glass possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” - P. 35
“That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist to emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them that this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism.” - P. 35
This brought to mind for me Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s quip: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Woolf’s contemplating these ideas after leaving the library and getting lunch when her thoughts are interrupted by the waiter bringing her the bill:
“These contributions to the dangerous and fascinating subject of the psychology of the other sex – it is one, I hope, that you will investigate when you have five hundred a year of your own – were interrupted by the necessity of paying the bill. It came to five shillings and ninepence. I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away – the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are. Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were left me by an aunt, for no other reason than I share her name.” - P. 36
“The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.” - P. 37
I want to clarify something here because this first confused me when I went hunting for the facts. In 1909, when she was 27, Woolf’s aunt died and left her £2,500.
In the essay, which includes fictional interludes in order to demonstrate more universal truths, her aunt dies in a horse-riding accident in Bombay. In reality, she died at home at the age of 75. Now, there is a rumour that her aunt had a lover that fled to and died in India, so maybe that’s some of where Woolf’s getting her inspiration from here.
In any case. The money her aunt left her was substantial, and it allowed her to stop doing menial jobs and focus on her writing. It didn’t hurt that three years after this investment from her aunt, she married her husband, Leonard Woolf, who wasn’t bad-off either.
To give you a sense of scale, the £500 a year figure Woolf writes about here would be about £30,000 today with inflation. That’s about$50,000 CAD, or $37,000 USD. I’m already getting into the weeds a bit here, but I also love reading about money and economics, so wanted you to have an actual idea of the kind of salary she’s talking about.
Woolf probably settled on £500 as a figure for simplicity’s sake versus having to detail the story of receiving her aunt’s lump sum, investing it, etc.
“Before that I had made my living by cadging off jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.” - P. 37
“What still remain with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide – a small one but dear to the possessor – perishing and with it my self, my soul, - all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of spring, destroying the tree at its heart. However, as I say, my aunt died; and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take me from my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.” - P. 37
This is one of the most relatable passages in the book for the modern millennial artist scrounging to make a living. Of course, we can’t all have aunts who pass away and leave us their fortunes.
But she broaches here a topic that's touchy and hard to reconcile - that your innate ‘talent’ alone won’t make you successful, but often a fixed income is needed to make it work. This is true of many passion-driven careers, not just the arts. But, it is a bitterness I’ve heard echoed in my own circles from people who want to make a living in the arts. And it’s something, evidently, that artists have been struggling with since at least the early 20th century.
Woolf then comments upon to what she perceives as men's Promethean fault:
“The instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and good perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives… or watch in the spring sunshine the stockbrocker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.” - P. 38
“As I realized these drawbacks [to being a man], by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Is that in my opinion a good book or a bad? Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky.” - P. 38
Chapter 3 –Women in the 16th Century: The Parable of Judith, Shakespeare’s imagined-equally-talented sister
Looking at the paradox of women in Shakespeare’s time, who were greatly written about, but largely unseen characters in their own lives. Also responds to the criticism that a ‘genius’ like Shakespeare’s could never exist in a woman. She argues a genius like Shakespeare’s in his time would not have been given the opportunity even to exist. Ah, male privilege.
This reminds me of 'on a plate', a comic about privilege by cartoonist Toby Morris posted on Radio New Zealand that made its rounds on the internet about five years ago.
“If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.” - P. 43
“A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.” - P. 43
“It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare… It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” - P. 45
She goes on to paint a portrait of Shakespeare’s imagined sister,Judith. If she’d been born with the same talent for words and tried to pursue a career similar to Shakespeare. It’s a long passage (pages 46-48), so I’ll just sum it up here:
Shakespeare would have gone to school. Judith would have not.
Shakespeare knocked up a local woman and then left for the city of London to make his fortune; Judith would have been betrothed to a local man of her parents’ choice and expected to wed, stay home, and bear his children. If she refused, she would have been beaten.
Let’s say Judith avoided that and did manage to make her way to London—when Shakespeare arrived he was immediately welcomed into the boys club circle of the theatre world (where even women on stage at the time were played by men, and women were absolutely uninvited). He immediately had the chance to become an actor and then work on refining his craft. Meanwhile, had his sister Judith shown up at the theatre doors she would have been laughed out.
Left penniless and disowned in the big city, Woolf imagines her fate:
“At last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so – who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? – killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.” - P. 47
Here endeth the story of Judith—dead in a ditch.
“Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” - P. 48
“Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.” - P. 48
“To have lived a life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was a poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned.” - P. 49
“The chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of, said Pericles, himself a much-talked-of man.” - P. 49
Love these historic burns.
“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work.” - P. 53
“It is fairly evident that even in the nineteenth century a woman was not encouraged to be an artist. On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted. Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by need of opposing this, disproving that. For here again we come within range of that very interesting and obscure masculine complex which has had so much influence upon the women’s movement; that deep-seated desire, not so much that she shall be inferior as he will be superior, which plants him wherever one looks, not only in front of the arts, but barring the way to politics too, even when the risk to himself seems infinitesimal and the suppliant humble and devoted.” - P. 54
Just imagining all the micro-aggression of being a 19th-century burgeoning female artist is… terrifying.
Although Woolf’s essay is focused on the historical relationship between men and women, it’s not hard to take her examination of power dynamics and apply them to race.
Chapter 4 – Middle-class English Women Begin to Write
“The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women – the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics – was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling’, but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.” - P. 64
Here she talks about Jane Austen (1775-1817), the Bronte Sisters (1816-1855), George Eliot (1819-1880). Still women don’t often have a room of their own. Jane Austen wrote in drawing rooms and was constantly interrupted, covering her work with a spare bit of parchment to hide it from eyes in between working away at it.
Austen’s nephew writes, ‘How she was able to effect all this is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the casual sitting room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.’
Woolf also bemoans the tragedy that Charlotte Bronte sold the copyright to her novels outright for 1,500 pounds, because she was inexperienced.
“George Eliot, escaped after much tribulation, but only to a secluded villa in St. John’s Wood. And there she settled down in the shadow of the world’s disapproval.” - P. 69
Woolf writes that despite this emergence of fiction written by women, their work was still trivialized by (you guessed it), the patriarchy.
“The values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and more subtly the different of value persists.” - P. 72
“It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey – whoever it may be – never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use.” - P. 74
No talk of allyship here or how if you’re a man you could help a woman – this would have been interesting to see her include, but her audience for them was also entirely women, so in a way it makes sense.
Chapter 5 – Women actually do like other women
Here, Woolf comes to her contemporary times, where women have begun to write books on other subjects, such as archaeology, history, and aesthetics.
“There are books on all sorts of subjects, which a generation ago no woman could have touched.” - P. 77
“I must also consider her – this unknown woman – as the descendant of all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at and see what she inherits of their characteristics and restrictions.” - P. 78
Also known as—we stand on the shoulders of giants.
And then, and I really liked this—she talks about women being allies of other women within modern narratives.
“I turned the page and read… I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Charles Biron is not concealed? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these – ‘Chloe like 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.” - P. 80
And she’s not talking about romantic love (the world will still have a wait another hundred years or so from Woolf’s time to accept that fact),but just the idea of women being friends. That women don’t have to be written about in opposition to each other. That they can be allies, and that they can have conversations about things other than men.
“This is like the Bechdel test!!!” I squealed to myself, and then was rewarded when I did some research and discovered that Bechdel-Wallace test creator, cartoonist Alison Bechdel was inspired by Woolf’s writing and her friend, Liz Wallace, when she created the 1985 comic strip called ‘The Rule,’ in her series, ‘Dykes to Watch Out For, which lays out the basic premise of the test:
The Bechdel test is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
“She probably read these very fucking words!” I geeked out, and then had nice body-chills imagining all the other women who’d read this essay, these exact same words, since it was first published in 1929 and felt a warm, trans-generational glow of all the other women writers connected over the years, reading this very same shit.
“How interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple… They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.” - P. 80
“Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of women in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity – for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy.” - P. 80
“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!” - P. 81
“Above all, you must illuminate your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the everchanging and turning world.” - P. 87
Of a more contemporary female novelist, Mary Carmichael writing ‘s Life’s Adventure, Woolf writes:
“She wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.” - P. 90
“Give her another hundred years, I concluded, reading the last chapter… Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days. She will be a poet.” - P. 91
Chapter 6 – Androgynous minds, going forward
“There may be some state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back.” - P. 94
Here Woolf speaks a lot about ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ minds working together. About the need for the writer (whether their sex is male or female) to espouse both characteristics. And while this is in a way very modern—her ideas about a person needing to embody both male and female characteristics. It’s constructed in a very binary sense, which I assume is natural from a person coming from early 20th century London, who wouldn’t have heard many ideas about gender fluidity, queerness, or the other post-gender kinds of thinking that now exist in modern gender studies and discourse.
If she were here today, with experience in modern discourse on sex and gender, I wonder what she'd say, as her conception of it does seem fairly cis-het and binary, and also seems to equate the two as being the same thing.
GREEK PHILOSOPHY SIDEBAR
Reading this chapter, I was also reminded of Aristophanes' speech in Plato’s Symposium, where he speaks about androgynous humans:
“First you must learn what human nature was in the beginning and what has happened to it since, because long ago our nature was not what it is now, but very different.
There were three kinds of human beings, that’s my first point—not two as there are now, male and female. In addition to these, there was a third, a combination of those two; its name survives, though the kind itself has vanished. At that time, you see, the word ‘androgynous’ really meant something: a form made up of male and female elements.”
Aristophanes’ speech goes on, and it gets a little weird. Basically, these androgynous beings don’t want to be ruled by the gods, so Zeus gets mad (surprise, surprise) and cuts each of the androgynous humans in two (male and female),then Zeus sees how sad these two sides are without each other.
“Then, however, Zeus took pity on them, and came up with another plan: he moved their genitals around to the front! Before then, you see, they used to have their genitals outside, like their faces, and they cast seed and made children: not in one another, but in the ground, like cicadas. SoZeus brought about this relocation of genitals, and in doing so he invented interior reproduction, by the man in the woman.”
Yeah, see? Weird. Anyway. Again, this story espouses super binary ideas about gender and how each sex perpetually longs for the other. But it’s interesting, and the Symposium gives you an idea of how the ol’ Greeks thought about sex. Okay, back to Virginia Woolf who’s closing out her essay to what I imagine is thunderous applause in the woman’s lecture hall as she rounds third base and slides into the conclusion of her essay:
“It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.” - P. 101
Woolf expands on the idea of integrity here, and I love how she goes so far as to say that subjugating your truth to the ideals of the patriarchy is the greatest way you can betray yourself.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.” - P. 102
“Now I think that you may object in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men. Let me then quote to you the words of your own Professor of Literature, who knows better than I do what goes to the making of a poet. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch writes: ‘What are the poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne – we may stop there. Of these, all but Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that political genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those twelve were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give… It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation – certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance.” - P. 103
“Intellectual freedom depends on material things.” - P. 104
Hard truths! I wish someone had told me that earlier. I think all women going into the arts should be given this essay before being admitted into university.
Lastly, she pleads with her female audience to write many books, not just fiction but many non-fiction histories, scientific books, and more. She encourages them to go out and live adventurous lives. It’s very much the end of a big inspirational speech here.
“Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.” - P. 106
Her last message asks them to recall Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, and for them to write so that:
“When she is born again she shall find it possible to live and writer her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” - P. 110
For the future, baby.
Mel Had Tea Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.