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A Room of One's Own

A Room of One’s Own (1929) is a book-length essay based on two lectures given by English author Virginia Woolf to the all-women colleges of Newnham and Girton at the University of Cambridge. Woolf weaves narrative devices, personal experience, and historical fiction to make a case for the financial independence of women to produce literary works.

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A Room of One's Own

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A Room of One’s Own (1929) is a book-length essay based on two lectures given by English author Virginia Woolf to the all-women colleges of Newnham and Girton at the University of Cambridge. Woolf weaves narrative devices, personal experience, and historical fiction to make a case for the financial independence of women to produce literary works.

A Room of One's Own: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882 in a blended family with eight other siblings. While formal education was not given to women, her father, Leslie Stephen, an intellectual and literary critic, encouraged Virginia to write. His professional circle exposed Virginia to intellectuals and writers.

Growing up, Woolf's brothers went to school, and often she met their classmates. As an adult, Virginia, along with her sister and future painter, Vanessa Bell, formed the Bloomsbury Group to promote and discuss philosophy, literature, and the arts. Here, Virginia was exposed to modernist conceptions of feminism and sexuality. The group was unofficially associated with the University of Cambridge, and Virginia married group member and journalist Leonard Woolf.

A Room of One's Own: Genre

A Room of One’s Own is an essay that incorporates both historical fiction and nonfiction. It employs elements of modernism, with a focus on individualism and experimentation. Woolf uses narrative techniques that break away from storytelling conventions. Much of the content of the essay is an imagined character that acts as a stand-in for any aspiring female writer, interspersed with Woolf’s own personal reflections, and a fictionalized sister of William Shakespeare.

Modernism—an artistic movement that sought to break away from tradition. In literature, it represented a challenge to formulaic prose and conventional storytelling.

A Room of One's Own: Summary

Below is a summary separated into the six parts of the book.

Part 1

Virginia Woolf has been requested to speak in front of a group of female students from the all-women colleges of Newnham and Girton schools at the University of Cambridge. The topic, Women and Fiction, is very personal to Woolf. Rather than make a political debate, she offers to share a narrative with a fictional character named Mary attending Oxbridge, a fictional school inspired by her personal experience (while sometimes changing to her own view of Virginia Woolf). While from the first-person perspective, the character is meant to be interchangeable with any one woman from the audience.

Absorbed in thought, Mary hurries across a lawn. A guard tells her to stay off, as it’s reserved for male fellows and scholars, and consequently, she loses her train of thought. She decides to find an essay on poet Charles Lamb in the library. Once she arrives, however, she is turned away, as the library is for men only. She considers visiting a chapel but expects to be refused entry again. Instead, she attends a luncheon, explaining the plentiful food and lively conversation in great detail.

Mary then compares the men’s college meal with that at fictional Fernham College for women. The food is sparse, and the conversation lackluster. She reflects with a friend about how well-funded the men's colleges are. They have never-ending funding from alumni and men with legacies. She concludes that women are too busy raising families to start a legacy that could improve women’s colleges instead of the humiliatingly meager fundraisers. Upset with her exclusion from the men’s facilities, she goes to bed.

A Room of One's Own, Cambridge University, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The University of Cambridge was composed of many colleges in Woolf's time. Today, there are 31 colleges in total.

Part 2

The next day, Mary sets out to the British Museum in London, where she hopes to find the truth behind the disparity between men and women in literature. She realizes most of the books are written by men, even if the subject is women. The male authors praise and condemn women simultaneously, leaving her history feeling unresolved and overly controlled by men. Furthermore, she feels overwhelmed by the volume of information, as she is untrained compared to the young male researcher beside her. Angered by the presumed inferiority of the women by the male authors, she heads out for lunch.

A Room of One's Own, British Museum, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Mary visits the British Museum, only to find that the majority of books are written by men who control the female narrative in history.

Reading the newspaper, Mary is bombarded with headlines about men and the disproportionate roles they hold in society, while women’s roles are downplayed. She wonders why men must assert their power at the expense of women. Mary concludes that throughout history, women have been used as a “mirror” to enlarge men. If women were to give criticism to men, they would shrink.

When Mary pays for her lunch, she shares how she receives an annual stipend from her aunt. It’s enough for her to live financially independent of a man. She believes this allows her to view society more objectively and concludes that both men and women suffer from the gender roles imposed on them. Women’s options for work pay little compared to men's, and she reflects on what this means for women’s fiction.

Part 3

Mary is still dissatisfied with the lack of explanation for the discrepancy between men and women. She thinks a historian may solve it but finds very little written about women (without reference to men) in the history books. In fiction, women are written as inspirational characters, yet in “real life,” they are the uneducated “property of the husband.” To fill this gap, she invents the fictional character of Judith Shakespeare, William’s sister.

Mary asks the audience to imagine that Judith had the same talent and capacities as her brother, but to consider the different circumstances. William goes to school while Judith stays at home. While William goes to London to work at the theaters, Judith obeys her family to marry early. At the last minute, she escapes to London, where she is laughed away by theater managers as women weren’t allowed to be actors. Ultimately, she becomes pregnant and commits suicide, having little else to turn to.

How many women who have been shunned, excommunicated, or killed for witchcraft were potentially gifted writers? Mary considers how talent requires nurturing without distraction, and generally, women are distracted within the domesticity of the home and family. Shakespeare was “incandescent” because he had the circumstances and resources to pursue his talent unhindered.

A Room of One's Own, Woman Writing on Couch, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Woolf understood that women needed independence to write on par with men.

Part 4

Most working women will struggle to write anything that will be taken seriously. Upper-class women will have better chances. Woolf uses the example of Lady Winchilsea, a childless woman of nobility, who wrote poetry very well. However, her potential “incandescence” was thwarted by bitterness at the lack of support and dismissiveness from the literary world of men. Another, a duchess, wrote poetry but was written off as crazy. Another female author exclusively wrote letters with no intention of publishing, but her writing showed talent.

Writing as a woman changed with Aphra Behn. She was middle class in origin, but became poor. She’s not remembered for the content of her writing, but that she managed to make it a career. Writing for money became an option and inspired women afterward. Woolf believes that classics like Jane Eyre (1847) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) would not exist otherwise. These and many other novels helped develop a women’s literary tradition.

However, there is a notable lack of other literary forms, such as poetry, from women. Woolf believes it’s easier to write novels in pieces, to accommodate a woman's domestic life, whereas poetry requires intense, uninterrupted focus. Men can produce poetry because patriarchal society reflects their value. If the literary world can include women as they become freer, they will be able to write in more literary modes and even create new ones.

Part 5

Mary, the imagined narrator, now shares an imagined book by fictional author Mary Carmichael. While she does not have the elegant prose that Jane Austen has, she is notable for describing the attraction between her and another woman. The story unfolds from the perspective of a woman named Chloe, who is watching her lab partner, Olivia.

The author describes the intricate details of Olivia from Chloe’s perspective. This sort of writing shows what can be seen and discussed in the world of women. This allows the writer to imagine details that are invisible or unnoticed by men, and not need to measure their writing ability against that of male authors, by writing as a person, instead of as a woman.

Part 6

The next day, Mary, the narrator, observes the streets of London. She feels no one is concerned with literature, and just goes about their day. She sees a man and woman separately enter the same cab. This image suggests that men and women should form some kind of union. Mary realizes that part of the volume of books about women by men is related to the women’s suffrage movement. Men are becoming more gender aware and are reacting by writing more about men’s supposed superiority.

Returning to the original intent to speak on Women and Fiction, Woolf concludes it is more important to incorporate both male and female perspectives from the literary tradition. While being successful as a poor writer is possible, it is much harder for poor women than poor men. Overwhelmingly, literature is written by well-off men.

While the audience may wonder why Woolf would still want to write despite the gender discrimination, she admits she loves to read. She charges her audience to write about every topic, both fiction and nonfiction, to inspire future generations. Women should honor what they feel compelled to write. Judith Shakespeare’s story is not over. Women now, more than ever, have the opportunity to live the life that Judith couldn’t.1

A Room of One's Own: Analysis

The main argument in A Room of One's Own is that women need financial independence for creativity. For women to meaningfully participate in the literary tradition, they require access to the same resources on par with men to have the intellectual freedom men enjoy. It is considered feminist literature because of its focus on women and their denial from accessing resources that men take for granted. The meaning of the title is that women need their own room and living allowance to invest in themselves creatively.

There are three recurring themes specifically geared towards women.

Financial Independence

Virginia is explicit about her financial situation. She receives an annual stipend from her aunt. This affords her the luxury of not having to spend all her time working. Furthermore, she is free from the anxiety of struggling to make ends meet. This gives her ample time and energy to focus on creative pursuits, like writing. She notes that most of the successful and published writers came from a well-to-do backgrounds. If one has financial stability, they can invest themselves elsewhere.

Intellectual Freedom

Woolf links her writing ability with her financial independence. She feels without it, she would be burdened with the typical responsibilities of women in her lifetime. With no kids or other responsibilities other than herself, she can experience freedom of the mind. However, it’s not just having an allowance, but also the luxury of privacy. Woolf can afford to have her own private room where she is undisturbed and can minimize distractions. In this way, she argues that her privacy and freedom from distractions of modern life allow her to have control over and exercise her intellect.

Creating Literary Tradition for Women

Woolf encourages her audience of scholarly women to contribute to the legacy of women writers. She loves to read on a variety of subjects and wishes to see these topics elaborated upon from the perspective of women. So far, women have been able to become successful novelists. Within the scope of literature, novels are a relatively new form. Woolf believes this is why women have been able to participate more easily in novels than in other well-established literary forms by male authors. She hopes to change that with her essay.

A Room of One's Own: Quotes

Below are quotes from A Room of One's Own.

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

― pg 18

Woolf is referring to the ability to be self-sufficient. If one hasn’t been well nourished, they will struggle with other aspects of their life. Woolf believed that financial independence was key to encouraging creativity. The endless distractions of modern life take away energy from creative pursuits, and Woolf’s ability to “dine well” allowed her freedom of her mind to “think well.”

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

—pg 119

Woolf was an avid reader of a variety of topics. She wished to see more contributions to writing from women. Here she encourages her audience to find enough time and money to invest in their creative energy. Woolf regularly enjoyed idle time and felt this was integral to her inspiration for writing.

“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”

—pg 71

A women’s literary tradition was already growing by Woolf’s time. She understood previous women writers had helped pave the way for her to write as well. She understood that a writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All new writing is influenced by previous writers. Woolf is encouraging her audience to recognize and acknowledge their literary tradition, while also adding to it with their work.

A Room of One's Own - Key takeaways

  • A Room of One's Own is a book-length essay by English author Virginia Woolf.
  • Woolf was exposed to literature at an early age, and throughout her young adulthood was inspired by literary social circles to write.
  • A Room of One's Own breaks storytelling conventions with elements of modernism and focuses on women's need to access resources that men take for granted.
  • Woolf uses a mix of historical fiction, imagined characters, and her own personal experience to encourage her audience of women to invest in themselves creatively.
  • The main idea is that women need their own room and allowance, essentially financial independence, to fully realize their creative outlets.

References

  1. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own (1929).
  2. Fig. 1 - Untitled (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_johns_rear_buildings.jpg) by Bob Tubbs (n/a) is licensed by (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)
  3. Fig. 2 - Untitled (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eliot_and_Woolf_by_Morrell_cropped.jpg) by Lady Ottoline Morrell (n/a) is licensed by License (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/deed.en)
  4. Fig. 3 - Untitled (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Room_Of_One%27s_Own_bookstore_exterior.jpg) by Skvader (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Skvader) is licensed by License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about A Room of One's Own

The meaning of A Room of One's Own is that women need their own room and living allowance to invest in themselves creatively.

The main argument in A Room of One's Own is that women need financial independence for creativity.  

A Room of One's Own is considered feminist literature because of its focus on women and their denial from accessing resources that men take for granted. 

A Room of One's Own combines fiction and nonfiction.

A Room of One's Own is modernism because Woolf employs narrative techniques that break away from storytelling conventions.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What helped encourage Woolf to write?

How does the essay employ elements of modernism? 

Judith Shakespeare is

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