I don’t want to brag here (much!) but I’m doing so well with my book choices lately. I’m on a streak of titles which are nothing short of eye-opening, inspiring and empowering. The latest is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own*.
I know what you’re thinking: but, Emma, you studied English at GCSE and A Level, and feminism played a big part in your five years of higher education (and throughout your life since). How have you not read this before? It was first published in 1929! And, I know, I can’t believe it either. In fact, I’m even a bit pissed off at the education system for not providing me with a teacher/lecturer who could recommend this to me. But perhaps this book has come to me at the perfect time? Now that I’m caught up on the Austens and Brontes, more familiar with Shakespeare, and mad at the world for its treatment of women. Maybe it wouldn’t have meant as much to me ten or fifteen years ago?
This stunning book compiles a series of lectures given by Woolf at Newnham College and Girton College, illustrated by her sister, artist Vanessa Bell. The title comes from a woman’s need to have a room (and money) of her own in order to be a successful writer (‘a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself’), which is why, most fascinatingly, there could never have been a female Shakespeare. In fact, Woolf’s analysis of women and fiction is truly eye-opening. For all we’re taught of literature, rarely does anyone note one key detail: Men are fascinated with writing about women but not vice versa.
I was reminded of some other feminist books I’d read recently, such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and Bygone Badass Broads, where I finally learned about incredible women who have been neglected by the history books. There is a huge disparity in the representation of women in fiction and real life: ‘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.’
I didn’t realise how much I needed this book until I read it. It’s like she’s speaking to current writers, despite the age: ‘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… 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.’
I’m always fascinated when I read popular quotes in their original form. Now I can place the likes of ‘No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself’ and ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’.
In fact, much of this book is highly quotable; Woolf would have been the queen of graduation speeches: ‘When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life… I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, more spiritual; I should remind you how much depends on you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future… it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.’
A Room of One’s Own is almost one hundred years old, yet it feels like it was written yesterday: ‘Nothing could be expected of women intellectually… There would always have been that assertion – you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that that – to protest against, to overcome.’ We’ve come so far yet still have so far to go.
The Folio Society edition of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Vanessa Bell, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
*I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes but all thoughts are my own