Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) a writer, intellectual and feminist wrote, in her seminal book, A Room of One’s Own:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4).
These words were originally delivered in a talk she was asked to give in 1928 about women and fiction.
In the journey of this small book, Woolf allows us into her thought process as she ponders what to say about this topic. She goes to the banks of a river across from “Oxbridge,” a fictionalized version of the renowned Oxford, a place to which women at that time were not admitted. In fact, Woolf, being a woman, is not even allowed to walk on the turf on the well-cultivated grounds and is forced to move aside to the gravel upon the scolding of an approaching male scholar. “Oxbridge” is also a place whose library women are only allowed into if, “accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction”(7-8).
Woolf knows there are volumes of knowledge within those walls, in this precious space, but she is locked out of the library in this esteemed institution merely because of her sex. She writes:
“and I thought of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in;…”(18).
As she continues her reflection, she begins to wonder over the poverty of women. She attends a fancy luncheon at this esteemed institution where she observes the participants are able to take their time to slowly think, discuss, and philosophize over a delicious meal with wine and dessert. That same evening she experiences a contrasting dinner at a women’s college, one of the few at the time, where the food is not good and the discussion less so. She comes to the conclusion and writes the famous quote:
“One cannot think well; love well; sleep well, if one has not dined well”(24).
She contemplates her own mother, and other mothers who did not leave their daughters money and did not endow women’s colleges which is why they are both so poor, and realizes those women were too busy having children to earn and save a lot of money to pass on to their daughters to pursue their intellectual dreams. In fact, she realizes the women before her didn’t even have a legal right to money or property.
“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”(25)?
She reflects on all the women writers before her who wrote their novels at kitchen or side tables in the middle of cluttered domestic lives and hid their work from others, both literally in cupboards and under serving trays, as well as through the use of male pen names.
She comes to the conclusion that in order to write fiction a woman needs money and a room of her own. To write fiction one must have the security of a set income so that one’s thoughts can delve deeply and uninterrupted into the line in which they sink them and a writer also needs a place of her own in which to do this.
“By hook or by crook,” Woolf goes on to say, “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”(113).
As a young, aspiring author, I took these words to heart. I understood Woolf’s room to be more than a literal space. I saw it also as a place inside of ourselves that we must have access to and ample time to hang out in. And, because the image of her being locked out of the library at Oxford impacted me so deeply, I chose to call it, the “Library of the Soul.”
“Lock up your libraries if you like,” Woolf asserts, “but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”(79).
The worst thing, I decided, is to be locked out of the library of your own soul and no one can lock you out but you. To not lock yourself out is the challenge and you must fight to win this challenge every day of your life.
This is a great book. A classic feminist tome and very relevant even today. It also lets us into Virginia Woolf’s world and thought process in an intimate way. Very inspirational and fiery, it can sure get your outrage going! Well worth the read.
“So long as you write what you wish to write,” Woolf states, and I would add, do what you wish to do, “that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair off 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”(110).
©Theresa C. Dintino
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, N.Y: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957.