Discussion Post: A Room of One’s Own

April 15, 2011 at 12:00 am 1 comment


Welcome back to the LT Classics Challenge. It’s discussion day here with Virginia Woolf and her feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own. Next week we’ll be returning to our search for contemporary fiction than can be be called ‘classic’ with My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, but for now let’s get down to the questions.

Remember, all participants are entered in a drawing to win a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic, so it behooves you to add your two cents.

The first and most obvious question is one of agreement: do you believe Woolf’s assertion that women simply need a room of their own and “five hundred a year” to be able to write and become equal to men?

It’s a point well made and taken, but definitely simplistic. Additionally, Woolf also undermines herself with sections about how Jane Austen was apparently able to be a literary genius without a room of her own.

And, nearly 100 years after Woolf wrote this, I think most contemporary women (at least in the western world) are able to have a room of their own, but now daily concerns and sheer modern busy-ness have become the enemy of creativity. It’s just as Woolf discusses at the beginning of her text: if women had been asked to make money and raise children, something would have to fall by the wayside. She says it would be the happy childhoods of the children, but I think today we can say that it is women’s creativity that has been abandoned so everything else can get done. I would argue that today it’s more important to have leisure time of one’s own, rather than a room, to be able to write.

Woolf notes the lack of autobiographical or background material for all authors prior to the 18th century (and for female authors well into the 19th). Do we as readers have a right to know everything that an author thought about and put into his or her work or is it better to let the work speak for itself, à la Shakespeare?

Kate has definitely discussed this sort of thing in the past, but I’m still not sure where I stand. I think I prefer going into a book blind but then having the option to read up on the author and the book after reading it. My main qualm is that I don’t want my knowledge of the author to taint my experience of the text itself. That said, I do like to have background information hanging around as an option post-reading.

And in terms of Shakespeare, I always worry that if we did suddenly find a long-lost autobiography or some text that just answered all our questions about him, it could be a massive let-down. With someone so revered and mysterious, at this point it’s probably just better to know nothing!

Woolf writes that any new female author should be considered “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.” Do you think this is a useful way to read the writing of women or that it is just another way of furthering the perception of female authors as inherently different from male ones?

Again, I think it is a way too simplistic way to look at things. And it actually illustrates one of my biggest quibbles with feminism more generally: if we shove all women into one group and label them Women it automatically reinforces patriarchal perceptions of women as naturally different and apart. We need to allow for the fact that women may have other labels and categories that better define them, just like men do. J.K. Rowling may be more usefully compared to Neil Gaiman or J.R.R. Tolkien than Jodi Picoult or Charlotte Bronte. Yes, they have a common heritage of female authorial disenfranchisement, but we shouldn’t allow that to overwhelm the individuality of their work and the common characteristics their texts may share with those by male authors.

When Woolf goes to the British Library to read about women, she easily finds index entries and catalogue subjects called simply “Women.” There would never be such an entry titled “Men.” We should be working towards an equality rather than finding more ways to make women different. The challenge there is how to move towards equality while still respecting the challenges faced by past female writers.

So let’s hear from you lot. Do you agree with me or Woolf or both? This is a contentious enough issue that I hope we can get some debate going!

–Corey

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Hill  |  April 15, 2011 at 1:39 am

    I’ve always thought that Woolf meant the idea of a room of her own as a metaphor for having a private place where a woman could work undisturbed. In her other works, she writes about the demands that visitors make on her time and how the interruptions interfere with her thought processes. A room of her own made no difference because the expectation was that she would stop what what she was doing and come out to make small talk and pretend to be interested in her sister’s children. I doubt if much has changed today, because women are still expected to make themselves available on demand – to children, husbands, relations and friends. And that’s really what the issue is. Rumer Godden wrote about the same thing.
    But to descend to the literal, I also doubt that many women today do have a private space. Even in those monstrous McMansions where every child has his own room and Dad has a den, the master bedroom is a shared space and Mum tends not to have her own room. There’s an assumption that she wants to be around her family and that the kitchen as the hub of the home is her domain.
    I am the only married woman I know who has a room of her own.

    Reply

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