Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One's OwnA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Feminism and misogyny are the same: both aim to abolish female flesh. George Eliot—once thought a major female novelist, now understood by at least one expert to be a transgender male—saw it in Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller:

One point on which they both write forcibly is the fact that, while men have a horror of such faculty or culture in the other sex as tends to place it on a level with their own, they are really in a state of subjection to ignorant and feeble-minded women.

A later commentator, feminist literary critic Susan Gubar, traces the difficulty through the last three centuries, wittily demonstrating that it can be hard to tell the difference between the statements of Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, Olive Schreiner and D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Andrea Dworkin, Sigmund Freud and Judith Butler:

But Wollstonecraft believed that because both sexes shared an equal capacity for reason, women—considered as human, not as sexual, beings—should benefit from the educational programs historically only afforded men. […] Wollstonecraft associates the feminine with weakness, childishness, deceitfulness, cunning, superficiality, an overvaluation of love, frivolity, dilettantism, irrationality, flattery, servility, prostitution, coquetry, sentimentality, ignorance, indolence, intolerance, slavish conformity, fickle passion, despotism, bigotry, and a “spaniel-like affection.” The feminine principle, so defined, threatens—like a virus—to contaminate and destroy men and their culture.

For feminist and misogynist alike, frailty’s name is woman. Gender equality requires equal participation in universal reason, which means that women must transcend their bodies, perhaps even earthly reality itself. That transcendence may take the form of Wollstonecraft’s Enlightenment faith in Milton’s and Rousseau’s rational consciousness (as opposed to the sensuality and sentimentalism of the domestic women she disparages) or Judith Butler’s postmodern Foucauldian commitment to gender as performance rather than essence (as opposed to the focus on the embodied female vulnerabilities stressed by second-wave feminists). Finally, we arrive in the present, at Andrea Long Chu’s definition of “female” as the universal abjection we all share, to which gaping and penetrable lack—Wollstonecraft’s Enlightenment hopes long ago having gone up in the smoke of the 20th century’s burning cities and death-camp crematoria—we all must resign ourselves.

If we stand back far enough, we can see the undercurrent that churns up the surface of this modern gendered discourse: the old Platonic and gnostic dream in the west’s theological unconscious of attaining oneness with the alien god outside the corrupt material world. As the Gospel of Thomas concludes, “For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Saying with Chu that every man must make himself female because we don’t believe in heaven anymore amounts to the same conviction, only inverted. Either way, believer or un-, feminist or misogynist, woman is flesh and death, but man is the life of the mind.

I begin an essay on the 20th century’s most influential work of feminist literary theory with the above unpleasantness because Virginia Woolf is so substantially free of it. “Theory” isn’t really the word for A Room of One’s Own (1929), though, and even “essay” is inadequate. It is a kind of dramatized lecture, a one-woman show, an experimental essay-novel. The book’s premise is that its author has been tasked with giving a lecture on “Women and Fiction” to an audience of students in a female college. A Room of One’s Own is this lecture, which, rather than being a systematic series of points and theses, narrates the lecturer’s many and often meandering thoughts on the subject, along with the experiences that led her to arrive at them. Significantly, she tells us her idea for the lecture came to her while she sat by a river:

Thought—to call it by a prouder name than it deserved—had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?

From one of the prime innovators of the modern novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique—itself codified by another Englishwoman, Dorothy Richardson—this emphasis on thought as flowing and fluid is a gendered aesthetic.

Like Richardson before her, Woolf wishes to write a feminine sentence, a sentence true to female experience and perception. Femininity-as-river superficially resembles the main stream (if I may) of feminism as summarized in my essay’s opening, but a modernist like Woolf departs from the Wollstonecraft-to-Chu axis in finding aesthetic satisfaction and intellectual substance in her liquescent movement over the surface of earth, rather than envying the masculine ascent to the heaven of reason. The injustice done to women, on Woolf’s account, is the exclusion of the feminine sensibility and its female bearers from culture’s commanding institutions, controlled as they are by a patriarchy.

For our lecturer is sitting not just by any river but a river in Oxbridge—a conflation of Oxford and Cambridge, standing in for England’s educational and cultural elite—where as a woman she is barred from formal study. She reflects on the wealth that has been expended to build this august institution over almost a millennium, from what she calls the age of faith to the age of reason. She eats an almost decadent lunch in the college and then returns to a much newer and more meagerly equipped female college to eat a coarser dinner.

In the next chapter, she heads to the British Museum to investigate women’s history. There she finds an insurmountable wall of text written about women by men that resolves for her fluid and novelistic imagination into a singular figure bearing a single thesis:

I had been drawing a face, a figure. It was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. He was not in my picture a man attractive to women. He was heavily built; he had a great jowl; to balance that he had very small eyes; he was very red in the face. His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.

She then speculates about the motive for men’s—especially intellectual men’s—murderous misogyny:

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste.

The extent and point of this passage’s irony are hard to discern. It obviously cuts men down to size, and implicitly echoes Wollstonecraft in chastising women for allowing themselves to be exploited in this way by men. But it also anticipates that notorious sentence by our own time’s foremost anti-feminist, Camille Paglia: “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”

Part of Woolf’s psyche—as with the psyches of all artists—reaches back to the night of time when art was magic and we danced to the music of the spheres, not to mention her commitment to the chthonic validity of the riverine feminine. She might, therefore, welcome a wild freedom from masculine civilization. On the other hand, this doyenne of Bloomsbury, who prizes a good library and a good lunch above all, can hardly do without the blessings of civilization. We need, then, some merger of masculine and feminine.

What do women pragmatically need if they want to overcome the patriarchy? Money, she concludes. Later in the book, our lecturer informs the audience why her days are free for writing and study. Her aunt fell off a horse and died in India—we’ll return to the colonial implications in a moment—and left her 500 pounds a year for the rest of her life. Though lecturing in the decade when the women’s suffrage movement triumphed, she concludes that economic freedom is more important than political participation:

Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important. […] 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.

This hard-headed emphasis on the economic leads to the book’s most famous divagation, the fable of Shakespeare’s doomed sister.

[I]t would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.

Alas, poor Judith couldn’t receive her brother’s education in the classics, was thrashed by her father for her ambition, and, when she ran away to join the theater, was sexually exploited by a manager, left pregnant without support, and finally killed herself.

Feminists after Woolf would spend much time recovering occluded female writers from history, but Woolf pitilessly insists that it’s all but impossible for there to have been female writers worth reading in epochs when women lacked economic freedom (this isn’t only a gender problem, since she likewise claims that poor and working-class male writers can’t achieve any real distinction either). No special pleading or literary identity politics for our lecturer; she believes in literary genius, and she believes the injustice done to Shakespeare’s imaginary sister is not that her genius went unrecognized but that it went unrealized. Tracing female literary history forward, however, she arrives in the age of Wollstonecraft:

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.

The female sentence at last comes to birth. Her emphasis on “middle-class,” like her rich aunt’s horseback ride in Bombay, presumably as an adjunct of the colonial administration, stresses that the woman of letters, no less than her male counterpart, will rely for her talent’s development on some persisting inequality in the polis and indeed the cosmopolis. We all know the charge: Woolf is a snob, Woolf is an elitist. But is she lying? Or do we just hate the truth?

Our lecturer keeps up her severe aesthetic standards through the remainder of her historical survey. 18th-century women began to write, and then the 19th century boasted four female writers of genius: Austen, Eliot, and the Brontës. Without female social and economic enfranchisement, however, even these great women had their flaws. She compares Austen to Charlotte Brontë. Austen she regards as a kind of miracle, the true sister of Shakespeare, a universal genius:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

Brontë, on the other hand, could not vault over the legitimate grievance of a suppressed life. In our time, we praise writers for expressing their anger and their social identity, but for Woolf this is a mark of damage, the very sign of disprivilege, and therefore not to be celebrated any more than any other scar is, lest we bless the system that dealt the wound.

One might say, I continued, laying [Jane Eyre] down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.

She also laments that female literary genius so often had to limit itself to fiction, the genre requiring least formal preparation. George Eliot, she claims, would have been better at writing history, and Emily Brontë dramatic poetry. Even allowing for women’s aptitude at novelistic psychology, derived from all those years confined to close observation of character in the drawing room, a liberated class of female authors will write in all genres and perhaps even invent some new ones. In an extended sequence where our lecturer peruses a (fictional) novel by a contemporary female writer, though, she foresees this liberated future, not least because the author, who indites of her heroines the momentous sentence, “Chloe liked Olivia,” writes of female collaboration, friendship, perhaps even amours.

Woolf stresses the beautiful differences between and among men and women rather than taking a certain vision of male ascendancy as the paradigm of the freedom she seeks.

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?

Moreover, she develops a psychology of androgyny—similar to others in the modernist moment, like those of such male novelists and thinkers as Joyce and Jung—in which the plurality of masculine and feminine traits is found not only between but within individual men and women, especially if they are geniuses:

And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties.

She even invents a little parlor game of ranking the great authors for their levels of male and female traits:

One must turn back to Shakespeare then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so were Keats and Sterne and Cowper and Lamb and Coleridge. Shelley perhaps was sexless. Milton and Ben Jonson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoi. In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman. But that failing is too rare for one to complain of it, since without some mixture of the kind the intellect seems to predominate and the other faculties of the mind harden and become barren.

Silly as this may seem, we can tell she has a point by the aptness of her judgments. Who could deny that the misogynist Milton was too male, that the Platonist Shelley was without sex, that Shakespeare—sometimes rumored even to have been a woman—was androgynous?

I wonder how closely this accords with today’s ideology of gender. Obviously, Woolf anticipates our pluralism. But it is difficult to imagine this mobile and playful intellect having much patience for the bureaucratization and formalization of identity that prevails today. One tends to imagine Woolf, like Wilde before her and Foucault after, giggling irrepressibly in one’s face upon being solicited for her pronouns. Woolf was as well a scourge of the psychological and medical professions, so it’s hard to imagine her looking with equanimity upon this subject’s medicalization, the knives and needles of the surgeon encroaching, as I think she would have seen it, on the soul.

And then of course, she believed in art and genius, and knew without apology that she was a genius artist, while our time fraudulently insists upon absolute democracy: the vomitous spectacle of an elite that justifies its ongoing authority with elaborate rituals of false abasement. Better the bitter truth, expressed without shame:

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.

Here is reality and not a flight from it, and pleasure even in its obduracy. What does the river care for the impediment of the stone? She will polish it to a beautiful sculpture—and then wear it to nothing in the end.