Speaking Volumes: A Room of One's Own

April 19, 1996

Marion Shaw on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own .

I first read this book in the mid-1960s, soon after I graduated and nearly 40 years after it was first published. I cannot remember who first of all said to me "You must read . . ."; it was certainly not my Bloomsbury-hating teachers at university. However it came about, suddenly I and thousands of other women were reading it, and later generations of women have gone on reading it. It became a talismanic text. For my own part, I seemed unable for years to write anything without using a quotation from it; it was a touchstone, a good luck charm, a liberator of thought, an exhortation.

In general terms I was awoken theoretically to feminism by Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. That used literary examples to demonstrate women's dependent and inauthentic condition but it did not do the reverse; it did not use feminist thought and feeling to explore literary texts and literary questions. It was A Room of One's Own which did that. It asked such questions as, why do women not write more? Is there a female style? What is the effect on women writers of their poverty, dependency, and lack of education? It also, in what still seems to me to be an immensely daring connection in the context of interwar sentimentalism about sex, suggested that romantic love, for all the beauty and seductiveness of its utterances, is intimately related to war because it encourages and is the product of highly differentiated notions of masculinity and femininity.

In so many respects it is an originating text. The main thrusts of its argument are those which subsequent feminist criticism has developed. It already almost said it all, almost all that socialist feminism, gynocriticism and French feminism will go on to say: that the conditions of a writer's life are profoundly important ("intellectual freedom depends on material things"), that a writer needs a tradition ("we think back through our mothers if we are women" and the problem for women is that their mothers have been poor and unlettered), and that women should write like women (and we do not know quite what that means except that "the expected order" of language, the sentence of Johnson, Goethe, Carlyle and Voltaire, must be broken, "the resources of the English language . . . much put to the stretch"). And also that women's writing must break free of the romance plot, into a more various and complicated conception of women's lives.

What, however, is most compelling about A Room of One's Own is its manner of writing. It is a polymorphous text. It is playful, rambling, pointed, affectionate, venomous, entrapping, open-ended, a celebration and an elegy. It is also angry, and in this it disobeys its own rules about writing calmly, wisely and wittily. But I find this moving, these gusts of anger which shake and distort the brilliance of its surface.

Most often they are edited in as the words of others, for example, when she quotes a Mr John Langden Davies who has written, as one would, A Short History of Women: "[he] warns women 'that when children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary'". "I hope you will make a note of it," Woolf adds, and, indeed, we have noted it.

The most famous image of A Room of One's Own is that of Shakespeare's talented sister, Judith, who died young and never wrote a word. Woolf promises that if the material conditions can be got right, and the work and the courage are sufficient, she will come among us in another century or so. But we do not need to wait so long, or even at all. Surely Woolf is Judith Shakespeare and A Room of One's Own is both her tribute to "the unknown who were her forerunners" and an example and provocation to those who come after?

Marion Shaw is professor of English, Loughborough University.

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