In her highly influential critical A Room of Ones Own (1929), Virginial Woolf studied the cultural, economical and educational disabilities within the patriarchal system that prevent women from realising their creative potential. With her imaginary character Judith (Shakespeare’s fictional sister), she illustrated that a woman with Shakespeare’s faculties would have been denied the opportunities that Shakespeare enjoyed. Examining the careers and works of woman authors like Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters, Woolf argued that the patriarchal education system and reading practices condition (or “interpellate,” to use an Althusserian term) women to read from men’s point of view, and make them internalise the aesthetics and literary values created/ adopted by male authors and critics within the patriarchal system — wherein, these values, although male centered are assumed and promoted as universal.
It is in this polemical work, that Woolf suggested that language is gendered, thus inaugurating the language debate, and argued that the woman author, having no other language at her command, is forced to use the sexist/ masculine language. Dale Spender (in her Man Made Language) as well as the French Feminists primarily investigated the gendered nature of language- Helene Cixous (Ecriture Feminine), Julia Kristeva (chora, semiotic language) and Luce lrigaray (Écriture féminine).
Woolf also realized the need for a narrative form to capture the fluid, incoherent female experiences that defy order and rationality; and hence her employment of the stream-of-consciousness technique in her novels, capturing the lives of Mrs Dalloway, Mrs Ramsay and so on. Inspired by the psychological theories of Carl Jung, Woolf also proposed the concept of the androgynous creative mind, which she fictionalised through Orlando, in an attempt to go beyond the male/female binary. She believed that the best artists were always a combination of the man and the woman or “woman-manly” or “man-womanly”.
Woolf was already connecting feminism to anti-fascism in A Room of One’s Own, which addresses in some detail the relations between politics and aesthetics. The book is based on lectures Woolf gave to women students at Cambridge, but its innovatory style makes it read in places like a novel, blurring boundaries between criticism and fiction. It is regarded as the first modern primer for feminist literary criticism, not least because it is also a source of many, often conflicting, theoretical positions. The title alone has had enormous impact as cultural shorthand for a modern feminist agenda. Woolf ’s room metaphor not only signifies the declaration of political and cultural space for women, private and public, but the intrusion of women into spaces previously considered the spheres of men. A Room of One’s Own is not so much about retreating into a private feminine space as about interruptions, trespassing and the breaching of boundaries (Kamuf, 1982: 17). It oscillates on many thresholds, performing numerous contradictory turns of argument (Allen, 1999). But it remains a readable and accessible work, partly because of its playful fictional style: the narrator adopts a number of fictional personae and sets out her argument as if it were a story. In this reader-friendly manner some complicated critical and theoretical issues are introduced. Many works of criticism, interpretation and theory have developed from Woolf’s original points in A Room of One’s Own, and many critics have pointed up the continuing relevance of the book, not least because of its open construction and resistance to intellectual closure (Stimpson, 1992: 164; Laura Marcus, 2000: 241). Its playful narrative strategies have divided feminist responses, most notably prompting Elaine Showalter’s disapproval (Showalter, 1977: 282). Toril Moi’s counter to Showalter’s critique forms the basis of her classic introduction to French feminist theory, Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), in which Woolf’s textual playfulness is shown to anticipate the deconstructive and post-Lacanian theories of Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray.
Although much revised and expanded, the final version of A Room of One’s Own retains the original lectures’ sense of a woman speaking to women. A significant element of Woolf ’s experimental fictional narrative strategy is her use of shifting narrative personae to voice the argument. She anticipates recent theoretical concerns with the constitution of gender and subjectivity in language in her opening declaration that ‘ ‘‘I’’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being . . . (callme Mary Beton, Mary Seton,Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance)’ (Woolf, 1929: 5). And A Room of One’s Own is written in the voice of at least one of these Mary figures, who are to be found in the Scottish ballad ‘The Four Marys’. Much of the argument is ventriloquised through the voice of Woolf’s own version of ‘Mary Beton’. In the course of the book this Mary encounters new versions of the other Marys – Mary Seton has become a student at ‘Fernham’ college, and Mary Carmichael an aspiring novelist – and it has been suggested that Woolf ’s opening and closing remarks may be in the voice of Mary Hamilton (the narrator of the ballad). The multi-vocal, citational A Room of One’s Own is full of quotations from other texts too. The allusion to the Scottish ballad feeds a subtext in Woolf’s argument concerning the suppression of the role of motherhood – Mary Hamilton sings the ballad from the gallows where she is to be hanged for infanticide. (Marie Carmichael, furthermore, is the nom de plume of contraceptive activist Marie Stopes who published a novel, Love’s Creation, in 1928.)
The main argument of A Room of One’s Own, which was entitled ‘Women and Fiction’ in earlier drafts, is that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ (1929: 4). This is a materialist argument that, paradoxically, seems to differ from Woolf’s apparent disdain for the ‘materialism’ of the Edwardian novelists recorded in her key essays on modernist aesthetics, ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919; 1925) and ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924). The narrator of A Room of One’s Own begins by telling of her experience of visiting an Oxbridge college where she was refused access to the library because of her gender. She compares in some detail the splendid opulence of her lunch at a men’s college with the austerity of her dinner at a more recently established women’s college (Fernham). This account is the foundation for the book’s main, materialist, argument: ‘intellectual freedom depends upon material things’ (1929: 141). The categorisation of middle-class women like herself with the working classes may seem problematic, but in A Room of One’s Own Woolf proposes that women be understood as a separate class altogether, equating their plight with the working classes because of their material poverty, even among the middle and upper classes (1929: 73–4).
Woolf’s image of the spider’s web, which she uses as her simile for the material basis of literary production, has become known in literary criticism as ‘Virginia’s web’. It is conceived in the passage where the narrator of A Room of One’s Own begins to consider the apparent dearth of literature by women in the Elizabethan period:
fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in. (1929: 62–3)
According to this analysis, literary materialism may be understood in several different ways. To begin with, the materiality of writing itself is acknowledged: it is physically made, and not divinely given or unearthly and transcendent. Woolf seems to be attempting to demystify the solitary, romantic figure of the (male) poet or author as mystically singled out, or divinely elected. But the idea that a piece of writing is a material object is also connected to a strand of modernist aesthetics concerned with the text as self-reflexive object, and to a more general sense of the concreteness of words, spoken or printed. Woolf’s spider’s web also suggests, furthermore, that writing is a bodily process, physically produced. The observation that writing is ‘the work of suffering human beings’ suggests that literature is produced as compensation for, or in protest against, existential pain and material lack. Finally, in proposing writing as ‘attached to grossly material things’, Woolf is delineating a model of literature as grounded in the ‘real world’, that is in the realms of historical, political and social experience. Such a position has been interpreted as broadly Marxist, but although Woolf ’s historical materialism may ‘gladden the heart of a contemporary Marxist feminist literary critic’, as Miche`le Barrett has noted, elsewhere Woolf, in typically contradictory fashion, ‘retains the notion that in the correct conditions art may be totally divorced from economic, political or ideological constraints’ (Barrett, 1979: 17, 23). Yet perhaps Woolf’s feminist ideal is in fact for women’s writing to attain, not total divorce from material constraints, but only the near-imperceptibility of the attachment of Shakespeare’s plays to the material world, which ‘seem to hang there complete by themselves’ but are nevertheless ‘still attached to life at all four corners’.
As well as underlining the material basis for women’s achieving the status of writing subjects, A Room of One’s Own also addresses the status of women as readers, and raises interesting questions about gender and subjectivity in connection with the gender semantics of the first person. After looking at the difference between men’s and women’s experiences of University, the narrator of A Room of One’s Own visits the British Museum where she researches ‘Women and Poverty’ under an edifice of patriarchal texts, concluding that women ‘have served all these centuries as looking glasses . . . reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size’ (Woolf, 1929: 45). Here Woolf touches upon the forced, subordinate complicity of women in the construction of the patriarchal subject. Later in the book, Woolf offers a more explicit model of this when she describes the difficulties for a woman reader encountering the first person pronoun in the novels of ‘Mr A’: ‘a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’ . . . Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I’ . . . In the shadow of the letter ‘I’ all is shapeless as mist. Is that a tree? No it is a woman’ (1929: 130). For a man to write ‘I’ seems to involve the positioning of a woman in its shadow, as if women are not included as writers or users of the first person singular in language. This shadowing or eliding of the feminine in the representation and construction of subjectivity not only emphasizes the alienation experienced by women readers of male-authored texts, but also suggests the linguistic difficulties for women writers in trying to express feminine subjectivity when the language they have to work with seems to have already excluded them. When the word ‘I’ appears, the argument goes, it is always and already signifying a masculine self.
The narrator of A Room of One’s Own discovers that language, and specifically literary language, is not only capable of excluding women as its signified meaning, but also uses concepts of the feminine itself as signs. Considering both women in history and woman as sign, Woolf’s narrator points out that there is a significant discrepancy between women in the real world and ‘woman’ in the symbolic order (that is, as part of the order of signs in the aesthetic realm):
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 scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband. (1929: 56)
Woolf here emphasizes not only the relatively sparse representation of women’s experience in historical records, but also the more complicated business of how the feminine is already caught up in the conventions of representation itself. How is it possible for women to be represented at all when ‘woman’, in poetry and fiction, is already a sign for something else? In these terms, ‘woman’ is a signifier in patriarchal discourse, functioning as part of the symbolic order, and what is signified by such signs is certainly not the lived, historical and material experience of real women. Woolf understands that this ‘odd monster’ derived from history and poetry, this ‘worm winged like an eagle; the spirit of life and beauty in a kitchen chopping suet’, has ‘no existence in fact’ (1929: 56).
Woolf converts this dual image to a positive emblem for feminist writing, by thinking ‘poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment, thus keeping in touch with fact – that she is Mrs Martin, aged thirty-six, dressed in blue, wearing a black hat and brown shoes; but not losing sight of fiction either – that she is a vessel in which all sorts of spirits and forces are coursing and flashing perpetually’ (1929: 56–7). This dualistic model, combining prose and poetry, fact and imagination is also central to Woolf ’s modernist aesthetic, encapsulated in the term ‘granite and rainbow’, which renders in narrative both the exterior, objective and factual (‘granite’), and the interior, subjective experience and consciousness (‘rainbow’). The modernist technique of ‘Free Indirect Discourse’ practised and developed by Woolf allows for this play between the objective and subjective, between third person and first person narrative.
A Room of One’s Own can be confusing because it puts forward contradictory sets of arguments, not least Woolf’s much-cited passage on androgyny, which has been influential on later deconstructive theories of gender. Her narrator declares: ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex’ (1929: 136) and a model of writerly androgyny is put forward, derived from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work:
one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman . . . Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be accomplished. (1929: 136)
Shakespeare, the poet playwright, is Woolf ’s ideal androgynous writer. She lists others – all men – who have also achieved androgyny (Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb, and Proust – the only contemporary). But if the ideal is for both women and men to achieve androgyny, elsewhere A Room of One’s Own puts the case for finding a language that is gendered – one appropriate for women to use when writing about women.
One of the most controversial of Woolf ’s speculations in A Room of One’s Own concerns the possibility of an inherent politics in aesthetic form, exemplified by the proposition that literary sentences are gendered. A Room of One’s Own culminates in the prophecy of a woman poet to equal or rival Shakespeare: ‘Shakespeare’s sister’. But in collectively preparing for her appearance, women writers need to develop aesthetic form in several respects. In predicting that the aspiring novelist Mary Carmichael ‘will be a poet . . . in another hundred years’ time’ (1929: 123), Mary Beton seems to be suggesting that prose must be explored and exploited in certain ways by women writers before they can be poets. She also finds fault with contemporary male writers, such as Mr A who is ‘protesting against the equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority’ (1929: 132). She sees this as the direct result of women’s political agitation for equality: ‘The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame’ (1929: 129). She raises further concerns about politics and aesthetics when she comments on the aspirations of the Italian Fascists for a poet worthy of fascism: ‘The Fascist poem, one may fear, will be a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar in the museum of some county town’ (1929: 134). Yet if the extreme patriarchy of fascism cannot produce poetry because it denies a maternal line, Woolf argues that women cannot write poetry either until the historical canon of women’s writing has been uncovered and acknowledged. Nineteenth-century women writers experienced great difficulty because they lacked a female tradition: ‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’ (1929: 99). They therefore lacked literary tools suitable for expressing women’s experience. The dominant sentence at the start of the nineteenth century was ‘a man’s sentence . . . It was a sentence that was unsuited for women’s use’ (1929: 99–100).
Woolf ’s assertion here, through Mary Beton, that women must write in gendered sentence structure, that is develop a feminine syntax, and that ‘the book has somehow to be adapted to the body’ (1929: 101) seems to contradict the declaration that ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex’. She identifies the novel as ‘young enough’ to be of use to the woman writer: ‘No doubt we shall find her knocking that into shape for herself . . . and providing some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. For it is the poetry that is still denied outlet. And I went on to ponder how a woman nowadays would write a poetic tragedy in five acts’ (1929: 116). Now the goal of A Room of One’s Own has shifted from women’s writing of fictional prose to poetry, the genre Woolf finds women least advanced in, while ‘poetic tragedy’ is Shakespeare’s virtuoso form and therefore the form to which ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ should aspire.Woolf ’s speculations on feminine syntax anticipate the more recent exploration of écriture féminine by French feminists such as Cixous. Woolf ’s interest in the body and bodies, in writing the body, and in the gender and positionality thereof, anticipates feminist investigations of the somatic, and has been understood as materialist, deconstructive and phenomenological (Doyle, 2001). Woolf’s interest in matters of the body also fuels the sustained critique, in A Room of One’s Own, of ‘reason’, or masculinist rationalism, as traditionally disembodied and antithetical to the (traditionally feminine) material and physical.
A Room of One’s Own is concerned not only with what form of literary language women writers use, but also with what they write about. Inevitably women themselves constitute a vital subject matter for women writers. Women writers will need new tools to represent women properly. The assertion of woman as both the writing subject and the object of writing is reinforced in several places: ‘above all, you must illumine your own soul’ (Woolf, 1929: 117), Mary Beton advises. The ‘obscure lives’ (1929: 116) of women must be recorded by women. The example supplied is Mary Carmichael’s novel which is described as exploring women’s relationships with each other. A Room of One’s Own was published shortly after the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and in the face of this Woolf flaunts a blatantly lesbian narrative: ‘if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been’ (1929: 109). Her refrain, ‘Chloe likes Olivia’, has become a critical slogan for lesbian writing. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf makes ‘coded’ references to lesbian sexuality in her account of Chloe and Olivia’s shared ‘laboratory’ (Woolf, 1929: 109; Marcus, 1987: 152, 169), and she calls for women’s writing to explore lesbianism more openly and for the narrative tools to make this possible.
One of the most controversial and contradictory passages in A Room of One’s Own concerns Woolf’s positioning of black women. Commenting on the sexual and colonial appetites of men, the narrator concludes: ‘It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her’ (1929: 65). A number of feminist critics have questioned the relevance of Woolf’s feminist manifesto for the experience of black women (Walker, 1985: 2377), and have scrutinised this sentence in particular (Marcus, 2004: 24–58). In seeking to distance women from imperialist and colonial practices, Woolf disturbingly excludes black women here from the very category of women. This has become the crux of much contemporary feminist debate concerning the politics of identity. The category of women both unites and divides feminists: white middle-class feminists, it has been shown, cannot speak for the experience of all women; and reconciliation of universalism and difference remains a key issue. ‘Women – but are you not sick to death of the word?’ Woolf retorts in the closing pages of A Room of One’s Own, ‘I can assure you I am’ (Woolf, 1929: 145). The category of women is not chosen by women, it represents the space in patriarchy from which women must speak and which they struggle to redefine.
Another contradictory concept in A Room of One’s Own is ‘Shakespeare’s sister’, a figure who represents the possibility that there will one day be a woman writer to match the status of Shakespeare, who has come to personify literature itself. ‘Judith Shakespeare’ stands for the silenced woman writer or artist. But to seek to mimic the model of the individual masculine writing subject may also be considered part of a conservative feminist agenda. On the other hand, Woolf seems to defer the arrival of Shakespeare’s sister in a celebration of women’s collective literary achievement – ‘I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals’ (1929 148–9). Shakespeare’s sister is a messianic figure who ‘lives in you and in me’ (1929: 148) and who will draw ‘her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners’ (1929: 149), but has yet to appear. She may be the common writer to Woolf’s ‘common reader’ (a term she borrows from Samuel Johnson), but she has yet to ‘put on the body which she has so often laid down’ (1929: 149). A Room of One’s Own closes with this contradictory model of individual achievement and collective effort.
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Woolf, Virginia (1929), A Room of One’s Own, London: Hogarth.
Main Source: Plain, Gill, and Susan Sellers. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Categories: Gender Studies