A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is quite wholly unlike what I expected it to be. Judging from its reputation, I expected a fiery tract, an impassioned plea, a manifesto. But this is, rather, an exquisitely calm, delicate, and delightful work of writing. Considering that these adjectives also serve to describe Woolf’s fiction, maybe I should not be so surprised after all. Woolf was above all a writer; and it is the extraordinarily fine quality of its writing that makes this essay a classic work.

Woolf’s fundamental argument is simple: Writing literature requires education, experience, time, privacy, and independence. Historically, women lacked access to all of these things; so it should be expected that there are comparatively few classic women writers. Woolf regards this as a shame—not because of the human suffering involved, but because of the aesthetic privation. Women simply write differently than men, Woolf thinks, and by depriving women of the means to write, we are depriving ourselves of a wholly different sort of literature. Thus, Woolf frames women’s emancipation in rather materialistic terms (“a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year”), and gives an ultimately aesthetic ground for doing so. It is a curious argument.

For any lovers of reading (and I assume there are lots of us here), it is compelling to think of the many poems, plays, and novels that were never written because huge portions of the population were deprived of the appropriate means to write them. Woolf brings this out with the famous example of Judith Shakespeare, the Bard’s equally talented sister who was never able to write a word.

As poignant as this example is, however, ultimately I do not think it is wise to ground an argument for women’s emancipation along aesthetic lines. If the premise to Woolf’s argument were correct, then we should be simply swimming in masterpieces nowadays. Yet I frankly doubt that the 2020s will, in 100 years, be considered a better decade for literature than the 1920s. After all, Woolf herself lived in the 1920s—and I doubt we can match her.

In any case, I do not think this essay stands or falls on the merit of Woolf’s arguments alone. Better yet, I do not think it should be evaluated as an argument at all. It is, rather, a sort of literary clarion call; and if it has inspired even one woman to take up the pen, then I think it has accomplished its purpose. Personally, I found the writing so intoxicatingly good, and Woolf’s sense of aesthetic value so overpowering, that I was myself driven back to the writing desk. Lucky for me, I have a room of my own, too—though it is rather small.

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One thought on “Review: A Room of One’s Own

  1. I love Woolf’s writing. Thanks for the thoughtful review of one of a piece that is a favorite of mine. As a woman writer I ponder what she said frequently because I see it in action in the lives of my women writer friends. In my observation, women are not as emancipated as we might hope. The majority must wait until they are retired to have time to write. The work of parenthood and household tasks still fall predominantly to women, according to studies in the US. That is most often in addition to their career. Here’s to the means, the time and the space for women writers to continue to expand. -Rebecca


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