Virgina claims that money and a room of one’s own are required for a woman to write fiction; since women do not have a history of access to either, it is impossible to know anything about women, nor what they would write. Without these preconditions, they have never had the opportunity to do so. She shows that women have never had their own place to learn by outlining a fictionalized trip to a men’s and women’s college. At Oxbridge, the men’s college, scholars and guards prevent “Mary Seton” from accessing the lawn, which is meant only for Fellows and Scholars. By doing so and showing her the correct path for a woman (a gravel path), he circumvents her train of thought. The peace of her surroundings calms her irritation, and she has the idea to head to the library to examine the manuscript of Lycidas, as well as Thackeray’s Esmond, in order to determine for herself if Milton’s words were perfect, and why Thackeray changed the style of his novel to imitate 18th Century works. Again, the “guardian angel” of knowledge dismisses her – she is not allowed to enter the library without a letter of permission or a chaperone. Without access to any of the buildings on campus, she cannot develop her thoughts past a nascent state.
When she head to the church, she realizes the significance of money to creative/intellectual endeavors. Instead of bothering the priests with her presence, she observes that monarch’s money had paid for the church buildings themselves; they had also founded the college to train priests and scholars. This material condition was necessary to build a congregation and a cadre of theologians. As the Enlightenment dawned, industrialists continued to build the college and develop secular knowledge. The industrialists used the university to develop subsequent generations of scientists and merchants, who re-invested their fortunes into the college. These privileged spaces facilitated the development of various fields of specialized knowledge; the educated then took their knowledge out into the world to earn money, which they then re-invested to develop these spaces, and increase knowledge. However, only the relatively few men who had access to these spaces could benefit from membership to these academic clubs. She goes on to note that even the opulent meal facilitated “rational discourse,” if not necessarily genius.
Throughout her journey, her beliefs about what was actually possible in the world at her moment in time are revealed as illusions. When she notices a Manx cat paused “in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe,” she realizes that something is not quite right about the situation. Before the war, such conversation had an undercurrent of romance. She quotes Tennyson and Rossetti to mimic an interlude between a man and a woman; they wait with longing for one another to return. The war had shattered many ideals: that lovers would return unchanged, women’s illusion that education could save the world (the politicians who planned the war were educated). Romance’s death had left disquietude in its wake. Although such ideals are inspiring, she laments the passing of these as experience reveals that some dreams simply cannot come to pass in the real world: “the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”
She examines the relative poverty of the women’s college, Fernham, to show what actually is true for women aspiring to become educated in her day. Women’s obligations in the private sphere combined with their lack of independent wealth prevented them from thinking and competing at the same level as men. From the unappetizing meal of soup and prunes, to the hurried atmosphere of the dinner itself (there was no time or interest in rational discourse here), the unstable material circumstances of this college failed to facilitate rational discourse. Only uncertain conclusions were possible in this space. Comparing the strong material and intellectual foundations of the men’s college with the insubstantial resources of the women’s college, both the narrator and her colleague become frustrated by “the reprehensible poverty of our sex.” While Oxbridge flourished, the founders of Fernham could barely scrape together 30,000 pounds to establish the school. If their foremothers had gone into business instead of forming overly large families they could not sustain, they could have left legacies to their daughters. Their daughters in turn could have built educational institutions and careers of their own. Instead of lamenting the poverty of their sex, they could be engaging in the same discussions as the men of their day. However, it is difficult to place blame for this unequal situation; their foremother’s poverty wasn’t really their fault. They had little opportunity to earn wealth and were only recently entitled to keep what they did earn; no wonder they decided against engaging in fruitless efforts in the business world in favour of child rearing. The restrictions of the past and present era conspired to create and perpetuate inequality. This insubstantial institution was the best women could hope for under such circumstances.
Throughout her wanderings, she comes to realize that poverty influences one’s intellectual capabilities. Without material resources and spaces to peruse knowledge, one can never fulfill their intellectual potential. Without money, they will be too consumed by the survival imperative to create works of great genius; instead, they will simply be focused on what they lack and will struggle daily just to get by. Without space, they lack the opportunity to engage in discourse with like minds. Women’s historical lack of money and space in turn prevented an intellectual tradition from ever forming and perpetuating itself.
What was the reality for women of her day? They could no longer believe in romantic ideals. Dependence on a lover could ever make their dreams come true; and the horrors of the war put the lie to any notion that this was a rational era. They could no longer believe that education necessarily brought honor, since the most educated men of her time orchestrated the war. It was also true that women lacked the opportunity to live up to their own potentials; it was impossible to know exactly what women were capable of achieving without the preconditions of money, space, and tradition. In her journeys, she discovers that romance was dead, and poverty corrupts the mind. Those most likely to be poor, women, were also most likely to be intellectually corrupt and believe in false notions. In a time of disillusionment, it was now up to her, and women themselves, to discover the truth for themselves.