Reflections on “A Room of One’s Own”

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolfe’s employs a narrative of her travels throughout London articulate her explanation for the paucity of female writers throughout history, and the lack of great masterpieces among those that did have the opportunity to set pen to paper. She argues that women have never engaged in creative projects because throughout history, they have consistently lacked appropriate space, sufficient material resources, and the social support necessary to become geniuses. Although Woolfe idealizes the act of creation as a path towards transcendence, for women in particular the creative process as a consistent struggle against one’s own intellectual and emotional limitations, as well as material constraints. In this essay, I will outline Woolfe’s opinions regarding the preconditions to creativity, and the significance of favorable external circumstances to finding one’s own voice. I found her discussion about the importance of confidence and material stability in the creative process to be particularly illuminating in terms of my own experiences as a writer; her observations have confirmed some of my suspicions about why this has been a personal struggle. Since writing is such an integral component of academic work, I identified with the difficulties inherent to finding one’s own voice, yet I agree with Woolfe’s assertion the struggle is necessary for the development of culture and is worthwhile on an individual level as well. Woolfe’s analysis of the creative difficulties faced by women is as relevant today as it was in her time.

By discussing female writers of the past, Woolfe illuminates the effects of that intangible quality of confidence on the creative process; one must have a strong belief in themselves before they can even attempt to create. Studying in empty libraries until the late hours of the morning can feel like a lonely process even one is not actively discouraged from undertaking such projects; Woolfe herself understands how writing can seem futile when the wider culture doesn’t take one’s views seriously. However, in Woolfe’s time male writers, as well as many women, mocked intelligent women or encouraged them to graciously accept their inferiority. The pressure and rewards of conforming to such opinions would have been close to impossible to avoid, and it would have been easy to lose oneself in the midst of such animosity. In the present time, it is still difficult for women to achieve material wealth and enjoy creative freedom, but our culture tends to accept that women will make the effort and often encourages this. One can take the present situation for granted quite easily. Woolfe unapologetically admonishes women who fail to take advantage of the opportunities they do have to learn and create. Although her lecture may be a bit unfair to women then and now that still struggle to become materially independent, as a writer I appreciated how strongly she believed in women’s capacity to make that commitment to themselves. Many of the precursors necessary to independence are difficult for women to obtain, since some material circumstances are beyond individual women’s control (her treatment of class is limited to that extent; not many women are fortunate enough to receive an inheritance, and structural conditions inhibit women’s earning potential). However, it’s worthwhile to remember that despite circumstances, women can access an inner resolve that can help them through the difficult process of creation. This opinion resonates with my experience; although social support is important, I have learned that I ultimately have to believe in what I do if I am going to create anything that might matter to others. I appreciate how she respects women enough to ask them to take responsibility for their art; if women can choose to believe in themselves, they can move beyond feeling victimized by circumstance and create their own reality instead.

I found it difficult to reconcile Woolfes idea of “feminine knowledge” with her emphasis on elemental truth. By encouraging women to write of their experiences with integrity, Woolfe attempts to revalue women’s experiences, perhaps to inspire confidence among her contemporaries. She catalogues the unexplored corners of women’s experience with excitement, and even argues that if given enough time, women writers would eventually develop their own language and literary devices to articulate their experiences and perspectives. But as long as a mind retained any semblance of a “gendered” perspective, it would seem to lack the objectivity that Woolfe admires in the writing of Shakespeare or Austen. With her notion of the androgynous mind, she appears to argue that there are at least two essential truths, masculine and feminine, that achieve “incandescence” only when tempered with attributes of the opposite sex. But her argument leads to a differentiation of the sexes on an epistemological basis, instead of a union. She also suggests that women’s increasing material prosperity and independence would enhance the development of a separate form of feminine knowledge, literature and communication techniques; yet women and men would discard the sex-consciousness that she feels limited artistic work of her time. Men and women of the future would think differently, but they would not be so concerned with justifying themselves. History since her time seems to indicate that this is not the case; women who enter the public sphere may achieve material success, but they still struggle to maintain their integrity in a world built on masculine values. Sex-consciousness is at least as relevant for both genders today as it was in her time. If the androgynous mind can most accurately apprehend truth, our culture has yet to develop a method for both genders to move past their own particular prejudices, despite the affluence of our culture in general. Perhaps this is a result of the inequalities that remain; the material condition of women has improved, but perhaps not enough to move beyond the phase of mutual animosity between the genders.

Her idea of transcendence is a form of unity that respects differences in perspectives and experience among men and women. Although our culture hasn’t achieved this ideal, the possibility that women can achieve creative success and maintain their sense of self is an attractive promise. She encourages her contemporaries to believe that their experiences and ideas have an important relationship with a deeper truth. It’s unfortunate that such a positive evaluation of women’s experiences is still so necessary within our culture today. She acknowledges the difficulties of maintaining integrity within an apathetic or hostile culture; her examination of the resulting inner struggle resonated with me. Until one is materially independent it is easy to unconsciously fear the disapproval of caretakers and confidantes, and take that fear into all of life’s activities. Writing in particular can be particularly emotionally problematic if a person lives in such fear; in my experience writing has become a way to become aware of those internal limitations and change those beliefs. Woolfe addresses process of self-awareness when she contemplates the limitations of women’s work, and notices how her perspective towards men changed when she became materially self-sufficient. She became less angry and resentful, and acknowledged men for their humanity. But confidence and self-respect are so integral to understanding; until one accepts their own humanity they cannot begin to appreciate another’s. In my opinion, this is one of Woolfe’s most profound insights; you cannot even begin to apprehend elemental or historical truths until you truly believe you are an important part of this reality.

Woolfe’s work has some limitations; for example she claims that the English woman is so insignificant that no one would even want to “civilize” a black woman according to that standard. That comment seemed racist, but her analysis of gender and class disparities suggests a writer who was attempting to look beyond the limitations of her culture. Although she didn’t always succeed, her analyses of gender and class disparities were often insightful. By applying these insights to the creative process, the limitations of gendered understandings and class experiences seem personally relevant. She speaks as a woman who genuinely understands the struggle to create and achieve freedom from one’s illusions, and suggests that this is possible – but only if one is willing to fully invest their heart and spirit into the process.

We are developing a history, discovering who we are through our work.

Women are now using the written word as an art form, not simply a way to express ourselves and vent our frustrations.  By the early 20th Century, women have become prolific; we’ve gone beyond the realm of the personal/relational (embodied by the novel – our own autobiographies), and into poems, plays, biographies, histories, philosophy, science.

She writes her own review; this book (Mary Carmicheal’s Life’s Adventures) follows in a series starting from the works of Afra Ben.What is her command of language? Does she have an axe to grind or is she creating?  Woolfe feels she is to concise; she may be limiting her expression because she is afraid of being called overly sentimental (judged as a woman).  She is too abrupt, too factual, but she is allowed this if this is all going to amount to something profound. So she waits for that to occur… and uncovers an intimate relationship between women! She’s onto something here.

She notices that all relationships between women portrayed in literature up to this point have lacked complexity.  Women in fiction are almost always portrayed with respect to their relationships with men, as if these are the only complicated relationships women ever have in their lives. Conversely, this is also why women have been portrayed in such extremes – beautiful or vile – because they are presented as their male lovers see them. Even novelists such as Proust portrays complicated women, but the female characters still lack depth for the same reason.  If were only ever seen through the emotionally biased perspective of love, portrayed only as lovers of women, so much of what is interesting about them would be obscured. So to for women – there are worlds we have yet to uncover in literature as a result.

Carmicheal is giving us a glimpse into a worlds we haven’t seen – women’s professional lives, and their relationships with one another that have nothing to do with men. This is a moment in history, and this is where Carmicheal has to “take the plunge” and portray this scene with integrity. But since the world of women is so unknown, how can we even judge whether or not she has portrayed it accurately? What is considered “success” in our world is the achievements of men – but men and women live in two different worlds. We cannot just the world of women by the standards of success set within a male world.

So how do we judge the work of women? The same way we judge the work of men. Do you illuminate the unseen corners of the world, not simply cataloguing what you find there, but in order to reveal more elemental truths? Do you reveal what this means to you, in your own (gendered) language? Both genders must use their unique creativity – nurtured and encouraged through discourse with one another. They must show us how and what they see in their world, but not simply catalogue them. They must reflect – tell us what this world means to you. By exploring our worlds through literature, we can learn about ourselves.

By revealing their own perspectives, they will also reveal insights into the peculiarities of the other sex. Brave writers employ their “outsider’s perspective” to illuminate the “dark places” in the worlds they do not occupy. Male writers have illustrated the shortcomings of women, and female writers can articulate the shortcomings that men have but cannot see.  This isn’t to be done in a spiteful way, but it’s neccessary if one is to articulate the full truth.

Women writers currently enjoy benefits their predecessors did not – a measure of intellectual and financial independence borne of their nascent literary tradition and relative material gains. Even a woman with less natural genius will still be able to bring the benefits of independence into her work – she’ll be less bitter, and have more experiences to draw from.  She’ll reveal more about what it means to be a women when she isn’t self-conscious about it, dragging her gender around like a ball and chain as she writes. Carmicheal’s work achieves this – she writes with a freedom and joy, and exudes sexuality in her work.

She even manages to avoid criticism, refusing to apologize for her gender as she ties all of the lose ends of her story together and articulates the deeper meaning of her narrative. However, Virginia doubts that she can maintain this integrity in the face of obstacles that still stand in her way – critics, and lack of money and idleness all prevent her longevity.

But this is an admirable start. Let’s see what women can achieve in a hundred year’s time.

Anger is the stumbling block on the path to transcendence (Chapter 4)

In the late 1600’s to mid-1700’s, women begin to speak for themselves. The earliest female writers were upper-class women, who wrote poetry in solitude. Although these women were not actively discouraged from writing as a middle-class woman might have been, she believes their poetry is limited by their bitterness over the status of women at that time. In 1661, Lady Winchilsea writes about the difficulty of overcoming one’s fear of the “opposing faction” ie, men.  Writing from a place of victimization, she expresses a sense of defeat, frustration, and resentment.  Despite her talent, uncultivated as it may have been, she was criticized by contemporaries and professional poets for even attempting to do something so far outside her station. As a result, she experience melancholy. The temperamental Duchess of Newcastle also wrote poetry; similarly, she had the passion and the raw talent, but since she wrote in solitude (without guidance or encouragement) her work falters.  She too experienced mental health problems.

Since such women faced ostracism and mental health problems, other talented female writers would not even attempt to write creatively. The letters of Dorothy Osbourne show a talent for narrative. However, since she has internalized some of the criticisms leveled at female writers during her day she does not see the Duchess’ novels to be worthwhile endeavors, and would never attempt the task herself.

Although upper-class women exhibited uncultivated talent, it was up to middle-class women to vindicate women authors when they discovered that they could earn money by writing. Aphra Ben was the first female writer to make money off of her works; she was forced to rely on her wits when her husband died. It is significant that she actually made enough to live on by doing so.  The fact that this was now possible discredited the criticisms of well-meaning parents and husbands, who would discourage daugthers and wives from writing because it supposedly limited their opportunities in life. She dismisses such parents/husbands as “whimsical despots;” they claim that these women would struggle to take care of themselves when they would likely rise to the occasion if given half a chance. In the example of Lord and Lady Dudley, she suggests such “concern” is really the result of the caretaker’s sense of vanity, not a sense of responsibility to a loved one.

By the late 18th Century, female authors/translators/essayists were prolific because writing had become practical.  Instead of writing in solitude, masses of women wrote. Unlike in the 16th Century, the time of Shakespeare’s sister, a community of female writers and a tradition of woman-authored work had emerged with the work of Aphra Ben, and now was thriving. For the first time in history, female writers could refer to a literary tradition, as male writers had for hundreds of years previously. They could also support one another in their endeavors. Because of the foundation laid by writers such as Aphra Ben, it was not unrealistic for a women to earn a living as a writer by the early 20th century.

The material conditions of middle class women influenced their preference for the novel as a literary format. These women still didn’t have a place of their own. They worked in drawing rooms, and were constantly interrupted in their work. Therefore they chose a format that required less concentration than a play or poetry.  Education and family responsibilities informed subject matter. Their training encouraged the development of emotional intelligence, and they readily observed relationships within their family life, so they wrote about what they knew. Jane Austen was comparable to Shakespeare in her expression of the human condition; unlike lesser (and earlier) writers, her circumstances are not directly obvious within the content of her work; she is not simply writing as a reaction to unfair conditions. If her work was limited, it was only because she lacked mobility.

Comparing Austen’s work to Charlotte Bronte’s, she claims Bronte’s is weaker because she explicitly explains her indignation about the limitations of her conditon as a woman. Jane Eyre laments her lack of freedom, and questions the men who would ask her to settle for a stifled existence that they would reject. Bronte is “in revolt against her lot” and she expresses her discontent through the character of Jane Eyre. Woolfe feels that this anger disrupts the continuity of the work, it brings in an editorial perspective that is inappropriate within the context of that work.

However, through this character Bronte accurately reflects the condition of women at the time; she realizes that her intellect was limited because she lacked the opportunity to engage in discourse with like minds, traveling and collecting experiences. Women such as George Eliot were criticized for living the vagabond’s lifestyle, while male writers such as Tolstoy traveled, explored, and lived in sin with impunity. She argues that if he had lived the secluded married life recommended for women, he never would have acquired the perspective necessary to create War and Peace. More often than not, women live this way, and thier work suffers for want of a broader perspective.

Novels are constructed of subjected experiences, and interpreted/judged by subjective readers – yet novelists with integrity can convince us that they are speaking of the Truth, even if the emotions/characters/situations/themes playing out in the novel do not resemble/confirm a reader’s biases. Novels with integrity allow us to perceive the greater Truths of which we are only vaguely aware otherwise. This is why novels such as War and Peace resonate strongly, while others come close to brilliance, but do not convince us of their truths entirely.

Sex influences the integrity of a novel when an female author, aware that she is writing of situations/experiences/characters that are not valued within our culture responds to such criticism within her work – either by conceding to opinions of women’s inferiority, or protesting that they are as good as men (this is reminiscent of what Ashley was saying about Nietzsche and the victim mentality). The subject matter and form of the novel necessarily puts a novelist at odds with conventional masculine values, and it is the task of that author not to concede to such values if they want to have integrity. By conceding or protesting, they are admitting that they are lacking; by ignoring the criticsm and writing their truths AS WOMEN, they act with integrity.

She seems to be arguing something different here than before on a couple of fronts – in chapter one she says artists are especially sensitive to criticism and require support; here she is advising women to ignore what others think.  She also seems to argue that a transcendent, genderless perspective (like Shakespeare’s) is required to create works of true genius – but here she is telling women to write about female experiences without apology; later on she also claims that women would likely develop their own form of literature (like the novel) once they become more adept with literary techniques and develop their own. I think it’s not so much the “gendered” perspective that prevents women (and men) from achieving transcendence in their work – but the filter of emotion and animosity towards the other sex that prevent them from writing accurately about that sex or the world in general. They can write about injustice, but if that is all she can write about, her perspective is narrow and misses the mark of Truth.  Women and men value different things, so their subject matter and form will differ. As long as women are always somehow apologizing for being women, or trying to be men, they will fall short of capturing Truth as they see it.

influence of sex on literature (Bronte) – novel has a looking-glass resemblance to life

– she uses the novel as a platform to air her own grievances (frustration due to being confined in the home when she would prefer to travel) – view of Truth likely to be bogged down by resentment and subjectivities

-ignorance – her fear and bitterness towards men evident in character of Rochester

-men and women have different values and experiences – so subject matter will differ. Because women’s values are not the norm, female authors often apologize for their inadequacies or try to prove themselves. Here lies the shortcomings of many female authors – they lack the integrity to speak of the truth as they see it, public opinion and the rewards of submitting to it be damned. In the face of pressure, it would have been difficult for women to have such integrity (back to the point about artists being particularly sensitive to criticism).

-lack of a literary tradition

Men have a strong tradition, but it is useless for a woman to try to appropriate their techniques because they think and percieve the world so differently. The techniques of men (sentences, particular literary forms) were developed for their own purposes; women need to develop their own tools in order to express their views.  The novel was an effective format for women because it was so new – these writers could mould the novel into whatever shape they wanted. In the future, they would likely develop it further or abandon it altogether for more appropriate modes of expression.

The form of expression has to suit the conditions of the artist – so anything a woman will create must be precise and concentrated to allow for interruptions. Women also learn differently than men – lecture formats men devised might not be appropriate for women; men and women would also benefit from different work habits. Of course, the particular psychology of women had yet to be discovered by academics.