Virginia Woolf’s famous non-fiction treatise on ‘Women and Fiction’, A Room of One’s Own, is an embarrassingly prescient text about the limitations forced by both gender and class. Woolf writes her piece addressing young, educated women, and her ultimate point is that it is impossible for anyone to be a successful writer without possessing both a personal income of £500* and a private and lockable room that may be kept free of distractions.
Women, Woolf writes in 1928, have almost never had these opportunities. Married women, until as late as 1880, could not legally own property, and women had only been given the vote nine years before Woolf was writing. Her world was quite clearly and dramatically patriarchal, but the after-effects of the First World War meant that issues about gender were in the public eye, particularly in the public intellectual eye.
Woolf quotes scholars and professors (contemporary and from her past) making scathing and godawfully misogynistic comments, she describes a day spent in the British Museum Reading Room** looking at books about women – almost all of them by men – and being shocked by the only gradual increase of female names in the author column of the chronological catalogue. Woolf researched heavily and expostulates on all manner of inequalities – the affluence of all the Romantic poets, for example, the education required to be literate that wasn’t normal for women until hundreds of years after it was normal for men, how many centuries had to pass before universities set up colleges for women, how difficult (if not impossible) it was for women to be accepted in any trade anywhere, and thus how low the likelihood was that they could become wealthy and set up charities and institutions to benefit other women. This last one is less of an issue now, but far too many of the comments made by Woolf are as relevant today as they were ninety years ago. And that is embarrassing.
British society is allegedly becoming more elitist, and I don’t know if this is because things are slipping back towards the Victorian world Woolf is decrying, or if society never did become more equal, ever…
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf offers beautiful descriptions of the places she goes to as she thinks, and offers contrite, referenced, thoughtful opinions. This is an intriguing and readable book on a topic that is as important today as it was a century ago. That’s not good, but this piece is. It’s not man-hating, anti-society misandry, it is measured, reasoned feminism asking, not demanding, for women to be given an equal chance to try and do everything that men are able to try and do. And I think that’s reasonable.
A good, serious, read.
* I’m guessing that figure would now be higher.
** Which was the British Library before the British Library existed.