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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #98: A Room of One’s Own

woolfMen know that women are an overmatch for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or the most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves.

—Samuel Johnson


Virginia Woolf and I did not much like each other on our first meeting. It was junior year of high school, and when my English teacher gave us a choice of novels I picked To the Lighthouse. Her characters did much too much mooning about, stewing in their own selfish concerns. How that book exasperated me!

This time around I am older and therefore more patient, and so I revel in the product of Woolf’s rich and fertile mind even when she cannot seem to finish a paragraph. This is not just a book to inspire women writers; it is a book for writers and readers and thinkers of both sexes.

I’d always assumed A Room of One’s Own was a sort of manifesta, and if it is, it was written in the very highest spirit of feminism. The only men Virginia Woolf ridicules are those pompous middle-aged professors of her day, who try a little too strenuously to assert their intellectual superiority (see also epigraph). Lesser male writers, she says, are preoccupied with themselves, while lesser female writers cannot write without concern for the expectations and opinions of others. Genius is not something we can only admire in rich white men, though Woolf recognizes and reveres it in the great writers of the past who happened to come of privileged backgrounds. Women writers have just as much potential for greatness, so long as they possess what Coleridge called an “incandescent mind”: a mind free of all bitterness and distraction. This, of course, is the tricky part–the reason this book needed writing, and why A Room of One’s Own is just as relevant today as it was in 1928.

The reason perhaps why we know so little of Shakespeare–compared with Donne or Ben Jonson or Milton–is that his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. We are not held up by some ‘revelation’ which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded…it was Shakespeare’s mind.

As for the necessity of an independent income and a lock on the door to one’s own work room, you know I’m a fan of Bukowski’s air and light and time and space–the gist being that an artist creates regardless of circumstances. But Woolf makes a good point, quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in The Art of Writing: “What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne…of all these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do.” A poor poet, concludes Quiller-Couch, “hasn’t a dog’s chance.”

Of crucial importance, too, are opportunities for travel and independent experience. Woman or man, any writer who cannot leave the house will suffer from a stunted imagination. As Woolf writes of Charlotte Brontë, “One sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire…She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”

Which brings us back to the “incandescent mind.” An incandescent mind is also an androgynous mind, Woolf writes–what Mary Gordon (in her foreword) calls “a pure vessel…for the transmission of reality.” Male writers should strive to use what feminine impulses they find inside themselves, and vice versa. The sexes need each other, are inspired and invigorated by each other; neither is superior.

A Room of One’s Own is a delight, even as it asks us to stomach unpleasant truths on every page:

And one gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty…dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them…if anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle, and probably no book is born entire and uncrippled as it was conceived.

We will go on writing, of course, in the face of indifference, skepticism, illness, economic hardship, and whatever other difficulties life may hurl at us; and if we manage to create something of value, something resulting from but not marked by aforesaid trials, some reader someday may even call it genius.

(Check out my 100 Great Books list here.)

5 Comments to Great Book #98: A Room of One’s Own

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    June 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I have never read Virginia Woolf, but I am surprised to hear anyone describe her as a “delight.” Maybe I’ll have to give her a chance.

  2. June 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I bought my mother a copy of this when I was living in London. Wonderful book.

  3. June 15, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I neither like nor dislike Woolf, but I do think she’s writing from a certain perspective, one that most definitely affords her the luxury of saying that any writer who cannot leave the house will suffer from a stunted imagination. I immediately thought of Emily Dickinson, or even May Sarton – both tremendous writers in intellect and output, who barely left the boundaries of their yards.
    I also feel, as a reader and a woman, that literature would be boring indeed without the rage, foolishness and war that lives in the hearts of many women writers. Of course I value peace and wisdom, but my god, how tedious and false, if writers, regardless of their sex, were all so privileged that none were ever cramped or thwarted.
    Cheers, Virginia. But I’ll take Bukowski.

  4. June 15, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    This wins ‘comment of the year.’ (And the year isn’t even half over.)

  5. amiee.e.wright's Gravatar amiee.e.wright
    November 11, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Your words intrigue me…now I’m going to pull this book off my shelf and give it a read. 🙂

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.