A Room of One’s Own

Essay on the importance of independence for women writing fiction

This was a gift from a friend (I believe) who is quite the Virginia Woolf fan. It’s a beautiful little hardcover edition with light blue embossed fabric beneath the dust jacket and shiny gold edges. This my 81st, and last, book of 2019 and I was looking for something short but also inspiring to kick-start my writing in 2020.

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“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf is an essay about the barriers for women in the early 20th century to becoming writers of fiction. Much of the essay reflects on the prestigious university campus of “Oxbridge”, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, and the ways in which doors had opened to women, but not completely. Woolf also writes about the way poverty impacts women’s ability to write fiction: poverty of money, but also of time, education, opportunity and privacy.

This is an intriguing book. Although it is non-fiction, fiction seeps into the edges and Woolf uses suggestion, exaggeration and imagination to convey her points. While she explores the Oxbridge university campus, Woolf also examines the lives of historical women fiction writers and analyses why they were able to find success. She concludes that it is not a lack of ability that holds women back, but a lack of time and resources, particularly due to the expectation that women devote themselves wholly to being mothers.

Woolf creates a parable out of an imaginary sister of Shakespeare’s, rebutting the argument that a woman couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s plays with example after example of sexism. Woolf later creates another character to explore the significance of women fiction writers in writing same sex relationships. This edition of the book includes an introduction by Frances Spalding, which provides useful historical and biographical context for Woolf’s writing.

Woolf’s key argument is that for women to be able to write fiction, they need £500 a year, the equivalent of approximately AU$63,000 by today’s currency, and a room of one’s own. For a bit of perspective, this is about half as much again as Australia’s minimum wage. While Woolf is very aware of the barriers that separate women of her class from their male peers, I think perhaps she is not quite nearly so aware of the barriers that remain between her and woman of other classes and races. Woolf, very fortunately, inherited a sum from her aunt, which set her up to be able to focus on her writing. However, wealthy aunts are not something available to all of us, and while Woolf’s family did prioritise her brothers’ education over hers, it was nevertheless a wealthy family that was supportive of her writing. 

This is a very creative piece of non-fiction that uses fictional characters to shed light to real barriers for women who write. I came away from this book very grateful that I have a room with a desk to write in, but also very aware that the time, space and financial means to write are not things that are available to everyone.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Tinted Edges

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