International Women’s Day: A Room of One’s Own

Today seems an appropriate day to share one of my recent reads ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and my discovery of Virginia Woolf. I’ve had her on my radar for quite some time but not got around to reading any of her work – due partly to the fact that I had no idea what to start with! Much research gave me mixed opinions on which of Woolf’s books you should read first. Some say ‘Orlando’ is a good place to start, as it is one of her most overtly feminist works as she explores the role of gender, however, another suggestion was ‘Mrs Dalloway’; published mid-career it is credited with encompassing the epitome of Woolf’s distinctive style. The suggestion I followed in the end was to start with her non-fiction book ‘A Room of One’s Own’, to gain an insight into the feminist ideas that are behind much of the rest of her work.

‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf
Cover Art by Aino-Maija Metsola

‘A Room of One’s Own’ was first published in 1929, and presents itself as a persuasive argument against the intellectual subjection of women, in particular women writers. This extended essay offers the authors deep observations on a topic close to her heart. Her argument is carefully constructed and peppered with sparkling wit. I chuckled aloud on more than one occasion at her deftly accurate yet cutting quips.

The writing has a confidential and subtly compelling style that draws you in. Her language and sentence structure have an almost poetic quality that echoes that of Jane Austen – an artist she much admired. On page 75 she says, ‘Jane Austen looked at it [conventional sentence structure] and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it’. My favourite comment is what she goes on to say after; ‘Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Bronte, she got infinitely more said’, her observation on the great writer worded as if from Jane’s own pen!

One of the best examples of Woolf’s wit comes through in her looking-glass theory, a theory which considers men’s need for a woman’s opinion of them to be so that it boosts their own self-esteem. She says, ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’, saying also;

Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most humane, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!’ The exclamation, to me so surprising – for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? – was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.

Virginia Woolf
‘A Room of One’s Own’, p 35.

She goes on to talk about mans need to cap the opportunities available to women in order to maintain a distinct line of superiority, thus enabling them to be capable of great things. So often seeking praise from women on their persons, a slight criticism of a man from a women can bring his opinion of himself crashing down about him. In that case are we not equally as essential in the developments of the world we know due to our giving men the platform they need? It may have taken us hundreds of years to be able to make some input of our own but have we not used our own creativity to create progress from where we have been confined to?

When a subject is highly controversial, one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.

Virginia Woolf
‘A Room of One’s Own’.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and would confidently recommend starting with this work if you have not read Woolf before. As a huge fan of Jane Austen I wonder whether much of my love for Virginia Woold has stemmed from a feeling of mutual respect for Jane and the discovery of a kindered spirit! However, I am so excited to read more of Virginia Woolfs own words and explore her other styles of writing.

Happy International Women’s Day 2020! Let us not forget the great women who have come before us and all that the have carved out and sacrificed for us, and be grateful for the fact that we do now indeed, more often than not, have the opportunity for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

Meg Readz xx

NB: All reference to page numbers relate to the 2016 Vintage Classics publication of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, featuring the stunning cover art of Aino – Maija Metsola.

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