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Category: Women Date: 24 Jul 95

A room of one’s own


On a rainy evening in the autumn of 1928 Virginia Woolf traveled from Cambridge to London clutching the notes she’d used to lecture women undergraduates. On her return from Girton College, Mrs Woolf recorded in her diary that the young students were “very eager, egotistical...not much impressed by age and repute...I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own.”


The reader may well inquire what does this have to do with us. Mrs Woolf may have been a writer of novels, essays and biographies, some say of genius. She was a founding member of a famous literary group known as the Bloomsbury Circle which included writers such as Keynes, Forster, Shaw, Eliot, Joyce, Freud and Hardy. Mrs Woolf suffered from recurring bouts of madness and eventually drowned herself at the age of 58. And despite the fact that she was never sent to university she earned an enduring place in English letters. But what does she have to do with me, you ask impatiently.


Mrs Woolf has never written a mediocre line in her life. She was a master of English language, nimble and quick with her pen. Her diaries reveal that at times her brain worked so quickly that it seemed to be still, like the propellers of a helicopter. She didn’t care if the beds were unmade or if the roast properly done. She only really lived when she was writing. She hated shopping for clothes but was woman enough to be depressed for day and a half when her brother-in-law made fun of her hat. She was self-conscious about her looks. Like many of us, she was hurt by criticism. To fend off depression she would scrub the floors. Bread making she found therapeutic.


As a woman she was not far removed from us after all. To call the talk she gave that rainy evening (eventually published as A Room of One’s Own) a lecture is a sacrilege. The slim volume is sheer poetry, a graceful bubbling book which whips up your brain, and makes your heart thud with pleasure. Yet she writes with the familiarity of a dear friend; so much so you put this volume down wishing she would return for ten minutes to share a cup of coffee with you. There is so much more you would want to talk about... Would Mrs Woolf evince an opinion on the upcoming Beijing Conference “on the advancement of a women?” For Mrs Woolf passionately believed in the cause. Didn’t she write: “We burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?”


In A Room of One’s Own Mrs Woolf was angry. Her fictional narrator Mary was having problems researching her lecture. A man ordered her off the grounds and library of Oxbridge: “Only Fellows and Scholars are allowed here, the gravel is the place for me.” The rebuff at Oxbridge set off a thousand questions in her head. “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” So off went poor Mary to the British Museum with a heading on a blank piece of paper, Women and fiction. On the shelves she found an astonishing number of books written by men - about women. Many derogatory. She read Dr Johnson’s dictum: “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


Then Mary discovered that men were angry with women. Here’s Pope: “Most women have no character at all.” Was his an objective statement? Rebecca West who had described a feminist as someone who refused to be treated as a doormat was dismissed by a man as “an arrant feminist.” Yes, men were angry. Fifty eight years later men are still angry and not only in England. An amused Thelma Henderson of CAFRA says the group has been abused by some as a bunch of “man-hating, ugly, lesbians.” Why are men angry with us? I dip into A Room of One’s Own.


Mrs Woolf suggests that life for both sexes is a perpetual struggle. “It calls for confidence in oneself. And how can we generate this quality? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority - it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney - for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination over people.”

Mrs Woolf continues: “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing in the magic and delicious power reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without the power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown.

“This serves to explain in part the necessity women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism. How is he to go on giving judgment, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets unless he can see himself as twice the size he really is.”


But women are also angry. Adventure, experience, solitude was not their lot, dreary housework and childrearing and modesty were. And today this anger is gearing women up for the Beijing Conference where women will meet to discuss the poverty, education and health of their sex. But anger makes women poor artists. For Lady Winchilsea, a 16th century noblewoman, “The human race is split up. Men are the opposing faction.” Her writing remained mediocre. Anger crippled her. And here, another unknown writer who despite her genius wrote badly. “One sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. 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.”


Shakespeare’s poetry “flows whole and unimpeded,” because: “all desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off an old score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed.” Mrs Woolf urges the woman writer to “learn to laugh without bitterness, at the vanities - say rather the peculiarities, for it is a less offensive word - of the other sex.”


Truly great minds according to Mrs Woolf are not hampered by their sex when they write. “Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties.” Once that is achieved, “men are no longer the opposing faction; she need not waste her time railing against them, and she could write with a sensibility that was very wide and eager and free.” Mrs Woolf wrote that anger made women bad writers. If we apply that theory to the women’s movement, will not anger stunt us? For are not our brothers, husbands, fathers, sons, lovers and friends part of us? Don’t we share our beds and offices with them? How many male employers, politicians, husbands, decision makers are involved in the conference in Beijing? Dialogue without men is like a wife quarreling with an absent husband. For if we don’t move towards one another, then perhaps the women’s movement will be crippled by its anger and like a bad book, stay on the shelves, unread by half the human race. And men too will remain shackled within their stereotypes.


Mrs Woolf tells us: “Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished... There must be freedom and there must be peace.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur