was at liberty to settle down upon whatever meditation was in harmony with the moment”.
meditation settled upon is a decidedly scholarly one, concerning Charles Lamb’s essay on the manuscript
of Milton’s poem Lycidas, Max Beerbohm (momentarily) and the merits of Thackeray’s “eighteenth-
century style” in the novel The History of Henry Esmond. Again, apparently, the narrator’s Oxbridge
location could not be more propitious to learned research:
It then occurred to me that the very manuscript itself which Lamb had looked at was only a few
hundred yards away, so that one could follow Lamb’s footsteps across the quadrangle to that
famous library where the treasure is kept. Moreover, I recollected, as I put this plan into
execution, it is in this famous library that the manuscript of Thackeray’s Esmond is also
preserved. The critics often say that Esmond is Thackeray’s most perfect novel. But the
affectation of the style, with its imitation of the eighteenth century, hampers one, so far as I
remember; unless indeed the eighteenth-century style was natural to Thackeray – a fact that
one might prove by looking at the manuscript and seeing whether the alterations were for the
benefit of the style or of the sense. But then one would have to decide what is style and what
is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library
itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way
with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman,
who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if
accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.
That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference
to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it
sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever.
A Room of One’s Own
, pp. 9-10
Despite her animation by the spirit of critical inquiry, the narrator is denied access to the raw
materials of the library, primarily by reason of gender. Women are barred from certain centres of
knowledge and, thereafter and as a consequence, certain forms of authority. This is a self-perpetuating
situation; in these circumstances, women lack the authority to insist upon the reforms that would allow
them access to power and authority. The seat of learning visited by the narrator does not offer a
disinterested dispensation of knowledge to all-comers; instead it educates and trains the sons of the men
it had educated and trained a generation before. The ages and generations succeed one another but the
key to access remains finance, whether secured from Church, Court or commerce:
An unending stream of gold and silver, I thought, must have flowed into this court perpetually
to keep the stones coming and the masons working; to level, to ditch, to dig, and to drain. But
it was then the age of faith, and money was poured liberally to set these stones on a deep
foundation, and when the stones were raised, still more money was poured in from the coffers
of kings and queens and great nobles to ensure that hymns should be sung here and scholars
taught. ... And when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same
flow of gold and silver went on; fellowships were founded; lectureships endowed; only the
gold and silver flowed now, not from the coffers of the king, but from the chests of merchants
and manufacturers, from the purses of men who had made, say, a fortune from industry, and
returned, in their wills, a bounteous share of it to endow more chairs, more lectureships, more
fellowships in the university where they had learnt their craft.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, pp. 11-12
The contemporary effect of such a backlog of riches is manifested for the narrator in a fabulous
luncheon at one of the ancient colleges. Here, the scholars partake of “soles ... over which the college
cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream”, followed by “partridges, many and various ... with
all their retinue of sauces and salads”, “potatoes, thin as coins” and “sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but
more succulent”; afterwards comes “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves”; all the while
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 8.
“wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled”.
analysis of character, behaviour and opportunity stretches, only half-comically, to the effect of such a
meal upon the soul and intellect of its devourers:
And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that
hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the
more profound, subtle, and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational
intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are
all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company – in other words, how good life seemed,
how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and
the society of one’s kind, as lighting a good cigarette, one sank among the cushions in the
A Room of One’s Own
, p. 13
By contrast, Fernham, the fictional shadow of Cambridge’s all-women Newnham College, can
offer only a dinner of “plain gravy soup”, beef from the “rumps of cattle in a muddy market”, served with
“sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge”, followed by “prunes ... mitigated by custard” and accompanied
throughout by water.
The whole, a product of “bargaining and cheapening”, is an index of the relative
poverty of the female branch of the institution.
And likewise, this poverty is an index of the absence of
women’s independent means throughout the generations. “What had our mothers been doing”, our now
clearly-gendered narrator asks her friend Mary Seton, “that they had no wealth to leave us?”
existence of “us” has a lot to do with the matter:
If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making
money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found
fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own
sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might
have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in
the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or
writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of
the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half past four to
write a little poetry. Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen,
there would have been – that was the snag in the argument – no Mary.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 23
The narrator identifies a gendered and generational disinheritance. There is no cash-value in women’s
work; for women, “to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether”.
Furthermore, even had women worked, “the law denied them the right to possess what money they
earned”; save for the last forty-eight years (counting back from 1928), all female wealth “would have been
her husband’s property – a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs Seton and
her mothers off the Stock Exchange”.
Consequently, generations of women up to the point in time of the
narrator’s world, have lacked the material supports of intellectual development.
ACTIVITY 1 (Time: 15 minutes)
1. Either on your own or in pairs, consider the strengths and weaknesses of Woolf’s materialist
analysis of intellectual development. Is the quality of the sprouts one is served a crucial
determinant of the value of one’s thoughts? Is the age and grandeur of one’s college any more of
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, pp. 12-13.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 19.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 19.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 22.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 24.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 24.
a determinant of intellectual quality? Is the social standing of educational institutions as important
now as in 1928?
2. Can you fill in more of the argumentative steps which link the nineteenth-century property laws
which assigned a wife’s wealth to her husband to the lack of educational opportunities for women?
3. Is this materialist argument a specifically feminist one? Does Woolf ignore the class divide that
excluded the majority of men as well as women from a university education in 1928?
4. Does Woolf have anything to say to women outside the upper-middle classes? She celebrates
“the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space”,
but does this presuppose the existence of a servant-class to minister to the material needs of her
A materialist approach to intellectual work examines the impact of the real circumstances of life
upon the production of art, writing and the development of the mental faculties in general. The core of this
A Room of One’s Own
is stated in the following two paragraphs. Read these extracts
carefully and assess whether they confirm your answers to the Activity Questions above or whether they
lead you to modify your opinions about the narrator’s arguments.
It is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary [Elizabethan]
literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the
conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not
dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web,
attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the
attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there
complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the
middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but
are the works of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like
health and money and the houses we live in.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 43
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.
And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning
of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women,
then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on
money and a room of one’s own.
A Room of One’s Own
, p. 106
ADDITIONAL QUICK QUESTIONS
1. “A room of one’s own” is, the narrator confirms, part of a metaphorical framework. Likewise “five
hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate”, “a lock on the door means the power to
think for oneself”.
What do you think of the narrator’s tendency to conduct arguments through
2. Is A Room of One’s Own a fictional or factual book? Can “true” arguments be made through
In this argumentative movement from the material and the mental, the narrator of
A Room of
recognises that more research is required:
What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of
art? – a thousand questions at once suggested themselves. But one needed answers, not
questions; and an answer was only to be had by consulting the learned and the unprejudiced,
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 25.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 105.
who have removed themselves above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body and
issued the result of their reasoning and research in books which are to be found in the British
Museum. If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked
myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 27
In the British Museum, the narrator is confronted by a bewildering array of ungrounded, but clearly
gendered, opinions. “Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one
year?” asks the narrator, “Have you any notion how many are written by men?”
Moreover, these books
“had been written in the red light of emotion”,
a flaw more usually described in the very same books as
a female failing. There is also a fundamental flaw in the narrator’s research programme; the problem is
set out in the questions below.
1. Can any research or reasoning ever be “above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body” as
the narrator hopes? What would it be like to be “above ... the confusion of body”?
2. The discussion of all gender questions necessarily takes place between gendered agents; can
objectivity and disinterest ever be expected when disputes arise?
3. From the evidence of the universities, the British Museum and even a daily newspaper, the
narrator concludes that “England is under the rule of a patriarchy”.
Male authority sets the
standards of good sense and truth under such a system, including the proper opinions to hold
concerning women. As a result of their lack of education, women can hardly be qualified to object
to such a system – how could the uneducated know what is best? Can you see a way out of this
circle which always seems to protect male advantages?
Many of the narrator’s arguments, and her most famous exploitation of metaphorical and
rhetorical devices, come together in the discussion of the fate of a fictional and frustrated female writer,
“Shakespeare’s sister”. This is “how the story would run ... if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had
It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the
plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to
come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called
Judith, let us say. ... She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he
was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let
alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s
perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the
stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. ... Soon, ... before she
was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler. She
cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father.
Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this
matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and
there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The
force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let
herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not
seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the
quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the
theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The
manager – a fat, loose-lipped man – guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing
and women acting – no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted – you can
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 28.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 34.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 35.
imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a
tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed
abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last ... Nick
Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and
so – who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a
woman’s body? – killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where
the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, pp. 48-50
The impact of material social conditions, including, of course, specific historical attitudes to the roles and
capacities of women, is sufficient to thwart the potential of even the most talented and determined
individual. Genius, in this scenario, may be innate but it is not sufficient; under these social and familial
conditions, it could “never [get] itself on to paper” and prove its existence.
Consider finally, however, a later, and only problematically feminist, review of the “Shakespeare’s
sister” scenario. The following extract is from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae:
In the beautiful hypothesis of “Shakespeare’s sister,” Virginia Woolf imagines a girl with her
brother’s gifts whom society would have “thwarted and hindered” to insanity and suicide.
Women have been discouraged from genres such as sculpture that require studio training or
expensive materials. But in philosophy, mathematics, and poetry, the only materials are pen
and paper. Male conspiracy cannot explain all female failures. I am convinced that, even
without restrictions, there still would have been no female Pascal, Milton, or Kant. Genius is
not checked by social obstacles: it will overcome. Men’s egotism, so disgusting in the
talentless, is the source of their greatness as a sex. Women have a more accurate sense of
reality; they are physically and spiritually more complete. Culture, I said, was invented by men,
because it is by culture that they make themselves whole. Even now, with all vocations open, I
marvel at the rarity of the woman driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-
mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternative forms of crime and
ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti
to Emily Dickinson (1990) (London: Penguin, 1992), pp. 653-54
To assess what is at stake for feminist theory in Paglia’s disagreement with Woolf, consider the
questions set in Activity Two below:
ACTIVITY 2 (Time: 15 minutes)
1. Paglia contends that “Genius is not checked by social obstacles: it will overcome”. The narrator of
A Room of One’s Own argues precisely the opposite and thereby provides an explanation for
“female failures”. How does Paglia account for the absence of a female Pascal, Milton or Kant?
2. What is the role of education, training, tradition and recognition in the development of latent talent?
3. Paglia locates the best and worst of human behaviour in male activity. Examine some of her
assumptions in the above passage: is she an essentialist, that is, does she describe how all men
and all women are predisposed to behave under all conceivable material circumstances? Do you
find this a convincing way of understanding human behaviour?
4. If Paglia appeals to nature, does Woolf appeal to nurture to explain the evident differences in male
and female behaviour? Could changes in social circumstances and expectations alter the
behaviour of Paglia’s men and women? Can Woolf’s people change alongside society?
5. According to your answer to Question 4, is it worthwhile trying to alter social conditions in order to
enhance the life chances of men and women?
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p. 50.
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