When I first read A Room of One’s Own, I understood it simply as Woolf states it in her thesis that for a woman to be a person and to be a writer she must have money and a room of her own. The room I took literally as a corner in the house just for herself. Reading it now, Woolf has given me so much clarity. I kept asking myself: What are you trying to tell me Virginia? And then I found the answer in this line:
“suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers….how literature would suffer.”
Literature has always been a mirror held up to the world and the way we see ourselves. Women never get to be individuals like: “soldiers, thinkers, [and] dreamers.” That privilege is reserved for men. They get to be Thoreau, and Rilke wandering alone by choice in youth, while women must be forced into loneliness, rather than choosing solitude. She must be forced into loneliness by means of being a girl rejected, a spinster, a widow, or a person who waits upon the return of the travelling adventurer, like Penelope. This can happen within a union as well. While Karl Marx gets to hang out with Engels and write manifestos and volumes upon volumes, Jenny has no freedom to make her own choices. In more contemporary terms, men sometimes force women to be their mothers, their caretakers, their (unpaid) prostitutes, and still pushing them into roles, without them being imposed by an institution. The “room” of one’s own, to me, is choosing to be alone, even while young, and having that choice respected, without being judged as: “are you a lesbian?” or “how could you be so selfish?” Those questions are never addressed to men, when they make the choice to be solitary. What was so wrong about Emily Dickinson, and what was so right about Henry David Thoreau?
Woolf then contrasts George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) to Tolstoy. Woolf mentions that while Eliot was seeking this solitude by secluding herself in a cottage in the middle of nowhere to hide from the world, Tolstoy was experiencing life as a fully grown individual. She writes:
“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gypsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoy lived at the Prior in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”
This is the room Woolf speaks of. Room to grow alone without being in the shadow of a label, and without having obligations to another human.
The second portion of Woolf’s message in this text is the gender spectrum, and women trying to usurp the roles of men while resisting the ‘patriarchy.’ She writes:
“It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”
She later writes:
“it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly, or man-womanly…if an explorer should come back and bring world of other sexes looking through the branches of other trees at other skies, nothing would be of greater service to humanity.”
Woolf delivered this speech in 1928 and it’s so impressive that she not only foresaw the liberation of the gender spectrum, and to see the goodness in womanly qualities in men, and manly qualities in women, but that she also grasped its importance to the ‘greater service to humanity.’
Her bottom line is this:
“There must be freedom, and there must be peace.”
Woolf delivered this speech to a women’s college in 1928, and later polished it and made it longer into what is now a print text-format of A Room of One’s Own. She delivers these messages by creating a Judith Shakespeare (a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare with the same genius but constrained by society) and four Marys, giving them each a personality and a different struggle. I had a chance to truly appreciate the style in which Woolf wrote this book, and her structure with the fictional ‘Marys.’ This is a perfect book.