This book is an extended essay, inspired by a lecture Woolf was asked to give on the subject of Women and Fiction. The remit for such a subject seemed so huge to Woolf that she broke it down, looked at it from this way and that, and her primary conclusion was that in order to write a woman needs money and a room of her own. Without these two luxuries, the chance of a woman succeeding as a writer, or being able to write at all, was small according to Woolf. Or, at least, that is how it seemed back then in the 1920s.
This book is a useful reminder that less than 100 years ago there were places where a woman could not go unless she was accompanied by a man - or even accompanied by one. She couldn't even walk on the grass in certain places without being told off and deflected back on to the path. That is the world that frames this book. That is the experience that plays on Woolf's mind even as she can see development and evolution in the future and predicts that in a hundred years women will write just as well as men.
Woolf talks of the heritage of writing and voices the theory that many poems and other works signed Anonymous were written by women who did not feel able to put their names to such work. She conjures a story of what would have happened to Shakespeare's sister, had he had one, a woman just as gifted as him but stifled by her sex and unable ever to gratify her creativity with the freedom available to him. She notes the centuries of male poetry, plays and stories which men have to call upon and points out that women do not have this shared history.
I won't list all Woolf's arguments and the circuitous route her thoughts took. This is a short book, and I think you can get a copy for something like 50p on Kindle so it isn't expensive, and it wouldn't take much time to read it. What I found interesting was how I as a reader have changed. I think I first read this when I was about 20. Nearly two decades later, having read it a couple of times in the interim, I find that I am more questioning of certain parts of the content than I was before.
Woolf states that men write in a certain way, the implication being that women need to find their own way of writing. She talks of certain men writing in a very manly way, others of writing in a manly-womanly way and then refers to Proust as writing too much like a woman and that this is a failing. This jarred with me in a way it hasn't in the past. When she refers to the recent (to her) barrage of literature written by men on the subject of women, she refers to the Suffragettes as being 'to blame' - again, there's that negative context. Did she realise she was doing that? Was it written with irony? If the latter was intended, I didn't feel it came across. What came through for me from certain passages in the book was a pervasive, unconscious support for the idea that women were less than men. To be too much like a woman was a failure because being a woman was a retrograde step; women were to blame for misogynist literature rather than the threatened, angry men who wrote it.
I also found myself disagreeing with her sentiment that a certain style of writing is specifically the remit of one sex or the other. Some writers are great writers, some are average writers, some are dire writers - gender does not determine which camp a writer is most likely to fall into. Woolf considers it a shame that books like Jane Eyre were written with a great deal of anger behind them, anger at opportunities denied to females. Would Jane Eyre have been such an appealing character if she hadn't had that passion? I don't think so. Did male writers write without anger? Thomas Hardy has never struck me as a particularly serene author yet I don't think anyone has ever said he would have written better without that streak of raw emotion you can see in his work.
This re-read also brought home to me how narrow the definition of writer is in this example. A writer in this book is a white man, university educated, and if work is undertaken at all it is white collar work. The working classes are barely touched upon and there is no mention of non-white writers. If I apply the idea that women would write a better calibre of book if they weren't angry, this implies to me that those non-white writers who tell stories of apartheid and segregation and racism are somehow less because of the raw feeling they contain. Which I don't agree with.
So, the current me has found a lot more to debate this time around than I have in the past. When I read the book again, which I am sure I will, who knows what I will pick up that I haven't before? Gripes above aside, I would still recommend this book and still feel it has a place on my list of favourite non-fiction reads. Time has moved on and just as Woolf has predicted there are many women earning a living by writing. A Room of One's Own ends on a positive note for those women who hear her words - to follow their hearts and write if that is their wish.
8 out of 10