A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | Chapter 4 | Summary



Of course, the idea that any woman would be able to have "a mind ... incandescent, unimpeded" in the 16th century is ludicrous. Perhaps a rich lady, with free time, might have written something, but even her writing would likely be disturbed. A woman writer would likely have viewed men as an enemy because they can block her from writing. She would have to content herself with sharing her writing with friends. Women writers from the time were not educated to make use of their genius, and so it poured out in chaotic ways as the writers spiraled into insanity. Some kernels of their ability can be seen in their letters, but this is not the same as writing fiction.

Mrs. Aphra Behn, a 17th century "middle-class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humor, vitality and courage," was a writer who proved a woman could make money writing. And this was significant because it opened a door for women in the 18th century who might not have been financially independent, but who could use the extra money. And because money "dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for," women's writing gained a little legitimacy.

By the beginning of the 19th century, there were far more books written by women. Unlike previous generations of writers, who were mostly poets, these women wrote novels. Perhaps novel writing is an easier form of writing to do amidst interruptions and a lack of privacy. Or it could be their experiences, among people in the sitting rooms of their homes, led them to novel writing: "The literary training ... a woman had in the ... nineteenth century was ... in the observation of character." Jane Austen, one of these novelists, even managed to write a really good novel. The narrator cannot "find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest." Austen's "gift and her circumstances matched each other completely." Other women of the time were not so fortunate, and their novels show signs of discontent or of promise and genius that could have been even greater. They tried to write like men, were ostracized because of sexual practices, or were angry about their limited situation. These things held them back.


As Beton peruses the books on the shelves of the library, she traces women's writing from where the essay left off in Chapter 3—the time of Shakespeare—to the 19th century. Little time is spent on the quality of the writing, although Beton does offer some criticisms of its value, such as, "Clearly her mind has by no means 'consumed all impediments and become incandescent.'" Rather, "it is harassed and distracted with hates and grievances." For the most part, she focuses on the circumstances in which these women were writing. She describes the small rooms they wrote in, harried by one interruption after another. She describes the way they are made fun of and spoken to by men. She describes how, even by the time of Jane Austen and George Eliot, women writers were not taken seriously and often hid their work. Jane Austen would cover up her writing whenever anyone came in the room. George Eliot hid behind a male pen name in order to publish without ridicule.

In addition, women writers were not able to experience life in the varied way that produces material usually needed for writing a great work. Beton uses the example of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy to show how the physical freedom of men gave them more options for writing. In particular, men were allowed to have sexual relationships and were not ostracized. In contrast, women who had sex outside of marriage were shunned and were even more limited in their interactions with the world. Tolstoy, however, could live "freely with this gypsy or with that great lady" and have all sorts of other experiences that could be used in novels. Thus, the double standard regarding sexual activity also served to give male writers an advantage.

Beton links women's writing to their circumstances in very small, concrete ways. For example, she theorizes women were able to write novels because they could be written in short spans of time between interruptions. In addition, their role in society—which required them to notice and interpret unspoken social cues—honed in them skills of observation. They were able to describe subtle interactions between people in ways that felt realistic. The trouble with this kind of women's writing is that very few women were completely satisfied and suited to the role society demanded. She uses the example of Jane Austen—who was able to write without thinking of her gender simply because she was by nature perfectly matched to her situation—to show that this was an exception, not the rule. Of all the women novelists writing in this era, only one escaped the limitations of gender. This is a step above the previous generation, but a very small one.

Overall, the progression of women's literature is one of forward motion, even if it is at a snail's pace. This is presented as both an encouraging and a discouraging thought. At the end of this chapter, Beton has arrived at the early 20th century—her own time.

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