A Room of One's Own | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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A Room of One's Own | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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In 1928 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a series of lectures at Newnham and Girton colleges, women's colleges that were part of Cambridge University. The lectures were titled "Women and Literature," and they became the basis for A Room of One's Own, which was published in 1929.

The book, an extended essay, focuses on a fictional narrator and discusses the role of women writers throughout history. It posits that women, because of their place within a patriarchal society, have not had the opportunity to succeed in writing or in life that their male counterparts were allowed. The idea that women need both a physical space and economic freedom in order to succeed is one that has resonated since the book's publication.

1. Some scholars consider A Room of One's Own to be "the founding text of feminist criticism."

In the late 1920s, when Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own, there was no such thing as "feminist criticism." There was, however, feminist thought and writing. The suffragette movement, the foremost expression of first-wave feminism (feminist activity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), had forced Britain to give all women the vote in 1928. Woolf's work brought together these early feminist ideas and unified them for the first time, exploring the differences between men's and women's writing and lives and the societal reasons for those differences.

2. Woolf endured childhood sex abuse by her stepbrothers.

Woolf suffered sexual abuse in her childhood from her stepbrothers and, possibly, from her father, the well-known English writer Leslie Stephen. Her anger and resentment toward the patriarchy is clear in her essay, and she channeled those feelings into her belief that women must free themselves from the men who controlled them. The need for economic independence and privacy to explore their own thoughts was the basis for her call for "a room of one's own," a place where women would have the autonomy to live and write in freedom. Her discussion of androgyny in writing was an offshoot of these beliefs; she felt that writers who could cast off their resentment against men and achieve a genderless intellect could best achieve greatness in their work.

3. Woolf felt that money was "infinitely" more important than the right to vote for women.

Woolf received 500 pounds a year from an aunt, and it was this, she felt, that gave her the freedom to write. She noted:

No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.

Women won the right to vote at the same time that Woolf received her inheritance, and she wrote, "of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important."

4. One organization literally offers women a room of their own in which to write.

A nonprofit British organization called Hosking House decided to take Woolf at her word and give women a room of their own for the purpose of writing. The group offers residencies to women over age 40 who need "time and peace" in which to write. Since 2002 dozens of novelists, playwrights, journalists, and poets have worked in Trust House in the tiny village of Clifford Chambers, with the freedom and quiet in which to produce their writing.

5. Writer Alice Walker attacked A Room on One's Own for ignoring black women's situations.

African American writer Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, objected to Woolf's statement that a woman needs a room to herself and adequate money to write. In Walker's book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, she notes that the enslaved woman Phyllis Wheatley was able to write poetry without either money or space of her own. She wrote:

What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.

Walker felt that Woolf's claim took neither race nor class into account, and that women of color or those who lived in poverty could still produce powerful work.

6. A Room of One's Own is in part a response to a Victorian poem that infuriated Woolf.

English poet Coventry Patmore published a poem called "The Angel in the House" in 1854. Written in praise of his wife, whom Patmore felt was the ultimate expression of subservient Victorian womanhood, the poem rhapsodized:

While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress'd,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers...

The poem became immensely popular. Woolf was horrified by it and stated, "Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer."

7. During a nervous breakdown, Woolf claimed to have heard birds chirping in Greek.

Woolf had several nervous breakdowns before killing herself in 1941. She heard voices whenever she completed a novel, noting that the "voices ... danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net." During her second breakdown, in 1904, she heard birds singing outside her window in Greek, and King Edward VII, king of England at the time, swearing profanely among the azaleas.

8. The British rock band The Smiths recorded a song inspired by A Room of One's Own.

The Smiths took the title of their song "Shakespeare's Sister" from the portion of A Room of One's Own in which Woolf discusses what might have happened had Shakespeare had a sister with talent equal to his own. A later band, Shakespears Sister, took the name of the song as its own name and made several popular albums.

9. Woolf referred to A Room of One's Own as "that little book" in a letter.

After the publication of A Room of One's Own in 1929, English poet Frances Cornford wrote to Woolf praising the book. Woolf wrote back, "That little book was rather a jump in the dark full of guesses + dashes + everything had to be boiled to a jelly in the hope that the young women would swallow it." Her modesty disguised her great pleasure at Cornford's appreciation of her work; she noted her happiness that "such a wise and distinguished woman ... would find some sense in it."

10. Woolf once baked her wedding ring into a pudding.

Woolf enjoyed baking and bottling and pickling fruits and vegetables. Though she had a cook, she often baked treats herself. She wasn't, however, known for her skill in the kitchen. After recovering from a nervous breakdown, she took a cooking class, and wrote that "I distinguished myself by cooking my wedding ring into a suet pudding!"

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