Woolf’s feminist brilliance truly shines in her essay A Room of One’s Own.
Genre: Classic/Feminist Theory
Publication Date: 1929
‘A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on the 24th of October, 1929, the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. While this extended essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled Women and Fiction, and hence the essay, are considered nonfiction. The essay is seen as a feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy.’ – Goodreads
When we think of literature written by women pre-20th century, invariably we will think of the same few names. Mention Austen, Gaskell, Brontë and make a ‘respectful allusion’ to George Eliot. The lack of well-known female writers in history no longer seems apparent. The existence of a few middle-class to upper-class writers did not mean that writing was an acceptable craft for all women. Woolf takes on this issue. She reasons the lack of female representation in literature down to a lack of agency and ultimately, money.
It is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.
My personal favourite and the most poignant part of Woolf’s essay is her creation of Shakespeare’s sister. She is a girl equally as brilliant as her brother but unafforded the same opportunities because of her sex. After mocking and laughing at her ambition, her contempraries watch her die, penniless and alone in London, whilst Shakespeare himself flourishes. This short biography of Miss Shakespeare is what makes A Room of One’s Own so brilliant. By taking something so simple as changing Shakespeare’s gender, Woolf highlights the true loss of history: hundreds, maybe thousands of works of art purely down to misogynist societal values.
Woolf concludes her essay with an allusion to Miss Shakespeare:
She lives in you and me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.
Of course, Woolf is alive in a time when the housewife was very much the norm; A Room of One’s Own and Woolf’s other works are revolutionary in paving the way for female writers today.