Earlier this year, I had the extremely transformative experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I didn’t think it would affect me the way it did, especially since Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was a disappointing one for me. But as I progressed with A Room of One’s Own, I was consumed by it. I read in awe as Woolf detailed the sexism that women writers face in a time when women didn’t have the freedom to do as they wanted. So many scathing points written sometimes with detached politeness, other times with undisguised annoyance, and at yet others narrated stoically – they sit with you for all of eternity, like they’ve settled down in my mind.
And what a way to condense the book into one sentence:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
It might seem a very inane one if you look at it from a distance. But the more you approach it, the more you see the details and the more you understand that yes, she’s right. For as male writers had patrons and had a way to live life the way they wanted, women hardly ever got the rewards they deserved. The fiction that we’ve read from women writers of that time has been fabulous, the ideas, stunning. And on this topic, the process of thinking and of an idea coming into existence, Woolf says:
Thought—to call it by a prouder name than it deserved—had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating.
How beautifully written this is! It’s like, when you unsuspectingly walk into a room and find that it’s been filled up with everything you’ve been feeling but never could express. Even the idea of seeing an idea like this could occur only to a writer of Woolf’s caliber. But what does an idea depend on? How does it take birth? What are the conditions needed in order to be able to think well? She gives us answers to these questions just a little while later, by saying this:
The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
An empty stomach never allows you to think because hunger is the one thing that your body feels more strongly than anything else. Without the energy intake from food, you cannot give out any energy as well. After all, taking away from zero only leaves you with a deficit, which can be debilitating. And it might have become a bit of ‘it’s so relatable’ trend on social media, but the truth is, this has always been the case. Only, society has been blatantly blowing dust in our eyes and making us believe other things.
Yet, hunger and poverty are always connected, aren’t they? And so it is with this hunger and with the ‘poverty of our sex’ as the author puts it. In what vein does the author use ‘poverty’ here though?
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex.
I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer.
One must strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth. For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?—a thousand questions at once suggested themselves. But one needed answers, not questions; and an answer was only to be had by consulting the learned and the unprejudiced, who have removed themselves above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body and issued the result of their reasoning and research in books which are to be found in the British Museum.
Women have always been forced into a dependent role, a side character in their own lives. Patriarchy made sure that women were seen through the lens of a man. How was she beneficial to a man? Everything that seemed romantic has these undertones to them. Because if a man is saying, “You make me a better man,” he’s loving her for himself. But on the other hand, “I love you because you are <insert quality or trait>”, this is acknowledging a woman for who she is. And unfortunately, the first one is what has been dominant all along. It’s not completely wrong, but patriarchal lenses, is what I’m saying.
So when she is being seen as a side character, it means that she has no means of her own. The side character is required to adhere to all the rules that have been laid out. She is dependent, she cannot use her own will or make her own decisions, and when you see her as a human being on her own, she is in deep poverty. It is, as Woolf puts it, a reprehensible poverty of womanhood inflicted upon us by men who thought they were stronger and declared themselves the ‘stronger sex’. Whatever does that mean, even?
Continuing in this vein, Woolf narrates an incident where a friend of hers, a man, cried out that a woman was an ‘arrant feminist’ when she had said something unflattering about men. It isn’t even surprising anymore, given that we’ve been seeing men have a go at women day after day because they thought women were attacking them and that their so-called power was in danger. This fragile masculinity is a mirror, showing them how they teeter on the edges of their own egos. Which is what Woolf says here:
The exclamation, to me so surprising, was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.
This hate against women is again about the male ego, the male unwillingness to see his flaws pointed out because how will he look himself in the eye again? If his ego is bruised by a woman telling him the truth about himself, everything within him will come shattering down into pieces. A woman’s opinion is thrown aside unceremoniously, like throwing a vase against a mirror. Because who wants to see one’s own flaws? Who wants to acknowledge that one isn’t perfect? Even if it’s a lie, even if it isn’t something that’s real, the male ego craves placation. It craves flattery. To the point where if his needs, his ego isn’t stoked, he’d burn the world and declare war.
Here’s Woolf saying this, only, in a much more eloquent and powerful manner:
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?
It is these that bring up the question: why haven’t we seen many great women writers emerge from those times? It’s a puzzle, Woolf says, and she explains her puzzlement with an example, an analogy, which, when you read it lights up that obscure corner of your mind and asks you this question with increasing urgency. Why?
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. What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
Woolf, like to most questions asked and unasked, has an answer to this question. But she answers it while talking about the picture that patriarchy produced, pushed women into., and has been reveling in front of ever since. Much like the Mona Lisa sitting there, wondering whether to cry or laugh or smile, women have always been limited by patriarchy. What’s more, every action of ours is studied under a microscope and commented upon, as if we were guinea pigs or mere bacteria. Under this pressure, what’s a girl or a woman to do?
Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational—for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons—but were none the less inevitable.
To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.
As is still being done in modern society. A man says something, he is hailed as a hero. A woman says the same thing, media will start a ferocious witch hunt because oh! How could you say that as a woman? Do you have no shame? Behave like a woman! This very reaction of society has forced women to live behind a veil. There have been women who have showcased their talent, but by using the name of a man, because if they hadn’t, their work would have been jeered and mocked at, irrespective of how good they were at it. Women were, according to them, best suited to be anonymous. That them going public is the most horrible thing they could ever do. (Paraphrasing from Woolf.)
This is why men have always pushed women behind themselves and shown it off as some kind of a chivalrous, romantic gesture. “Behind every successful man is a woman” is something the world has said as a compliment. But we hardly acknowledge how, in so many cases, if the man weren’t standing in front, blocking the view, the woman would have been successful too. And because of this, I’m so happy that times are changing.
Of course, we still have a long way to go. All this behavior is still rampant in a lot of places.. But when you do a comparison, the difference is stark and bright. And I hope that in the future, it becomes so different that finding similarities is next to impossible. After all, even if I don’t have a room of my own to write fiction in, even if the world is like this, a woman can dream, can’t she?
Those were my ‘few’ thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll most likely come up with a part two, because there are so many more things that Woolf has mentioned in the book that I haven’t even touched upon. I’d love to do that, hopefully before the year ends. That would be fitting indeed. 😊
So, what did you think of this blog post? Did you like it? Did you not like it? Have you read A Room of One’s Own? What are your thoughts on the book? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 😊
I’ll see you in tomorrow’s Blogtober post.
Until next time, keep reading, and add melodrama to your life! 😊