A few months ago, I talked about one of my very first books of 2022: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It wasn’t a review, for how can I review a book of that stature? As it stands tall and stands up for women through time and space? As it calls out the misogyny and sexism that we have come to take as ‘normal’? As it shows us why Virginia Woolf is a much-loved figure in English literature? How could I have done all that? No, never in a thousand lives! I merely took my favorite quotes from the book and wrote a piece about why Woolf is so relevant. A book discussion/thoughts of sorts. That was part 1.
And here, finally, is part 2.
But we cannot proceed without mentioning the sentence that defines the book. The sentence that, once you’ve read the book, will make so much sense and will open the book to you every time you read the sentence:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
And Woolf talks about her own genius of condensing this book and the concepts she is talking about into this one sentence, without knowing that she is alluding to herself. It’s probably the mark of a genius that she does that and through this, we see the necessity of that room in order to write fiction. One of the reasons why writing this work of genius fiction is difficult is because the world stands against women and behaves like it is doing women a favor. It doesn’t see the misogyny and sexism festering behind its actions. Here’s where Woolf calls it out:
To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement.
But for women, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since her pin money, which depended on the goodwill of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France, from the separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?
“The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” This brought such a grin to my face because of how particularly precise it is! I’m thankful I live in a time when us women are getting the opportunities we deserve. But there’s still a long road ahead of us. Saying, ‘Look at how far we’ve come’ doesn’t negate all the injustices that were meted out to us in the past. We are told time and again not to pay attention to naysayers. But when we don’t pay attention, we are called names. “Stuck-up bitch,” they say. When we do pay attention and it affects us, they say, “That’s why we don’t hire women. Y’all are too emotional!” There’s no winning for us! While men, on the other hand, can do whatever the fxck they want and emerge from the rubble grinning, not a hair out of place.
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
Exactly, Virginia. Exactly. It is this minding that resulted in these men’s writing pieces of literature that have gone on to make them legends. People will remember these white male authors for eons to come because of this. But God forbid a woman takes her experiences and puts it into words? Oh! The audacity! What a conniving woman! She’s exploiting the people in her life! Take Taylor Swift for example. People literally say, “Don’t date her, she’ll put you in a song when you break up.” But never do they talk about the crap that the men she has dated have done. Society’s hypocrisy in full force, every single time.
And this hypocrisy manifests itself in known and unknown ways. Some microaggressions are so tiny, so ingrained in society, that anyone talking against it seems like they are overreacting. This happened recently with a friend, who found the trailer to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer to be amazing because of course it’s Nolan, and the trailer to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie to be bad. When asked why, he said Nolan’s stories are layered, while Barbie always ends up with her head and legs in different places. This, without having watched either movie. This irritated me to no end, but more than that, I was frustrated that a man in this time and age had no concept of why what he was saying was sexist. When I sent a rejoinder, he sent a confused GIF and asked me, “What is this?” I didn’t reply.
Anyway, this was triggered because I was preparing to talk about this Woolf quote, which in turn talks about the various ways in which women are talked down to and shown down every single day. We are supposed to minimize ourselves so that men can feel good about themselves. We are supposed to be careful about men’s feelings. We are supposed to downplay our own emotions, our own achievements because what if a man feels like he is unsuccessful? How can we bear to do that?
It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial”. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was “only a woman”, or protesting that she was “as good as a man”. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself.
And the place where this comparison to men comes from is the same place from where the concept that a woman cannot be without a man comes from. A woman has to be in her father’s, brother’s, or husband’s shadow in order to be able to do something. It’s a thing in India, something I have experienced as well. When I said that I wanted to travel the world, I was told that they wouldn’t send me alone, that I could do it once I was married. As if I am not my own person. As if I need a man to validate me. Of course, this was patriarchal conditioning, something that annoys me even more. Because us women are so much more than the men we are associated with. We are our own people. Why does society behave like we are second-class citizens? Without us, there would be no you. It’s something you should respect us more for. Not whatever this is that you call respect and ‘allowance’. Ugh, allowance. That’s a whole other discussion. But for now, here’s Woolf putting it better than I ever could:
It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose. Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of women in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity – for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy. This is not so true of the nineteenth-century novelists, of course. Woman becomes much more various and complicated there. Indeed it was the desire to write about women perhaps that led men by degrees to abandon the poetic drama which, with its violence, could make so little use of them, and to devise the novel as a more fitting receptacle. Even so it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men.
Married against their will, kept in one room, and to one occupation, how could a dramatist give a full or interesting or truthful account of them? Love was the only possible interpreter. The poet was forced to be passionate or bitter, unless indeed he chose to “hate women”, which meant more often than not that he was unattractive to them.
This is another sore point, another of society’s many hypocritical ways. Because when a man finds a woman unattractive, society is quick to label her ugly. But if a woman finds a man unattractive, it’s, “Oh, you are so superficial! Look at his heart! Give him a chance!” A woman is held to standards that men never will be. It is infuriating but more than that, it’s disgusting, the levels to which society allows itself to fall just because all of this is convenient for it. Because God forbid someone shakes the status quo!
Virginia Woolf, however, has a quality to her writing which pulls in sarcasm and throws back society’s comments about women in their faces without allowing them a retort. Here’s one quote in which she disses a man’s writing and a man’s mind while looking like she was complimenting it:
Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself. One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated, free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked. All this was admirable.
But – there has got to be a but, hasn’t it?
But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I”. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter “I”. One began to be tired of “I”. Not but what this “I” was a most respectable “I”; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding. I respect and admire that “I” from the bottom of my heart. But – here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other – the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I” all is shapeless as mist. Is that a tree? No, it is a woman. But…she has not a bone in her body, I thought, watching Phoebe, for that was her name, coming across the beach. Then Alan got up and the shadow of Alan at once obliterated Phoebe. For Alan had views and Phoebe was quenched in the flood of his views. And then Alan, I thought, has passions; and here I turned page after page very fast, feeling that the crisis was approaching, and so it was. It took place on the beach under the sun. It was done very openly. It was done very vigorously. Nothing could have been more indecent. But… I had said “but” too often. One cannot go on saying “but”. One must finish the sentence somehow, I rebuked myself. Shall I finish it, “But – I am bored!” But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter “I” and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there. And partly for some more obscure reason. There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment in Mr. A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits.
It’s such a true, incisive observation, because every time I’ve tried to read an older classic written by a man, it’s been such a drag that I stopped picking them up altogether. Yet, perhaps, sometimes aridity might do us good. It’s never the same without the rains, though. A woman’s work, thoughts, and ideas are like the rains – necessary and to-the-point. Without them, we have droughts. Without them, the lands are parched. And without them, one just cannot sustain life. But then again, society. This huge obstacle that stands before her and blames her for the lack of opportunities. Blames her for not doing enough, when society has been the one to trip her up at every angle. While men on the other hand…
Some of the finest works of our greatest living writers fall upon deaf ears. Do what she will a woman cannot find in them that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible.
Here’s what Virginia Woolf has to say on that drought of women and their ideas I was talking about earlier:
The fact is that neither Mr. Galsworthy nor Mr. Kipling has a spark of the woman in him. Thus all their qualities seem to a woman, if one may generalise, crude and immature. They lack suggestive power. And when a book lacks suggestive power, however hard it hits the surface of the mind it cannot penetrate within.
How does one ensure that one’s book has suggestive power though? How much support is enough support? And what does that support entail? Money? Time? Resources? How is one to go about writing fiction? Or poetry for that matter? Especially since in these modern times, poetry is received a tad bit harsher than fiction is. Here’s a little realistic dose from Woolf:
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.
And yet, despite all this, Woolf closes out on a positive note, a note of hope for the future that she sees from her time:
For my belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.
I think that her wish came true, for we now see poets like Nikita Gill and Elizabeth Acevedo whose poetry lights fires within people. We see writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Sabaa Tahir, and Madeline Miller bringing the known and unknown into the world in ways that blows everyone’s minds. We see women writers being supported more often – of course, we still have a long discourse on monetary support and compensation to go, but the situation is much better than before.
So why are you still fighting? People may ask.
Because feminism is not just about cis-het women. It’s about equal rights for women across race, class, religion, and sexuality. And getting complacent now will mean walking along an ice rink – you’ll skate backwards sooner than you can say, ‘Woman’, because society is built to despise women and will take any chance to bring it back to the status quo it is used to. Of course, we do everything to acknowledge what we have got. But we’re never going to be silent.
And for that and more, thank you, Virginia Woolf! I found a friend in you!
So that was my second and last instalment of my book discussion on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. If you’d like to read the first instalment, here’s where you can find it: TMB on A Room of One’s Own – pt 1.
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 did you think about it? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 😊
I’ll see you in the next blog post.
Until next time, keep reading, keep fighting for what’s right, and add melodrama to your life! 😊
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