Form and Content

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What is now known as A Room of One’s Own began as two essays, parts of which were read to the Arts Society at Newnham and to the Odtaa at Girton in October of 1928. These essays were later revised and extended by Woolf into a short book of six...

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What is now known as A Room of One’s Own began as two essays, parts of which were read to the Arts Society at Newnham and to the Odtaa at Girton in October of 1928. These essays were later revised and extended by Woolf into a short book of six chapters which mixes fact and fiction to analyze the roles and relationships of money and gender in regard to the production of art, specifically fiction by women.

Woolf composed the original essays to deliver as speeches to groups of young college women—women who were at that time forbidden to enter England’s university system because of their gender. The topic of “women and fiction” forms the continuing motif of the book, as Woolf attempts different compositions of the question before attempting to answer them: What are women like? What is fiction written by women like? What is fiction written about women like? These questions led her to connect gender and fiction with economics at a time when women had just recently received the right to vote and the right to own property. She thus further asks such questions as “Why did men drink wine and women water?” and “What effect has poverty on fiction?”

Woolf begins to answer the questions about women and fiction by inventing a fictional college called Fernham. She refers to herself as a fictional character—“I”—and stresses that she speaks as a kind of Everywoman. She finds not only that she is barred from the library because of her gender but also that women have historically been barred from writing fiction for the same reason.

By comparing the furnishings and the food served at Fernham to those of men’s universities, she suggests a correlation between women’s fiction and money. The necessity of money to produce art, specifically fiction, leads Woolf to the formulaic answer of the title: What a woman needs to write fiction is money (five hundred British pounds annually) and a room of her own.

The six chapters explore the connections of gender, money, and fiction through an imagined visit to the British Museum, an examination of George Trevelyan’s History of England, a review of nineteenth century British women novelists, a comparison of the representations of women in historical works with their representation by men in literature (including a speculation about what would have happened to William Shakespeare had he been born a woman), and a final call for an androgynous approach to the production of art.

Context

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Of all the artists and writers who were part of the Bloomsbury circle of intellectuals in early twentieth century England, Virginia Woolf has proved to be the most influential and enduring, except perhaps for Maynard Keynes and his effects on economic theory. A Room of One’s Own has become an icon of feminism, although its content often was distorted by critics as its influence grew.

The many works alluding to Woolf’s title have made the work a symbolic statement of feminist philosophy. After its first publication, however, reaction was muted. Some saw it as a harsh complaint with unrealistic expectations (for example, five hundred British pounds in 1929 was roughly equivalent to an annual income of fifty thousand dollars, a fortune for that time). Others saw it as an accurate portrayal of social conventions in regard to gender. The time in history of its publication, the period between two world wars, diminished its initial impact; in fact, Woolf reiterated much of the argument in her 1938 Three Guineas, mixing women’s equality into the context of the masculine institutions of war and government. Indisputably, the central image of A Room of One’s Own has contributed to the understanding that gender equality has more to do with economic power than with biology.

Woolf’s work is usually considered to be ardently feminist and a product of her repression based on gender. Yet Woolf was a privileged woman with access to education other than the university, and her financial status allowed her not only to publish her own works but also to publish other writers at her and her husband Leonard’s Hogarth Press. The book criticizes discrimination based on wealth; it criticizes the subjugation of any group because of economic repression, whether that group is defined by gender or any other criterion.

Woolf, like Edgar Allan Poe, was much maligned following her death by suicide in 1941; her mental instabilities were emphasized far more than her insightful social and political analysis. In more recent criticism, her artistic temperament and her gender are less the focus of study than her straightforward and innovative analysis of literature and economic power.

Historical Context

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British Universities and Women
Cambridge and Oxford universities, each made up of various colleges, are Britain's oldest and most well-known universities. Both universities were established in the early thirteenth century although both institutions had been active as centers of learning well before their official establishment as universities. In 1869, Cambridge's Girton College became the first British college to accept women students. In 1871, Cambridge established a college specifically for women, Newnham College. Girton and Newnham Colleges are where Woolf delivered the two lectures on women and fiction that grew into A Room of One's Own. The "Oxbridge'' of Woolf s book refers to Cambridge and Oxford, and so refers to bastions of male education in general."Fernham,'' the fictional women's college depicted in Woolf s book, is an obvious allusion to Newnham.

Feminism
There have always been men and women who have decried women's second-class status in Western societies. But feminism as a viable and broad-scale movement did not take off until democratic ideals pervaded the West during the eighteenth century. Since that time, feminist activity has been consistent, though sometimes more vigorous and sometimes less so. Mary Wollstonecraft, a British woman who was inspired by the events of the democratic revolutions, published the first major feminist tract in English, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in 1797. Feminism gathered force during the nineteenth century as women entered public life as factory workers during the course of the Industrial Revolution. The philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869) was an influential British feminist tract of the mid-nineteenth century. Feminism achieved its first major gain in the West when women were granted the vote in 1918 in Britain and in 1920 in the United States. However, since women's social status and opportunities continued to lag behind those of men during the twentieth century, a new women's rights movement was forged in the 1960s.

British Suffragettes
The early decades of the twentieth century, like the 1960s and 1970s, were years of major, particularly intensive feminist action throughout the world. The rise of socialist philosophies, of which a major component is the equality of the sexes, gave impetus to feminist demonstrations in places as diverse as Japan, Mexico, and Russia. Things were no different in the United States and Britain, and the feminists of London, in particular, were known for the vigor and militancy of their actions. Feminists were most often referred to as suffragettes at this time because their primary goal was to gain the vote, or suffrage, for women. And no suffragettes were more creative in their methods than the followers of Emmeline Pankhurst, who was one of the principal British feminist organizers of the time. British suffragettes would invade parliamentary sessions and create disturbances, march down streets at inconvenient times to disrupt business, or, more typically, engage in peaceful demonstrations. One demonstration that took place in 1908 in London's famous Hyde Park attracted almost half a million people. Some of the more militant acts engaged in by turn-of-the-century feminists were stone throwing and hunger strikes.

World War I
The connection between early-twentieth-century British feminism and World War I (1914) is a complex and mixed one. First, the start of this terrible war cut short feminist activity which was, at the time, vigorous. It seemed, before the start of the war, that women were on the verge of gaining the vote in England. But once the war began, few people had time to attend to the problems of women. Instead, everybody, including feminists, threw themselves into the war effort. These women became nurses, ambulance drivers, intelligence operatives, and the like. In addition, since so many men were off fighting, women were called to take their places in the regular work force. And since this war resulted in the deaths of so many men, many of these same women were able to keep these jobs once the war was over. So, despite the fact that the war cut short organized feminist activity, it ended up advancing women's cause in the long run, because it facilitated women's entry into the professions. Also, since women contributed to the war effort so valiantly and extensively, Parliament passed a bill giving certain women the vote the very year the war ended (the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1918).

Literary Style

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Style
Throughout A Room of One's Own, Woolf interacts with her readers by addressing them as "you," as if she were giving a lecture. In fact, her first sentence pretends that the members of her audience will object to some of what she is going to say: ‘‘But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one's own?’’ Woolf s conversational style is a crucial component of her message. For Woolf, how a person delivers a lecture is just as important as its content or what it says. And the give-and-take style of A Room of One's Own indicates that, as a lecturer writer, Woolf does not place herself above her audience. She does not wish to present herself as a pompous know-it-all who assumes that her listeners are intellectually inferior. By acknowledging the responses of her audience, she does not assume that she is the only one in possession of ideas or knowledge. This is a book about equality, and Woolf makes sure that the way she discusses her ideas is in keeping with the ideas themselves. The style in which she presents her ideas acknowledges that her readers have minds and ideas of their own.

Tone
Much of what is presented in A Room of One's Own is put forward playfully or with humor, and this tone accomplishes two things. First, it guards against negative responses to its topic. Woolf knows that women's issues are touchy for many readers: many men feel threatened by feminism, and many women fear losing the love of men if they assert their rights or call themselves feminists. So, by infusing her arguments with humor, Woolf emphasizes debate over anger. Second, the easy tone sets the book apart from the typical lecture in which information is dryly imparted. By departing from typical lecture style, Woolf puts herself into a class of speakers and writers for whom lecturing and essay writing is considered art, not just a means to convey facts or ideas. The varying and often light-hearted tone of the piece is part of its attempt to be a subtle and enjoyable piece of writing, one which will entertain and delight as much as challenge and inform. Anecdotes
Successful essays use concrete examples and specific details to illustrate general points. Woolf s essay contains a number of fictional anecdotes that serve this purpose. For example, in chapter one, Woolf wishes to dramatize the way in which women have been systematically excluded from doing certain things. She also wishes to dramatize how society favors men at the expense of women. The story of the narrator's day on a university campus illustrates these points very clearly. (The university is divided into men's and women's colleges.) The narrator describes a beadle forcing her off the grass at a men's college, and, immediately after this, being denied entrance to the men's campus library. Then, she contrasts meals eaten at this men's college and at one of the women's colleges. The narrator's forcible exclusion from real physical locations symbolizes the societal limitations imposed on women in general, and the descriptions of the contrasting meals very entertainingly illustrates how public money is lavished on men but not on women.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Woolf and other British feminists such as Winifred Holtby and Rebecca West argue vigorously for women's equal opportunity in the professions and public life.

Today: Numerous female politicians, in Britain and elsewhere, have become prime ministers or presidents of their nations.

1920s: The Flapper is the female icon of the day. Her short hair and simply cut, loose dresses announce a new freedom of movement and action.

Today: Fly Girls and Riot Girls strut their stuff. These young women project independence and capability through physical fitness, skimpy clothing, and colored hair.

1920s: Literature courses in British universities are geared to the education and grooming of young, upper-class men. The ancient Greek and Roman writers are taught, and a knowledge of Greek and Latin is a must.

Today: Like all major universities around the world, British universities offer literature courses that cover all eras and languages; moreover, by the 1970s, the exclusion of literature written by women was understood to be an institutional oversight.

1920s: In 1928, Britain's limited franchise (vote) for women, enacted in 1918, is extended to include all women over age 21.

Today: More so than its women, Britain's ethnic minorities, many of which come from ex-colonies, agitate for acceptance and advancement.

1920s: Like pre-World War I Britain, post-World War I Britain continues its struggle to dismantle the attitudes and structures that have maintained its broad class divisions for so long.

Today: While Britain's largest class is now middle-class, nevertheless, classist attitudes and inequalities still persist.

Media Adaptations

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Patrick Garland adapted A Room of One's Own for the stage and directed its premiere in 1989. The play is still performed throughout the world.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Gallop, Jane, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory, Routledge, 1992.

Gilbert, Susan M., and Sandra Gubar, The War of the Words, Vol. I of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1989.

Joplin, Patricia, ‘‘‘I Have Bought My Freedom’: The Gift of A Room of One’s Own,’’ in Virginia Woolf Miscellany 21, Fall 1983, pp. 4–5.

Millet, Kate, Sexual Politics, Virago, 1969.

Walker, Alice, ‘‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,’’ in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Further Reading
Bell, Clive, Old Friends, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1956. This is a description of the Bloomsbury Group, of which Woolf was a part, by one of its members. Bell married Woolf's sister, Vanessa (Stephen) Bell, who was a painter.

Evans, Nancy Burr, ‘‘The Political Consciousness of Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas,'' in New Scholar, Vol. 4, 1974, pp. 167-80. This is an analysis of Woolf's politics and feminism based on a reading of Woolf's two feminist books.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975. This book is about World War I, its impact on British life, and the literature some of its soldiers produced.

Lee, Hermione, Virginia Woolf, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. This is a recent biography of the author.

Woolf, Virginia, The Years, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1965. Woolf's eighth novel, first published in 1937, chronicles the lives of various members of a family through many decades, many decades.

Bibliography

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Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, this first complete biography of Woolf was first published in England in two volumes (here combined). It includes numerous photographs, a detailed chronology, references, and a bibliography. Bell drew on Virginia’s letters and diaries; however, his work was completed before all of Woolf’s letters and diaries were compiled.

DeSalvo, Louise A. The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. A detailed study of Woolf’s life and personality based on her diaries, letters, and biographical sources. Although the abuse is predicated on vague diary entries about her half brother George Duckworth, this work provides a feminist analysis of Woolf’s lesbianism.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Perhaps the most influential feminist criticism of its time, The Madwoman in the Attic reevaluates nineteenth century literature by women from a feminist perspective, citing Woolf as writer, feminist, and critic.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Alluding to Woolf’s work in its title, this analysis of women writers categorizes them into female, feminine, and feminist, which are somewhat useful but arbitrary definitions. The survey of women novelists is an early example of influential feminist revision.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diaries of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell. Vols. 1-5. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-1985. Though vast, these five volumes are well indexed and provide the most authoritative source for any study of Woolf or her politics and philosophy. Includes an introduction by Quentin Bell.

Woolf, Virginia. Women and Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. Cambridge, Mass.: Oxford University Press, 1992. For any detailed study of Woolf’s thoughts and the composing process of A Room of One’s Own, this work is mandatory.

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