A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2,878 words.)