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...

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(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 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

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

British Universities and Women
Cambridge and Oxford universities, each made up of various colleges, are Britain's oldest and...

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Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Throughout A Room of One's Own, Woolf interacts with her readers by addressing them as "you," as if she were giving...

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Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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

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Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Research Emmeline Pankhurst, the indefatigable British suffragette and feminist. What organizations and newspapers did she found or help...

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Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte Brontë, is the story of an orphan who becomes a governess and who must make her own way in the world....

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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

Gilbert, Susan M., and...

(The entire section is 243 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.