Book Review: A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

I went into this essay expecting Virginia Woolf had written about what the eponymous room is like - its design and contents. But she deals with a more fundamental issue - that one needs a room of one’s own.

The essays are a fine piece of scholarship. I’d never have thought that Woolf’s characteristic device, the “stream of consciousness” could be used to not only as a writing technique, but also as a powerful pedagogical technique.

it is in our idleness, in our dreams that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.

Her stream of consciousness follows her through fictionalized university grounds, riverfronts, libraries and many women writers. But that stream is diligently punctuated with the most careful and critical evaluation of what she found.

She begins with an impossible task: she has been asked to talk about “Women and Fiction”. She then despairs at how difficult it would be to find even the least measure of relevance in her sources.

I should need claws of steel and beak of brass even to penetrate the Husk. How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper?

She complains how she has been “drawing a picture” instead of “writing a conclusion”. It is only when her thoughts finally gain some momentum that she turns her attention towards gender. And in all her feminism, she is not once unfair, angry or bitter. She takes every opportunity to warn writers that bitterness and hatred is the death-knell of good writing. Every assertion is built from scratch. Her discourse doesn’t once pit men against women. She does not ask what men have that women don’t. Instead, she asks what a good writer needs (money, idleness and privacy), and then follows it up with whether men and women can get it. Even when there are comparisons between the gender, they are neatly organized into socio-historical, financial and psychological.

All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are “sides”… As people mature they cease to believe in sides…

So, it’s not just a set of essays on writing, or on women writers, or on how a good writer’s mind is incandescent, like Shakespeare’s. It’s much greater than the sum of it’s parts - a damn fine piece of scholarship.

Woolf begins with a lament,

I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever.

But by the end, she delivers exactly that: a nugget of pure truth that I’d keep on my mantelpiece for ever, in a room of my own.

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