Friday, January 31, 2020

Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own (#CCSpin)

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by A Room Of One's Own. Though I hadn't read it before I sort of thought I knew all about it. (To an ancient Greek, this is called hubris.) What I thought (in advance): In order for a woman (or anyone, really, but women were very much less likely to have it) to become a writer five hundred pounds a year and a room of one's own was needed.

And the essay does make that argument, it's true. But it still surprised me, stylistically I guess. I'm not that well-read in Woolf by any means. But the novels I've read--To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando--are complex, difficult in their language, and deep. Her essays--I've read the Common Reader series--on the other hand, are leaner in their language, full of sparking ideas, and deep. I don't know, I expected this to be like the Common Reader series. But it was neither one nor the other--neither fiction nor essay--exactly.

The initial occasion for the essay was a two-night talk on the subject 'Women and Fiction' Virginia Woolf gave at two women's colleges at Cambridge in October of 1928. She then rewrote the talks as a single essay which was published, in both the U.K. and the U.S. a year later, and is the text in this volume. But she refers several times in the printed essay to the occasion of the talks and starts her essay by saying what her hosts and audience likely mean by 'Women and Fiction' is not what she will address.

What surprised me was the almost fanciful, the fictional, aspect of her essay. The introduction appropriately quotes Woolf herself from The Pargiters, "I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction." And so she does here. Woolf supposes a sister of William Shakespeare named Judith, equally talented, and how her purported career as a writer would go. (Short answer: not well.) The essay more stops and starts, circles around its argument with its fictional conceit, and demonstrates more by example than by any close-reasoned progression. I'd say it was closer to Orlando, than to anything in the Common Reader volumes. In short, the truth here is important, and she is writing fiction.

My edition (shown above next to Hubert) is the Penguin, and also includes Three Guineas, which I haven't read. It contains a pretty good, though not brilliant, introduction by Michèle Barrett.

Two other things I did notice: Woolf writes at one point, apropos of the British Library catalog: "Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" I hate to argue with Virginia Woolf, and I certainly know nothing about the state of the British Library catalog in 1928, but I doubt that's really true. Her basic point, that men want to control women in that time, (we'll ignore for now whether anything's changed or not) I don't doubt: but that's (alas) not the same thing as really wanting to know anything about them. I think she's confusing two different activities here. At some point I might write about men writing about women in fiction, contrasting that with women writing about men. It's a thing I've been thinking about.

The other is that Barrett includes a footnote explaining the name Coleridge: "Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), poet and essayist." Really, I thought? A reader of Virginia Woolf will need to be told such basic information about Coleridge? There is no "Shakespeare: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), poet and playwright." But then I decided Barrett was probably right. These days I can imagine this book assigned to incoming college students--possibly high school students--students so young they don't yet even know who Coleridge is. What would Virginia Woolf herself have thought about this turn of events? I have to imagine she would be shocked Coleridge was no longer a household name, and she herself was read first. So: maybe the world has changed.

This was my book for the Classics Club spin #22. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, but between traveling to California and just generally being slothful, here I am writing this post at the last possible minute...


  1. i'd very much like your opinion of "The Waves"... i liked it quite a bit altho i admit to non-comprehension of some of it... i read one review of it that said it was based to a large extent on quantum mechanics... no comment

    1. The Waves & The Years are the next ones I want to read, though it's been so long since I read To The Lighthouse & Mrs. Dalloway I also feel like I should reread them. The Waves is on my Classics Club list.

      In any case, I **am** feeling like a major Virginia Woolf binge could be coming on.

  2. I always have an open-mind with Woolf because I NEVER know what she's going to come up with.

    Men writing about women and vice versa would be an interesting topic, however I wonder if it's generalizing something that is much more complex. I dislike Dickens portrayal of women but other male authors portray very believable women. So I don't think the accurate (or inaccurate) portrayals rely so much on gender as they do insight, and character, and personality, etc. What do you think?

    1. Well, generalizing is, of course, what we, as bloggers, do... ;-)

      There is definitely variation between authors. Dickens' heroines are generally terrible, Esther Summerson perhaps excepted. Some of his secondary female characters are sometimes OK--I'm not sure I believe in the existence of Betsey Trotwood, but I don't care. (I am **so** looking forward to seeing Tilda Swinton play her.) But no female character in Dickens can hold a candle to Anna Karenina. Dickens' problem can perhaps be attributed to the overall Victorian insistence on idealizing young women rather than his personal failures in observation, but I'm not certain of that.

      On the flip side, George Eliot's men--Lydgate, e.g.--are brilliant and utterly convincing, but Jane Austen's...well, Darcy is a nicely idealized male heroine & perhaps a little more convincing than Agnes Wickfield, but not a lot. (Though, heck, I could fall in love with Darcy...heterosexual male that some few people know me to be...)

      My argument would run along the lines that women, because of their lack of power in society, are simply more obliged to study men than vice versa, and that this applies to novelists as well as anybody else. Men could (can?) ignore women if they want to. Women couldn't (can't?) return the favor and ignore men.

    2. Hmmm ….. I'm not certain I agree with your last paragraph in the classic sense. Women lacked power in the "polis" but they often didn't in the home. And home is where the heart is … I think it would be difficult to ignore a woman because of this. And I think historically there was more of a universal feel to philosophy or meditating on issues … I think it's much more polarized today in spite of the broader scope of opportunities for women. Historically women and men seemed to be more of a unit whereas now they're separate entities. I don't know if either situation makes it easier for men to portray women and women to portray men well (or poorly). Again, I believe it's individualistic. I think of C.S. Lewis ….. he had women writing to him all the time with questions so he must have been able to put himself in their shoes to be able to give his much sought advice. But if men really STRIVED to ignore women historically, I do agree it would have been easier. I just think the world and views were different and it didn't necessarily make one sex more blind or less insightful towards the other.

      You have me thinking about authors now. Tolstoy's insight into all humans is astounding; I do appreciate Trollope's portrayals; perhaps Austen's men don't seem completely like men from a man's point of view but they were probably sketched as women viewed them; Dumas' men are over-dramatized; Hugo's women are not quite right; Eliot's men, as you said are sketched well; Gaskell's men are quite good …. Do you think if perhaps you're an author, you have more insights into human nature and the human condition in general and are more accurate with your sketching of both sexes than the average person would be? I do.

    3. I would definitely hope (and generally believe) that authors are more noticing about the opposite sex (and everything in general) than the public at large. After all, it's part of their job description...

      And, also, there is a lot of variation among authors about how much or how little they suffer from this defect. I don't really know C.S.Lewis that well--I've read Narnia, Four Loves, Screwtape Letters--and from what I know I don't doubt that he was on the good side of the curve, that he was better than average at observing women. Though, for that matter, the character I remember from Narnia is Edmund, the bad boy, and the other siblings seemed a bit idealized and unmemorable, though that includes Peter.

      But in Tolkien, who, by all accounts, was totally in love with his wife, the female characters are in no way as well-observed as the male. To pick other near contemporaries, Hemingway's women are terrible and unconvincing, though Fitzgerald's are passable. Daisy Buchanan is exactly the sort of woman who might have been idealized beyond reality in a different author--the hero's beloved!--but she feels like a person.

      Of course, not all characters need to be equally developed (cf. Forster's idea of flat and round characters) for the novel to go.

      So, I don't think it goes so far as men striving to ignore women, (though Hemingway! who strives to know women in only the one sense that I can see.) And frequently the more interesting male authors do strive to know women so as to include them. But they can ignore women, and if they're a bit lazy or uninterested they do; I'm not sure female authors have that same possibility. To go back to our idealized love objects: I joked that Darcy is a bit too good to be true, and he is, but nevertheless he's much more sharply observed and convincing than Agnes Wickfield. Dickens was very good at observation, we know this; nevertheless, for some reason, we have Agnes, the perfect little housekeeper.

    4. interesting exchange... i'm not sure if it's possible to portray humans in other than a surface, non-complex way... i think of the people i have thought i had known well, and of the instances of their behavior that showed me that they had depths that were totally unknown to me... but i guess authors must use stereotypes as characters or they would never be able to write anything... or maybe it's because i don't have the ability or talent to see others as they are...

    5. Yes, it's true that it can't know the inside of somebody else's head, a real person for sure, or, even a fictional character. Still some authors give you a better sense there's real person than others: I feel like I could meet Pierre Bezukhov walking down the street. Mike Hammer, less so...

    6. i'd feel that way about Hammer! (why i believe that no two persons read the same book even tho it's the same book, haha...)

    7. Well, let's say I wouldn't want to meet Mike Hammer walking down the street!

    8. I know I'm more than a year late, but I'm going to jump in anyway to say I disagree with the criticism of Jane Austen's male characters. Her male characters are, well, more than just Darcy.
      Look at the range of them: from the romantic interests (Edward Ferras, Colonel Brandon, Darcy, George Knightley, Captain Wentworth) to the bad guys (Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill...), from the fathers (Mr Bennet, Mr Woodehouse, Sir Bertram, Sir Walter Elliot...) to the ridiculous men (Mr Collins, Mr Elton...).
      I myself think her most complex and lifelike male characters are in Mansfield Park: Henry Crawford and Sir Bertram.
      But even if we look only at the romantic interests, I have no idea what's unrealistic or bad about them: the awkwardness of Darcy, who says Elizabeth is not pretty enough to tempt him but who nevertheless feels drawn to her, or the embarrassment of Captain Wentworth, or the jealousy of George Knightley, all feels utterly real to me.

    9. Never too late to jump in!

      If you read the whole thread you saw I didn't really convince anybody anyway, ;-) but I still think the principle holds. I probably should have picked a good, but less clearly great author than Jane Austen to make my point. Something like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, say.

      It's been forever since I read Mansfield Park, so I'm going to have to pass on that, though my feeling at the time was Austen's politics a bit overwhelmed her usual deft hand at characterization.

      The most recent ones I've reread are Emma & Persuasion. Captain Wentworth does feel pretty fully rounded to me; Knightley, though, a bit less so. His jealousy and didacticism (call it a precursor to mansplaining if you like) are pretty real-feeling; the shocking evenness of his temper--and I'm pretty even-tempered myself--though feels idealized. I dunno. We're in the realm of unverifiable opinion, of course.

      Though Cleo didn't really buy it above--or I didn't explain it well enough--I do think that Austen's relatively better drawn men, (which is true) even if I find them a bit idealized, compared to, say, Dickens' relatively more poorly drawn women, is due to a systemic sexism that was inescapable. But it's an ill wind, etc...

      (Though Dickens does have a few pretty great and rounded women, it's just they're generally half-tragic. The second Mrs. Dombey or Lady Dedlock, e.g.)

    10. Haha.
      What do you mean that "Austen's politics a bit overwhelmed her usual deft hand at characterization"?
      I think Mansfield Park is Jane Austen's most misunderstood and least popular novel because it's her most complex one, morally and psychologically.
      Regarding George Knightley, at the risk of being called pedantic, I wouldn't say mansplaining because my understanding of the term is that it's used when a man lectures to a woman in a patronising way about a subject he doesn't know much about. That doesn't work for Knightley because he is sensible and does know more than Emma most of the time.
      Knightley may, as you say, seem a bit too good to be true (and I much prefer him to Darcy), but he isn't perfect: he lectures a lot to Emma, isn't funny, and isn't particularly passionate or articulate.

    11. Regarding Dickens, I don't think the comparison between Austen and Dickens is particularly fair: Jane Austen aims to write lifelike, well-rounded characters, aims to write about social manners and the subtlety of feeling and human behaviour, I don't think that is Dickens's aim.
      His characters tend to be slanted, as though viewed through a distorted lens. They may not be like people you know in real life, but they feel real within their particular world. You complain about his female characters, but his male characters are largely depicted in the same way.
      That being said, I think he does write good female characters who have self-contradictions, such as Estella, Amy Dorrit, Fanny Dorrit, Miss Wade, etc.

      I should perhaps one day write a full blog post about the subject of women writing men and men writing women.
      There are many female writers who can write men well: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Carson McCullers, Murasaki Shikibu...
      There are also many male writers who write women well.
      Of course some male writers write women badly. Some avoid women altogether. But there are plenty of male writers who create complex, well-rounded, multifaceted female characters, such as Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Cao Xueqin, Flaubert, etc.

    12. I should reread Mansfield Park. It's the only one of her novels I've read just once, and it's been a while. On the other hand the one I want to reread these days in P&P. Darcy may not entirely convince me, but I adore the book, it's so much fun.

      That said, I agree Mansfield Park is the Austen novel least like the others. I would also say in some ways it's her most ambitious. Without checking, I believe it's the longest, and politics--and philosophy--are more present in it (even compared to Persuasion) than any of the others. But as I remember it, I felt the bad things that happened were there to demonstrate the philosophy. We're told amateur theatricals are bad, and bad things happen when amateur theatricals take place, thus vindicating the earlier statement. I wasn't entirely convinced that the bad things happened organically. But I am only writing this from what I remember from twenty years ago.

      Drawing examples from Dickens is dangerous business of course. He's rather unlike anybody else, and there are so many characters, even on the basis of statistics you'd figure he'd have at least some hits and misses, and of course Dickens' percentage of hits is very high. But mostly I was thinking of the romantic pairings: the difference in real-ness between David Copperfield and Agnes (though Dora is much more believable) or between Pip and Estella.

      Anyway, my point was less that some men write worse women and some women write worse men--that's unsurprising, I imagine--or that great writers are exceptions to this--even less surprising. What interested me was the asymmetry of it. Female authors generally do better than male in this regard. Even Darcy, the most idealized of the love objects in Austen, is a far more convincing character than Agnes Wickfield. Can I make this sweeping generalization and back it up? I feel like maybe I could if I read enough books. (Where's Erich Auerbach when you need him?)

      You should write a post! Then we could carry on this conversation not in the back pages of my blog and then somebody else might see it and could jump in. ;-) It is an interesting subject.

    13. "We're told amateur theatricals are bad, and bad things happen when amateur theatricals take place, thus vindicating the earlier statement."
      I disagree.
      If you're referring to the way Henry Crawford flirts and plays with Maria's and Julia's feelings, the amateur theatricals take place after the Sotherton trip, where Henry has already been flirting with them both at the same time and hurting their feelings. The play only pushes it further, but it's not because of the playacting itself, but because the whole scenario is exploited by Henry.
      Note too that Jane Austen doesn't say that amateur theatricals are bad, it's Fanny who thinks so, though a large part of it is also because she knows it would not be approved by Sir Bertram and it's disrespectful to do something everyone knows he would disapprove, in his absence.
      I'm not sure what you mean about you're not convinced that these things happen organically, when they're a continuation, and a development, of what happened before. In an early conversation in the novel between Mary Crawford, Henry, and their sister Mrs Grant, Mary already says that Henry is a flirt and he would break some women's hearts. Everything is already there, from the beginning.

    14. "What interested me was the asymmetry of it. Female authors generally do better than male in this regard."
      Is there really an asymmetry as you say? Do female authors really do better?
      Again you give the examples of Darcy and Agnes Wickfield: that alone doesn't back it up.
      As I said, there are plenty of male writers who write excellent female characters: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Cao Xueqin, Flaubert, Henry James... A lot of 19th century novels have a central female characters, like the works of Tolstoy, James, "The Scarlet Letter", "Effi Briest", etc.
      I would say that no female writer that I've read has written a male character as complex and lifelike as Tolstoy's female characters, but I'm not only talking about Anna Karenina, I'm also referring to Dolly, Natasha, Sonya, Marya, etc.
      There's also a great range of female characters in Shakespeare and Cao Xueqin.

    15. I'll have to defer on Mansfield Park, at least for now... ;-) But you have made me want to reread it.

      I don't know, I could be wrong about the asymmetry...Shakespeare's characters are pretty great & if there's more great men than women that's easily attributed to the limits of the Elizabethan stage. Tolstoy is one of those authors who's an exception to everything. I haven't read Cao Xueqin. (Though I should.) Emma Bovary is amazing. James does do very good women. Fontane also does women well.

      George Eliot might be the inverse of Tolstoy. Lydgate, Adam Bede are perfectly well realized male figures by a female author. And there are a number of other well-drawn men in Eliot.

      But perhaps exceptional cases make bad law applies here and I should make my argument from good but not great authors. But then that really would be a project...and in the end I might not entirely convince myself...

    16. Haha reread Mansfield Park.
      As for Cao Xueqin, because I'm shameless, here's my blog post about why you should read "Hong lou meng" aka "Dream of the Red Chamber":
      His female characters are excellent, and there's a very charming, endearing character who I think can compare to Natasha, Beatrice, and Elizabeth Bennet.

      I'm planning to reread a big Tolstoy this year.

      Have you read Edith Wharton? Her male characters are great too.

    17. When I cited Eliot, I almost went with Wharton (though I should read more of her). Ralph Marvell or Lawrence Selden are perfectly well-realized characters, whom one could meet on the street.

      I've been thinking about W+P lately, having watched the Russian film from the sixties pretty recently.

      Going off to read your post on Red Chamber now!

    18. How was the Russian film? I haven't seen any adaptation.

    19. Good--definitely worth seeing--but not great I would say. The director Bondarchuk played Pierre & he was very good. Andrei wasn't bad. Natasha, I thought the weak link.

      The battle scenes are definitely astonishing--apparently he was able to call on the Russian army as extras.

      It would also help to have read the novel recently. I don't imagine this would be a problem for a Russian, but I thought at points if I didn't already know what was going on, I wouldn't know what was going on...

  3. Good for you. You finished your spin.

    It's something to think about...students today know Woolf but are much less likely to know the poets she knew so well.

    1. And it's a fairly recent change, too, I think. At my (not entirely) advanced age, I'm sure when I was a high school student I knew who Coleridge was before I knew who Woolf was. Now I'm not sure that would be the case.

  4. Woolf does write this one in an interesting way, doesn't she? I remember when I first read it I was scribbling down so many quotes I finally decided to buy my own copy so I could just underline them instead. But that's been awhile ago. :)

    1. She does!

      I definitely copied out a bunch of things and it would have been tempting to give in and underline, but I don't usually like to do that.