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...


14 comments:

  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

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    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.

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  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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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...

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    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...

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    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...)

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

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  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.

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    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.

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  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. :)

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    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.

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