Monday, 29 July 2013

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

by Viva Avasthi                                                                                  
                                                                    Rating out of 5: ★★★★★

A Room of One's OwnAfter 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', which I've reviewed here, it was the extended essay entitled 'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf (1182-1941) that I got my hands on next. This text is based on a series of lectures delivered by Woolf at Newnham College and Girton College, two colleges of the University of Cambridge. In 1928, when Woolf gave her lectures, both colleges were solely for women; today Girton also admits men.

Despite being based on her lectures entitled 'Women and Fiction' (and being classified as a non-fiction text for this very reason), it is a fictional narrator of no particular name who is the main character in this text. We are encouraged by Woolf's anonymous narrator to call her by "any name [we] please" as it is apparently "not a matter of any importance" - a highly effective way for Woolf to direct her readers towards thinking more closely about the ideas and arguments presented rather than who they are being presented by.

This essay follows the thought processes of the unnamed narrator in trying to establish why it is that up until the point of this essay being published women had not been able to have as much influence in society, and particularly in the field of literature, as men. She travels from the colleges of the fictional Oxbridge University to the British Museum in London to Shakespeare's time (as a thought experiment) to see why "masculine values prevail" and "football and sport are 'important'; the worship of the fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial'". In a particularly intriguing part of her writing, she imagines what it would have been like for Shakespeare's own sister, had she been a genius, to attempt to display her talents to the world.

Woolf raises key questions including some about why it might have been (and still might be) in men's interests to keep women as their subordinates. She also tries to find out why women held such prominent and powerful roles in various great works of fiction such as 'Macbeth' and inspired such passion in other works when, in reality, during the times when those works were published, ordinary women were severely oppressed and their thoughts and wishes ignored.

Her underlying message most relevant to today, however, is that "it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with only one?" I am inclined to agree with her. The differences that exist between people and the variances in beliefs and ideas are what make the world exciting and have allowed us to progress through our innovations. The people who have most greatly impacted our lives through their work have been those whose ideas have been different and out-of-the-box rather than adherent to already existing thoughts.

Developing on this idea, Woolf felt that the biggest mistake a writer could make would be to "think of their sex" and "be a man or woman pure and simple". In her opinion, the best writers are those who are "woman-manly or man-womanly" in the sense that they do not write to degrade the other gender or assert their own superiority, but keep an open mind unconfined by the limitations of oppressive societal or gender-based values. In my opinion one such writer was Oscar Wilde, who in his only novel, 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', challenged society's beliefs on the nature and value of art and the breath of the discussion on morality and immorality.

Charmingly written, with the author's invitation to "throw the whole of it into the waste-paper basket and forget all about it...[if no] part of it is worth keeping", this essay provides an inspiring overview of the struggles faced by women in the past to allow them the relative freedom and relative equality they have today. It is well worth reading even if you aren't a woman because of how wonderfully well-argued, well-written and surprisingly lacking in bitterness it is. 'A Room of One's Own' greatly exceeded my expectations so I look forward to reading more of Virginia Woolf's works.

Diane Coyle on her blog 'The Enlightened Economist' has written a wonderful post entitled 'Intellectual fuel for modern feminists' where she shares some of her favourite feminist texts.

If you've already read this book or are thinking of reading it, please do share your thoughts by commenting. 


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