First, enjoy the beautiful portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Then, contemplate A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Woolf, subject of the May Discussion on Feminist Classics.
I have read A Room of One’s Own several times over the years and each time I react differently, relating her comments to the ages and stages of my own life. This time, I reflect on education, its effect on her and its effect on me. Woolf feels shut out of the official high-level English education system. The women’s college at “Oxbridge” is grudgingly financed with the equivalent of bake sales, and the female scholars eat prunes instead of pudding. Woolf is directed away from walking on the grass and forbidden to enter the library. This matters to her.
One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can’t buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
She minds being shut out and sees how it affects a woman writer’s mind and attitudes. At times she confuses the effects of the denial of education and the effects of the content of that education. She speaks of the best of the English poets and then says, “Of these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men….” But she admires Shakespeare and he did not go to college. If he had, perhaps he would not have developed what Woolf calls an “androgynous mind,” that is, the ability to write free of sexual bias. “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in….”
Woolf also wanders into a rather confusing discussion of the man mind and the woman mind and wonders if male-dominated education is what women need. This reminds me of my introduction to higher education at the University of Michigan in 1949. This was the post-World War II period when the campus was still crowded with male students under the G.I. Bill. At freshman Orientation, a serious male dean told the women that perhaps we should not be there. True, we occupied places which might have been reserved for men but, worse, we ourselves would not be well served by education beyond reasonable expectations for us. It would unsettle us for being contented wives and mothers. Then an even more serious female dean reassured us; our liberal educations would fit us to be better wives and mothers.
Woolf wants women to have opportunities, but is not sure how they should be applied:
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 one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?
Yes, Virginia, but beware of prescribing differences based on gender. While you want female fiction writers, those deans wanted happy wives and mothers.
At one point in her essay, Woolf quotes a long passage from Bronte’s Jane Eyre, where Jane reflects of women’s lives that
…it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knifing stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
Woolf does not like this open discontent, saying “She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.” For heaven’s sake, why should she be calm! The very strength of her indignation is what gives Jane her power for female readers. And here, I think, is the flaw at the center of A Room of One’s Own. Yes, the writer needs financial support – whether inherited or earned—and she needs a place of quiet, the room of her own. That this place is “her own” also implies a control of at least some of the circumstances of her life. Woolf knows that, but at the same time she cannot rise above certain notions of female gentility, and English gentility at that, since she uses no American examples.