The Reading Room
Reading A Room of One’s Own: Parts 1&2
Everyone wants to have read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Nowhere near as many have read it. I got to it (finally) in 2021. Read along with me, it’s past time.
Woolf is tricky. A Room of One’s Own is delivered not in her voice, but in the voice of a narrator. I’ve caught myself ascribing a thought to Woolf before remembering that her narrator, the fictitious Mary Beton (or “Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or...any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance.”) is the one speaking. We can’t take for granted that Mary’s words have Woolf’s endorsement. We also probably shouldn’t think that the names she’s chosen are accidental.
Woolf’s first chapter is one of contrasts. The narrator visits two campuses. Oxbridge is an old and venerated college with manicured lawns, beadles keeping ladies off the grass and out of the library, impressive stone buildings, and elevated conversation fuelled by a luxurious lunch.
Fernham is a newer women’s college. The gate to the gardens is ajar and even the seasons are in flux as Mary experiences both the chill breeze and bright leaves of autumn and fresh dew on spring flowers spilling over the walls. Smart brick buildings host an adequate but spare supper before the narrator retires to a room for practical conversation with one Mary Seton.
Why is Fernham different from Oxbridge? Why is the supper at Fernham merely adequate? Why do the scholars lack the resources, stature, and privacy of Oxbridge? What were women doing for so many years that they didn’t put aside the resources for women that have been laid down for the education of men?
(Mary does not ask why the gardens are open and wild. She does not ask why she is left so much freer to think in them.)
The question of resources is simply answered: until recently, women did not—could not—have money of their own to put aside. And even if they could have done, they had to raise daughters who would benefit from these resources. They did not have the money and they did not have the uninterrupted time. They did not have £500 a year and a room of their own.
In the second chapter, Mary visits the British Museum to learn about the history of women. What she learns is that it has been almost entirely written by men.
Woolf flips expectations on their head when Mary discovers how emotional male writing about women is. The authors’ conclusions—that women are naturally inferior in all respects to men— are written “in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.” She concludes that this emotion has more to do with asserting the superiority of men than it has to do with women.
Opposite emotion stands truth. And truth, says Mary, requires independence. The £500 a year she inherited from an aunt has secured her independence. Now she need not please or flatter a man for whom she’s writing. To the extent that she is free of his influence, she can let go of her anger at his opinions of her. But Mary has introduced an important question: if she is right, and male identity is tied up in an idea of superiority over women, can men ever become independent of women and let go of their anger?
Like Mary, I think this merits further thought. Like Mary, I was interrupted many times in the course of thinking of it. And so Woolf moves Mary, in the next part, to a room of her own before carrying on.