The Reading Room
Reading A Room of One’s Own: Parts 5&6
In the concluding chapters of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf returns her narrator, Mary, to the present. Woolf then, finally, lends her own voice to the piece.
From her shelves, Woolf’s narrator, Mary Beton, chooses a recent novel, “Life’s Adventure” by first-time author Mary Carmichael (the last of Woolf’s potential Marys identified in Part 1). Mary finds that there are modern novelties in the book: there are relationships between women, women exist as whole characters independent of men, and the book records activities of women without men. There is room in these innovations for important insight, thinks Mary, simply because womens’ voices have so far contributed so little.
The insights in “Life’s Adventure” are not the result of the author’s genius. Rather, the narrator believes that Mary Carmichael benefits from a history and tradition of literature that was missing in the writing of George Eliot and the Brontë sisters. Indeed, she has so much tradition to stand upon that she need not (and does not) use Jane Austen’s writing style.
Before she leaves us, Mary muses that not only fiction but reality needs both male and female voices. Ironically, she says, the push for women’s liberation has motivated men to suppress their feminine understanding of the world in their effort to write as men. This “sex conscious” writing, suggests Mary, unbalances and undermines literature. Instead, women and men, writing differently as they naturally do, rather than writing as women and men, are needed to create worthwhile and true art.
Here Woolf casts Mary aside.
As Woolf’s voice emerged, I thought, at last! What would she endorse? Would she toss anything of Mary aside?
One thing is certain: Woolf believed that women need, as anyone needs, time and independence to write, and that for almost all of human history they had neither. She quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance...a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.” (The Art of Writing)
Woolf has no time for people who want to insist that material concerns don’t matter for good art. She presses the point:
“That is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.”
That’s as direct as you’ll get from Virginia Woolf.
As if to remind the reader not to take clarity for granted, for the remainder of her conclusion Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style intersperses a plea for women to continue to prioritize education, writing, and truth with complaints about societal conventions. She believes that more writing on just about every subject by women is warranted, so long as the writers are trying to write well. She believes writing more and writing well will improve not only whatever subject authors embrace, but literature, too. And she believes that good writers make good humans. (Thanks, I hope!)
The ideals of good writing, being wholly oneself, and searching for truth, says Woolf, are worth pursuing. There is a standard of excellence out there that might be unachievable, but worth the pursuit.
“So that when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality. An invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.”
Mary believed that women writers need another hundred years. Woolf’s prescription is timeless.