Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Virginia Woolf | A Room of One's Own | Feminist Literary Criticism

Virginia Woolf (1882- 1941) was a novelist and theorist based in Edwardian London at a time of historic change. Politically Britain's empire declined steadily between the two world wars. Women got the right to vote and became more socially mobile as they entered the universities and the professions Room of One's Own argues that women writers should be enabled by a guarantee of economic independence and privacy. Contemporaries found her theory insufficiently radical in terms of the class struggle and the women's movement.



Brief Introduction of Virginia Woolf

BORN: 1882 in Leslie Stephen
DIED:  28 March 1941 (aged 59)  
LITERARY CAREER: Novelist, Essayist, publisher, critic
LITERARY WORKS: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931)

Virginia Woolf (1882- 1941) was a novelist and theorist based in Edwardian London at a time of historic change. Politically Britain's empire declined steadily between the two world wars. Women got the right to vote and became more socially mobile as they entered the universities and the professions Room of One's Own argues that women writers should be enabled by a guarantee of economic independence and privacy. Contemporaries found her theory insufficiently radical in terms of the class struggle and the women's movement. Later theorists though have been able to apply and extend her work by reconstructing the canon and rewriting literary history. The applicability of Woolf s theory across cultures however may be worth examining


Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 to Leslie Stephen - one of the editors of the Dictionary of National Biography - and his wife Julia, one of the best-known society hostesses in late nineteenth-century London. Woolf s own recollections of her childhood focus largely on repression and abuse. Her adulthood was spent largely among friends of the Bloomsbury group which was London's select coterie of intellectuals comprising painters, writers and critics. The group included people as diverse as the economist John Maynard Keynes, the iconoclastic biographer Lytton Strachey and the novelist E. M. Forster. Contemporaries were struck - unlike perhaps readers in the 1980's and 1990's with the sense of continuity rather than discontinuity such a background shared with the age that had gone before it.
Along with her husband Leonard, Woolf began the Hogarth Press, an experimental venture in publishing in 1917.
In 1941, after a lifetime of mental disturbance she took her own life. Erica Jong, a later feminist theorist, was to despair of the 'head in the oven' group of women writers which would (over the century) come to include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton who also committed suicide.
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1) Age : The world of Woolf in a sense is light years away from Wollstonecraft. Politically the 130-odd years saw the rise of the British empire overseas, its peak during the Victorian age and the long twilight of its decline during which Woolf was to write. The obvious crashing of public confidence that accompanied the crash of this patriarchal structure went together with the growing tendency of Britain to become progressively isolationist during this period. Domestically Britain came to know of problems such as rural dislocation, urban unemployment that came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of Trade Unionism. By 1929 (when A Room of One's Own was published) she had experienced two terms of government by the Labour Party. Culturally the arts had been transformed out of recognition by the increase in literacy and the rise of the novel.
2)Position of Women : Professionally more career options had opened for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. School teaching, nursing and typing meant that far more women entered the workforce than ever before. By the turn of the century, college-teaching became another option as did research. Beatrice Webb the economist, Mary Kingsley the explorer, Jane Harrison the anthropologist may seem symptomatic only of a tokenist representation of women. In their time though they were not just pioneers in their fields but as women who wrote up their research. So a new kind of woman-writer had entered the field as a new kind of ancestor. The issue of ancestors thus takes on a new dimension
Most of all the woman novelists had come into their own. The novel as popular form developed through the late eighteenth and nineteenth century as the form which was primarily about domestic space, the middle class, and above all, democratic. It did not necessarily require a classical education to either read or write. When Wollstonecraft wrote, the novel was in its infancy so that her reach of reference was necessarily limited.

The 1870's had seen the establishment of public schools for girls and the great women's colleges in London, Oxford and Cambridge. Wollstonecraft's plan that women be given an education where ' the cultivation of understanding' was placed above 'the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment', had in that sense been given a concrete shape. It was this sort of a college audience that Woolf was to have for the two talks that were published as A Room of One's Own


The essay now known as A Room of One's Own, began as a two-part lecture series Woolf was invited to deliver at two colleges in Cambridge -Newnham and Girton - which at that time were both single-sex colleges that admitted only women. Girton has since become educational The lectures were presented before the Arts Society at Newnham and the ODTAA ('One Damned Thing After Another') at Girton. Both were undergraduate societies; indeed they were relaxed and informal as the name of the second society shows. The audience then would have been largely student-standard. And all the students (reading for their B.A. degree) were young women. As women's colleges Newnham and Girton were (then as now) relatively under-funded, when compared to the men's colleges of the time. The students who attended Woolf s lectures would have come largely from what today are called 'bedsits': single rooms which include a bed, a writing-desk and chairs and are intended therefore to double as sitting-room and bedroom. the men's colleges at that time would have been able to provide their students with 'sets' of two rooms per person. Woolf builds on them - explicitly and , implicitly - in developing her argument that to write a woman needs financial independence and a room of her own and that in these two matters (economic security and privacy) women have been traditionally disadvantaged compared to men.
Woolf had established herself as both a novelist and a critic of note. Her theory and practice seemed alike to set the agenda for modernism at least in England and the coterie to which she belonged -the Bloomsbury group -was viewed as being at the cutting- edge of intellectual discussion. Yet Woolf herself - although she addressed a university audience -remained acutely conscious all her life that she had not gone up to university. Her education had been largely self-acquired as she read on her own in her father's library. Her father had been a Cambridge don and her brother Thoby had gone up to Cambridge in his turn. Woolf herself tended to see this as a deprivation imposed upon her by patriarchy. And yet - as the very presence of her lecture-audience demonstrates - there were women who were free to enjoy the intellectual freedom and development of university life.
First there is a sense of shared space and concerns. Both speaker and audience are 'women together' so to speak. Both come from the same ethnic group, both are from within pretty much the same class within England: educated upper middle-class since the Cambridge of 1928 had not too much government funding for students outside this class to come to university.
Next a slight skew may be detected in this relationship. Speaker and audience are likely to look at one point quite differently, that of a university education, since one side is experiencing it and the other side is conscious of having been deprived of it.
Then consider the fact that once A Room of One's Own was published, the constituency by definition underwent a change. The reading public did not necessarily share any of these experiences with the theorists. Many of Woolf s reviewers were men Many women and men readers were (unlike the speaker and the first audience) professionals.
Finally try to work out the implications of this audience-speaker relationship and position yourself vis-a-vis the text when you read it.


A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.' In other words, economic independence (which she places later at five hundred pounds a year) and domestic space (privacy within the home and stretches of freedom from cares associated with it) are according to Woolf, prerequisites for women to write. She has just constructed an imaginary picture of Shakespeare's sister - as talented as the dramatist - having to kill herself because gender-bias in Elizabethan England prevented her from exploiting her talent and instead exploited her vulnerability as a woman. In contrast she says Shakespeare's own mind could develop finely to being 'incandescent [and] unimpeded.' This is the state to which Woolf refers at the start of Chapter IV, which is the prescribed unit. She begins by inverting a patriarchal argument which she has cited earlier in which an old male professor tells a woman that no woman could have written the plays of Shakespeare since these are the product of a masculine mind which is superior. Naturally, says Woolf, no woman contemporary of Shakespeare's could have written like him. The Elizabethan age was patriarchal enough to restrict women entirely to the domestic sphere. This in turn conjures up a world of high mortality (including probably deaths in childbirth) and low social mobility for women. I will try to say a little about the women whom Woolf cites (in chronological order) and suggest their significance to the argument.
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1660-1720) was an eighteenth-century nature poet, derided by Augustans such as Pope and Gray for composing poetry that was the foolish indulgence (according to them) of a would-be intellectual woman. Her poetry is seen today as representative of the late eighteenth-century age of sentiment which explores nature through the feelings and imagination of a solitary individual. The significance of +>Anne Finch's poetry (in terms of literary history) is that she is the only woman poet to have been retrieved and placed in the phase of pre-romantic poetry, normally thought to have been a wholly male domain. In 1928 her poems were edited by Middleton Murry and this was also the year in which Woolf gave these lectures.

+>Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and the contemporary of Anne Finch continues to be cited today (alongside more bureaucratic sources such as the UN report on women) as one who wrote on the inequitable division of labour between women and men which even now stands internationally Citing the same extract that Woolf dies in her piece, Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth : 'women work harder than men whether they are Eastern or Western, housewives or jobholders. A Pakistani woman spends sixty-three hours a week on domestic work alone, while a Western housewife, despite her modem appliances works just six hours less' (Wolf, 23).
+> Dorothy Osborne an eighteenth century correspondent of William Temple (the patron of Jonathan Swift) is used by Woolf as an instance of how a woman with the instincts of a writer as her letters show) is so conditioned by the hostility of a patriarchal society that judges women writers to be either dangerously or ludicrously insane that she decides consciously not to write for publication.
+>Aphra Behn (1640-1689) the woman dramatist is cited by Woolf as the first woman writer to turn professional, or in other words, to make money by her writing. As one from the lower-middle class (unlike the others cited above) Aphra Behn alters the paradigm of the woman writer. Today her play Oroonoko (about a noble black slave in London) is studied as a document to understand the eighteenth century's , exploitation of the slave trade.

+>Jane Austen (1 775-181 7). Charlotte Bronte (181 6-1854), Emily Bronte (1818- 1848) and George Eliot (1819-1889) as famous novelists do not require Woolf s theory to rescue them from obscurity, unlike the others mentioned above. Woolf extends her argument to ask why women tend to write novels rather than poetic drama (as Emily Bronte might have done) or historical biography (as George Eliot might have done).
Woolf’s own answer to this question is that as middle-class women in a patriarchy that restricted their freedom of movement, the social mobility and area of influence of women was restricted to that of personal relationships. This is also the area of operation of the novel (say, as against the epic which is usually meant to have a cosmic sweep).
So in that sense gender dictates genre. Woolf goes on (using Austen as an instance) to make this point in another way. Middle-class women fear the opinion of others (even in their family circle) and can write only in snatches since they have no room of their own where they can write in their own time and space. Woolf also points out that a woman writer lives under constant pressure from what later theorists would call gender and ideology.

This constant strain pushes women writers, and frequently their novels and characters as well, to the point of insanity. She quotes from Jane Eyre to strengthen her case and show how the psychological strain of the author finds an echo in her protagonist and a submerged plot of insanity. Woolf concludes that the output of a woman writer is inherently different to that of a man even on the level of sentence-construction. The education of women therefore should be correspondingly different to that of men

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