Sunday, 1 August 2010

Review Post 36 - Give me my space, man...

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Well, a lot of people, especially those who know her only by reputation and haven't read any of her works.  I read my first Woolf novel last year (To the Lighthouse), and since then I've also read Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.  While there can be some mind-bendingly difficult passages, and while stream-of-consciousness can take some getting used to, Woolf's work can also be light, playful, elegant and easy to read (which definitely isn't the impression I had before).  Despite being best known for her fiction, Woolf also wrote some important essays and biographies, and today's post will look at one of these works and hopefully explain what the photo above has to do with the lovely Mrs. (Ms.?) W.  Shall we?

A Room of One's Own is a written version of lectures given by Woolf to Newnham and Girton Colleges (all-female colleges at Cambridge University) in October 1928.  Over 150 brisk, breezy pages, slightly digressing when the fancy takes her, the writer (who has been asked to lecture on women and literature) attempts to explain why so few women have been able to gain entrance to the pantheon of literature, and what relevance her title has.  This, of course, relates to the conclusion of her musings where she claims for a woman to become a serious writer, there are many requirements; the major ones, however, are a steady income of 500 pounds a year and a room - with a lock.

To explain why this is so, Woolf takes the reader (and the listeners) back to the sixteenth century, where she first speculates on the fate of the poor, brilliant (fictional) sister of the Bard of Avon, Judith Shakespeare, doomed to obscurity through being denied the advantages her famous brother enjoys in terms of education and support, before moving forward through the centuries to explore the lives and works of some famous and not-so-famous female writers.  In attempting to bring these women to life, the male world having largely ignored them, Woolf shows the obstacles female writers faced in attempting to create their art.

Even some of the more famous authors in the canon, when put under the Woolfian microscope, show signs of patriarchal oppression.  Charlotte Bronte is described as an angry apologist, excusing her unwomanly emotions in Jane Eyre; George Eliot's writing of novels, when non-fiction may have been a more suitable later occupation, is questioned by the writer (who hints that writing novels is easier than poetry or non-fiction for women who are constantly in danger of being disturbed and who thus must write in infrequent short bursts); Jane Austen is praised for being able to stay true to herself and unmoved by external frustrations in a way Bronte could not.  In all of these cases, Woolf believes that having a room of their own would have been a Godsend.

As well as the practical difficulties of creating a masterpiece while shackled to a shared desk in a common living area, female writers faced outright hostility from a society which preferred them to stay at home and look after the children.  Woolf touches on the difficulty for women of writing when the topics and language are the domain of men, forcing women to create their own words and style - something Woolf herself is obviously famous for.  However, she goes further, saying that the true artist should be neither masculine or feminine, that the perfect writer should be androgynous, a third sex, able to write clearly without being caught up in gender politics (apparently, Shakespeare was a good example of this...).

It's all fascinating stuff, and written in such a light, likable manner that it's very easy to cheer her on as she demolishes patriarchy, even from the male viewpoint.  However, women aren't the only undertrodden; Woolf touches on socio-economic issues (an issue closer to my heart) briefly, but there isn't really enough attention paid to this.  Another fault commented on by American writer Alice Walker is the absence of any mention of race (perhaps unsurprising in 1920s England?), leading to accusations that the room Woolf talks of is actually fairly limited in its availability.  Nevertheless, this short essay is generally considered an important feminist work and (more importantly) is great to read ;)

So, let's return to the picture above, which will lead me in to two closing points.  Firstly, as you can see from the bib in the photo, I am a proud father, and my wife now no longer works, staying instead at home to look after the girls.  By choice?  Yes and no.  You see, she was thinking about going back to work part-time but was put off after learning that she would only be able to go back to the work she was doing before if she returned full time.  The only work available for a part-time employee was not interesting enough to entice her to return to long hours and the hell of commuting: in short, even today, real equality is far from being achieved.

The second point is more personal and goes back to the art of writing and who can practice it.  Woolf is right to say that women require a fixed income and a private space to develop their writing, but the reality is that this is true for everyone.  In fact, anyone who is contemplating becoming a writer needs time, space and money to enable them to give it their best shot...

...which means that if you're paying off a mortgage, working full time, commuting for two hours each day and trying your best to help out with screaming babies, blog posts like this are the best you're likely to produce ;)


Thanks are due to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for sending me this review copy - merci beaucoup :)