Virginia Woolf
New York: A Harvest / JBJ Book – Harcourt Brace Jocanovich, Publishers,
no date of publication of this version
Copyright from 1957, written in 1928
SBN # 0-15-678732-6
118 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2009

In 1928 Virginia Woolf was invited by a woman’s group to speak about the situation of women writers and fiction. The initial state of her thesis is:

“… a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

She refers to this thesis often in the lecture, modifying the language a bit. Her own aunt had died and left her an endowment which yielded 500 pounds a year, enough for her to live on, so she often says a woman needs 500 a year and a room of her own.

There has been an enormous change in the tenor of things since “the war” (WWI). The western world has moved from the pre-modern to the modern world. Yet women still lag behind. All the chairs of universities are held by men and women don’t go into business. They are taught to have babies and spend their time with children and the home. Only in the past 30 years, she points out, could women in England have their own money. “… I though how unpleasant it is to be locked out … and thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effects upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge.”

In the second chapter she tells of visiting the British Museum to look at history and writing about women. She concludes:

“. . . England is under the rule of a patriarchy”

. . . . . .

“Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

. . . . . .

“His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the Judge. He was the cricketer; he owned the racehorses and the yachts. He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself. He suspended the film actress in mid-air. He will decide if the hair on the meat axe is human; he it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and hang him, or let him go free. With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry. I knew that he was angry by this token. When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an arguer argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too. If he had written dispassionately about women, had used indisputable proofs to establish his argument and had shown no trace of wishing that the result should be one thing rather than another, one would not have been angry either. One would have accepted the fact, as one accepts the fact that a pea is green or a canary yellow. So be it, I should have said. But I had been angry because he was angry.”

While she is arguing that woman are still in a terrible struggle at this time, there is great hope for the future. I was astonished at her prophetic ability when she tells us:

“Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shop-woman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared -- as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street), that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people. Remove that protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, “I saw a woman today,” as one used to say, “I saw an aeroplane.” Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation, I thought, opening the door. But what bearing has all this upon the subject of my paper, Women and Fiction, I asked, going indoors.”

The third chapter is a brief history of women and women writers. She notes some important oddities, but the most central is that the actual history of women shows them to be nearly invisible and non-players, yet the treatment of women in poetry and fiction and even in the writing of history presents them as incredibly important and drivers of men’s behavior.

“A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover. She is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of the kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring on her finger.”

Woolf also holds that the cultural milieu shapes our consciousness and determines what can and can’t be done. This is, for her, a critical fact in understand the place of women in the world and of women writers in particular:

“All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.”

Chapter four laments the fact that women’s talent was impacted by anger and frustration, making it less likely they could have an influence on the world. But times began to change when some women began to make MONEY by writing.

“Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”

She also saw Jane Austin as an important figure:

“Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.”

In chapter five she creates a fictional female writer (at least I assume she is fictional), and represents the “typical” writer of that place and time. This author introduces a novelty that is crucial in moving forward: she creates friendship between two women, bypassing the need to bounce the female character off men.

Woolf saw that women writers were close to independence. Both money and a room of their own is a great necessity, but the modern woman writer is close.

It is notable that virtually all the women writers she cites as hopeful and movers of the future had no children. I couldn’t help but think of that phenomenon when just recently in the world of tennis when much was made of the fact that Kim Clysters, who won the prestigious U.S. open, was the first woman who in many years to win a major tournament in any sport and who was also a mother. This is related to that notion of money and a room of one’s own.

After making her case she anticipates objections: Some, she says, will claim that she doesn’t decide if women write as well as men. She rejects the argument.

“No opinion has been expressed, you may say, upon the comparative merits of the sexes even as writers. That was done purposely, because, even if the time had come for such a valuation -- and it is far more important at the moment to know how much money women had and how many rooms than to theories about their capacities -- even if the time had come I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter, not even in Cambridge, where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names. I do not believe that even the Table of Precedency which you will find in Whitaker’s Almanac represents a final order of values, or that there is any sound reason to suppose that a Commander of the Bath will ultimately walk in to dinner behind a Master in Lunacy. All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are “sides,” and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot. As people mature they cease to believe in sides or in Head- masters or in highly ornamental pots. At any rate, where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off. Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgment? “This great book,” “this worthless book,” the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.”

The second objection which she anticipates is that she is making too much of material things – this would be in the constant emphasis on the need of women to have their own money.

She quotes an important British male scholar to support her position:

“Nobody could put the point more plainly. “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.”

I have to interject here to note that the professor is referring to “the poor poet,” most likely a man. The emphasis on his difficulty is his poverty, not his gender. I am often struck by the fact that it is wealthy white western males who have dominated much of our world in the past several centuries, and the struggles, especially from the 18th century onward, has been for the liberation of all manner of other people. That’s not to suggest that the liberation of women, or of slaves, or of the handicapped, even men of the underclass cannot at the same time be specialized reactions. It’s just to note a great similarity of all in the world who don’t come from the ruling class of the wealthy, white, western males.

Woolf continues the argument after citing the professor:

“That is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own. However, thanks to the toils of those obscure women in the past, of whom I wish we knew more, thanks, curiously enough, to two wars, the Crimean which let Florence Nightingale out of her drawing-room, and the European War which opened the doors to the average woman some sixty years later, these evils are in the way to be bettered. Otherwise you would not be here tonight, and your chance of earning five hundred pounds a year, precarious as I am afraid that it still is, would be minute in the extreme.”

The content of the argument of the book is quite persuasive. However, what makes it stand out even beyond the logic of the arguments and the marshalling of historical evidence is the style and writing. That is simply brilliant and makes her work stand out. She is witty, ironic and sly, she uses extremely powerful images and carries them out at some length, especially her constant return to the image of the title, that a woman needs her 500 pounds a year and the room of her own – independence in some important manner.

The argument could have been powerful with just the factual data she collects and presents, but it is the masterful manner in which she presents the argument with such grace and wit that gives it the extra power. It is indeed an extremely impressive piece, and seems to have earned itself a great reputation in the history of feminist literature.

In my comments on this book I have quoted Virginia Woolf herself more than I have ever quoted any author before. The reason is precisely this powerful style and ability of making her case. I don’t have that power, and I wanted any who might come across these notes to experience some of the marvel of Virginia Woolf’s own prose.

I was especially taken with a very similar theme to her central thesis which Albert Camus took up in his very first novel, but one he never published in his lifetime. He wrote A HAPPY DEATH first and the main character is Mersault, the character of his first published novel, THE STRANGER.

After Camus’ death his wife found the hand written novel and had it published. In that work the main character, Mersault, is very poor and hard working, eking out a living on the docks. Camus maintains that in order for one to have a chance of having a life that is chosen rather than enforced, is for one to have a certain level of wealth beyond subsistence. The character is given this level of wealth and then Camus follows his various choices in trying to reach “a happy death.”

While Woolf focuses rather exclusively on women, the argument is extremely similar to the theme which Camus takes up in regard to anyone who is in the extreme underclass. I’ve never seen any suggestions that Woolf was an influence on Camus, but it wouldn’t be very surprising if she were.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu