I have finally read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Sort of embarrassed it’s taken this long, but what can I do.
There are a couple of things that jumped out at me while reading:
- Reading about how Virginia thought about other authors (she praises and criticizes a fair number here) was fascinating.
- Relatedly, after expounding on her theory of the mind (basically, that is produces the highest art when it is balanced between its male and female sides), she lists a variety of authors and explains whether they were “too” masculine or “too” feminine and thus won’t stand the test of time. When she got to Proust she said, “Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.” This reminded me of a Slate article by Katie Roiphe that asks: would Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first volume of which I just finished this past week) be the same huge success if it was written by a woman? Katie concludes the woman’s version of My Struggle would fail because we are “intoleran[t] toward women writers who closely read domestic life [and that is] simply plain old-fashioned, deeply entangled sexism, of the variety Virginia Woolf took on in A Room of One’s Own.” Now, what I find funny about this is if we accept that Karl Ove is a direct descendant of Proust (literarily speaking), it seems to me Virgina Woolf might actually disagree with the Slate author. That is, if Proust was “perhaps a little too much of a woman” my guess is if a woman-Proust (or a woman-Karl Ove) came along, then Virginia might think the woman failed to engage enough of the male side of her brain.
- A few of my very favorite quotes from the book
- “[B]ooks continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”
- “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.” [to be so brave and to know so clearly what is good!]
- One of her big takeaways is that for people (really, men or women I think) to be truly great writers they need a room of their own with a lock and enough money to live a decent life (so, can’t be paycheck-to-paycheck). Anticipating critics she says “you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things … you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men. Let me then quote to you the words of your own Professor of Literature … ‘What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne – we may stop there. Of these, all but [three] were University men … which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give … These are dreadful facts but let us face them. It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation – certain that, by some fault in our common wealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance … we may prate of democracy, but actually, 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.'”
- “Intellectual freedom depends on material things.” [reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the polis in Ancient Greece. The citizens (all men landowners) were basically free to be full citizens because they had material things that allowed them to go beyond mere survival.]
I doubt many people read this book and wholly agree with her theory of mind and the relation between the sexes, but it’s a wonderful read. The last third or so was just brilliant.