In 1928, Virginia Woolf was asked to speak on the topic of "women and fiction". The result, based upon two papers she delivered to literary societies at Newnham and Girton in October of that year, was "A Room of One's Own", an extended essay on women as both writers of fiction and as characters in fiction. And, while Woolf suggests that, "when a subject is highly controversial-and any question about sex is that-one cannot hope to tell the truth," her essay is, in fact, an extraordinarily even-handed, thoughtful and perceptive reflection on the topic.
Woolf begins with a simple and enigmatic opinion: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unresolved." From this spare beginning, Woolf deftly explores the difference between how women had been portrayed in fiction, and how they actually lived in the world, during the preceding centuries. "A very queer, composite being 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 kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was a slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger."
The source of dissonance between how women were portrayed in fiction, and how they actually lived, was the fact that most fiction prior to the nineteenth century was written by men. As Woolf astutely points out, "[i]t was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex." Woolf's observation is no feminist polemic; it is, rather, an incisive comment on how fiction was impoverished when it was written only by men.
Even when fiction was written by women, it was powerfully influenced by patriarchal notions of virtue and the proper role of women. Thus, Woolf suggests there could be no female Shakespeare in sixteenth century England because no women would be tolerated who lived in the real world like the Bard. "No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational-for chastity may be a fetish invented by societies for unknown reasons-but were none the less inevitable." Indeed, this "relic of the sense of chastity" dictated that more daring female authors-George Eliot, George Sand, Currer Bell-maintain anonymity as late as the nineteenth century.
When female writers did find a "room of their own," they were still limited by social and cultural imperatives. Thus, the first of the great women novelists-Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot-wrote largely from the drawing room, not from the experiences of the larger world-the very conditions of their writing life being as cramped as the their restricted lives. As Woolf notes, in commenting on Charlotte Bronte, "[s]he knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited if it had not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted, they were withheld."
Ultimately, Woolf suggests that the "true" nature of women will only be approached in fiction when women are sufficiently independent-not only in a financial sense, but in the sense of being freed from societal and cultural restraints-to explore the quotidian, the everyday lives of people in the world. This is the aspect of the fictional world that, in Woolf's view, was absent from the male-dominated novel prior to the nineteenth century.
Woolf further suggests that the "true" nature of fiction is expressed only through those writers who can transcend their narrow sexual roles-become "man-womanly" or "woman-manly"-so as to convey the fullness of the real world. As Woolf notes, "Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all of its faculties." Based on this criterion, Woolf promulgates her own canon of English male writers, a canon which includes Shakespeare, Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb, Coleridge, and Proust (who "was perhaps wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman").
"A Room of One's Own" is, in sum, a fascinating, thoughtful and perceptive essay on women and fiction written by one of the Twentieth century's most formidable writers and thinkers, a woman who truly succeeded in creating a room of her own in the canon of modern English literature.