This book is based on lectures given in 1928 by the author on the subject of women and literature. The author was already recognized at the time as a gifted and successful writer, and she was invited to speak to two women's colleges at Cambridge and share her experience and wisdom to the next generation of educated women. Today this book is widely regarded as a foundational text of feminist literary criticism.
The lecture origins of the book ironically causes it to be Woolf's most readable book. Her novels generally weave through the psychological motives of her characters using stream-of-consciousness writing that is difficult for the casual reader to follow. This book is straight forward in comparison to her novels. However, her creativity pops up all through the lectures.
I had the good fortune of discussing this book with a group of eighteen people at the January 25, 2013 meeting of the Great Books KC group. Many of the following items highlighted below were things that were brought to my attention through the collective wisdom of that group.
1. In Section 1 Virginia Woolf interrupts her train of thought by observing "a cat without a tail." I thought perhaps the author had included this as an example of the many types of interruptions one is exposed to when you don't have a room of your own. But a member of our discussion group pointed out that the missing tail was symbolic of the people missing due to The Great War (WWI). I've gone back and looked at the text, and she does indeed mention how things were different before the war. But her explanation of the differences are so elliptical--something about a humming noise in the conversations before the war. I think we're into endless layers of meaning here.
2. Early in Section 1 the author announces that she will be using character names of Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael to help ferret out issues related to women's literature. I just assumed that these were three fictional names and nothing more. It is true that they are fictional names, however the lecture audience at the time would have recognized them as the names from a popular folk song called Four Marys (The song mentions these three names "and me" as the fourth Mary). Then another member of our discussion group said that song was on Joan Baez's first album. I haven't checked to see if that's true. Another member of the group suggested that today's male equivalent of three recognizable names would be Curly, Moe and Larry.
3. The most famous line from this book is "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." It sounds simplistic and materialistic. But it's true and symbolic of the many things about society, economics and life in general that can prevent genius from being recognized. Of course men need these things too, but the difference is that historically women have had less access to them. She goes on to make the point that of all the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so, all were either University men or wealthy except for Keats (and he died young). She concludes by saying, "... it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth."
4. In Section three the author makes the case that if "Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith" that she would not have been allowed to use those talents. I agree, women through much of history had gotten a raw deal. (However, this Judith idea could be used by one those enterprising historians who want to make the case that Shakespeare didn't do the writing of his own works.)
5. The author uses the term "incandescent" as a necessary attribute for a writer. It's not a term I usually associate with writing so it caused me to reflect on its meaning. In Section 6 she says "the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided." I believe the term incandescent is used to describe the ability to communicate (i.e. shine out to others) that which is free of any shadows caused by impediments such as lack of financial security, lack of privacy and repressed anger.
6. I was fascinated by the fact that Virginia Woolf used Mary Carmichael to introduce the possibility that, "Sometimes women do like women."--something men apparently hadn't known about previously. In Virginia's critical appraisal of Mary Carmichael's writing she observes that "...she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence." I couldn't help but notice that her description of Mary Carmichael's writing has much in common with a description of Virginia Woolf's own writing in real life. (Mary Carmichael is a fictional person for those who have forgotten.)
7. Virginia Woolf says that Jane Austen was a better writer than Charlotte Bronte because her writing is free of anger. I'm not sure I am able to discern the difference myself. Furthermore, I thought writing from anger was a very motivational thing that might improve the writing. I guess Ms Woolf doesn't agree.
8. A famous quotation of Virginia Woolf's is "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." The closest I could find to that in this book was, "Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman." I presume that Anon is short for Anonymous in this quotation.
9. Another quote from this book is, "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." I'm not sure how to interpret this quotation. It can be a comment on the vainness of men in seeing themselves as the protectors of women. Or it could be a comment on the propensity of some men to put down women in order to make themselves appear smarter and more important than they really are. Or it could be a comment about the sexual dynamics of being motivated to achieve great things in order to gain the favor of the opposite sex. Virginia says that if it weren't for this magical power of women that we might all still be living in the swamps.
My General Comments:
Some women who have experienced sexual discrimination can identify passionately with the message of this book. I don't feel that same emotion, but I certainly understand that through much of history women have not been treated fairly. It's interesting to note that this book was written in 1928, but the so called "women's liberation movement" occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. What happened in the years between? Progress on these issues isn't constant. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972 and ratified by 35 states (3 short of the required 38). There's no way it could get through Congress in today's political circumstances, and there wouldn't be 35 (or 38) states able to ratify it either. That could be construed to be negative progress. But I think progress toward gender equality continues to be made through other means.