A timeless treatise from history’s preeminent She-Woolf.
Perhaps no work is a more appropriate starting point for Canonball than “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s landmark 1929 essay on women and fiction. Woolf’s point is simple: in order to write great works of literature — the kind of lauded works of literature that men have been producing for centuries — women must have a space to work and money to support themselves. Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s (hypothetical) sister Judith, a smart, spirited girl with dreams of acting and writing like her brother. Woolf concludes that the reason he became the English language’s greatest writer and she died in obscurity (likely “dashed her brains out on the moor” — is there a more poetically gruesome fate for a disgruntled lady genius?) was that she had no formal schooling, no time to read or write and no freedom to choose her own course in life. Woolf also pays homage to the (real) female writers who succeeded, from Aphra Behn (a sexually progressive playwright, poet and novelist from the 17th century) to Jane Austen (one of the 19th century’s best-known novelists, whose works have been simultaneously loved and hated throughout history, largely because they are about women’s lives). The text is a breezy 100 pages and can be found online here — so there go all your good excuses for not reading it.
Mia: I think I described my state of mind to Lindsay (and to any number of people who are subject to my constant stream of emails), while I was reading “A Room of One’s Own,” as feverish. The frustration that Woolf feels as she grapples the question of “Women and Fiction” and as she starts to articulate the second-class status of women’s writing throughout history is still so urgent, and is similar to the frustration I routinely feel about so many lady issues. I half-joked that Woolf already said everything there is to say on this topic, and it’s true that many of her points about the male-dominated literary canon — the very idea that we are taught to judge literature from a male perspective, that men’s experiences are universal and make for Great Stories, while women’s stories are frivolous or worse — are the exact same issues people are still talking about.
Lindsay: I’ve read “A Room of One’s Own” three times now — the first in college, the second in a frenzy of post-collegiate confusion, and now, the third in recent reluctant acceptance of my role as a full-fledged working girl. (In the words of our generation’s Judith Shakespeare, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”) For me, it’s one of those texts I know I’ll continue to return to, and one in whose endless insights I’ll always catch (occasionally painful, yearbook-awkward) glimpses of my former selves. As a self-avowed Woolf nerd 4 lyfe, “A Room of One’s Own” is the solid kitchen wall by which I measure the chalk marks of my intellectual development, and, in a lot of ways, my maturation as a feminist. As such, different ideas strike me with particular resonance upon each re-reading. My text is still marked with the underlinings of my first college read — mostly the hyper-theoretical stuff about gender and sexuality, and also the wittiest of Woolf’s quips (“Chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons” — still love that). This time around, though, reading it for the first time as a financially independent woman, I was struck by Woolf’s precision in identifying the connection between creative freedom and a fixed income. “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things,” she notes. That’s not the sort of romantic maxim that would have send my collegiate self grasping for a highlighter — but it’s the truth. I often (read: daily) have fantasies about quitting my job and locking myself in my room to write my coming-of-age novel/modern feminist essay collection/album of Mariah Carey-inspired jams — but there nags a question that I didn’t think of as an undergraduate: what is the financial cost of prolonged creative freedom? Even more elementally than its sharp insight on gender (which almost a century later is still, as Mia rightly noted, razor-edged), “A Room of One’s Own” is also an unparalleled meditation on the practical, physical hurdles of the creative process. I’m sure its many thought-provoking insights will still resonate with both women and men for a long time to come.