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Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf

In the shopping street in Chichester there was bunting and a huge banner, a most populist way to advertise a very refined subject: VIRGINIA WOOLF: AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY HER WRITING. I was in Chichester to visit the Pallant House Gallery. I wanted to know what art had been inspired by one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. And to look at it.

The celebratory street presence of Virginia Woolf wasn’t the only thing that surprised me about the exhibition. After my first tour around the gallery I realised that I was experiencing a very strange sensation. This must be what it feels like to be a man, to have the world reflected back to you as you see it through men’s eyes. Most exhibitions, anyway. But here were 80 artists and every one of them was a woman. Everyone. I recognised the world they showed me, the faces, the landscapes, the portraits, the interiors, the conflicts. This was my territory.

This is what the organisers say about the exhibition:

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

A major exhibition featuring 80 female artists from 1854 to the present day, centred on the pioneering writings of celebrated author Virginia Woolf. Through a wide range of work by artists including Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Louise Bourgois, the exhibition shows how Woolf’s perspectives on feminism and creativity have remained relevant to a community of creative women across time: visual artists working in photography, painting, sculpture and film who have sought to record the vast scope of female experience and to shape alternative ways for women to be.

You may be wondering how art and words go together, different art forms that use different media. I remind you that it was ballet that revealed so much about three of Virginia Woolf ‘s novels in WoolfWorks.

The ideas expressed by Virginia Woolf in her novels and essays found echoes and development in the art on display in this exhibition. Identity, what moulds it? What is its function? How is it different in public and private spaces? In what ways can and do women relate to landscape and to the ideas of home? What is it, to be a woman?

Some artists were already familiar: Laura Knight, Dora Carrington, Winifred Nicholson and others who often show us women and children in the landscape, an inhabited space where woman can now be as free as men always have been. Not confined by or limited to the home.

The portraits showed women experimenting with different ways of representing themselves to others in self-portraits and portraits. Gwen John’s confident, confronting self-portrait; Dod Proctor turned away from our gaze, and other portraits, especially of and by Vanessa Bell. In pride of place, almost an object of veneration, there was her portrait of Virginia Woolf among her books, writing, in her home. At the entrance to the show there was a working sketch for the pace setting for Virginia Woolf at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

There were more paintings of interiors, still lifes mostly, often with no people present. These often related the interior of the home through a window to the outside, or referred to the residents through their furnishings and belongings, or because it was a woman’s view. I want to find out more about Jane Simone Bussy. Her use of colour was subtle and very engaging.

Quotations reminded us how important a room of one’s own is, especially to women writers. And so there were the designs of household objects, fabrics, china and book covers by her sister and others.

You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men.  … This freedom is only a beginning. With whom are you going to share it and on what terms? [from Professions for Women, an essay by Virginia Woolf published in 1931]

I am still thinking about what I saw, how magnificent Virginia Woolf was and how her influence is deep in me, and happily deep in our culture too. I have reviewed most of her novels on Bookword, by the way.

Congratulations to Laura Smith, who created the show for Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings is at Pallant House Galleryuntil 16thSeptember 2018.

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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

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. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You know the most famous line from Virginia Woolf’s essay:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

I sigh with satisfaction when I open one of my copies of this essay. It was published in 1928, between Orlando and The Waves. In this post I ask what has changed after 88 years.

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

Have the gains in women’s fiction been as expected?

283 Room VBell's cover

This is my fifth contribution to the #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

A Room of One’s Own.

The essay originated in talks given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge and Newnham College, Oxford in 1928 and she wrote more on the topic of women and fiction in Three Guineas, published in 1938.

In six chapters, just over 100 pages, Virginia Woolf describes what she found when she researched the question of women and fiction, and what was known about women’s lives. She does this through the fictional account by Mary Seton of some days in Oxbridge and London as she prepares for the lectures. She uses the device of a fictional sister for William Shakespeare, Judith, who ends up drowning herself in the Thames for daring to follow in her brother’s path. She builds a picture of the many influences that kept women from writing or publishing. And she considers why those four great novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to write, noting that three of them used male names: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot.

The core of her argument is that women needed money and their own room, to provide freedom from want and anxiety, and the necessary privacy. She was also keen to point out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

Some things are better now for women in fiction. We no longer think it strange that some women can earn a living, even a fortune, through their skills as writers: JK Rowling, EL James, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins. Nor are we surprised that women are shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes; or hold positions as Professors of Literature or of Creative Writing, or run publishing houses.

People who express sexist opinions can expect to be challenged. It is no longer acceptable to keep women off the lawns, out of libraries, out of colleges or the professions. At least not in the UK.

… but not a lot.

But things have not improved as much as might have been hoped after nearly a century of the vote (1918), and 41 years of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). And indeed since the publication of many, many volumes of fiction by women since the first novels, such as Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778).

But oh dear, how entrenched is the view that women’s fiction is of less value than male fiction! That’s why we still need Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. And oh dear, how deeply embedded is the idea that Virginia Woolf expressed in A Room of One’s Own:

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. (37)

And still we do not find it strange that books by women are not published, read or reviewed in the same proportion as men’s books. I need only refer you to the VIDA statistics reporting the disparity in gender of reviewers and authorship of works reviewed. These figures have been compiled for several years, to show how bad the situation is, and how slowly it is improving. The most recent count (2015) can be found here.

VIDA is a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color; writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. [from the Vida website]

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

The truth of the original idea, that income and privacy are necessary to the creative process is still evident. My previous post was about Jean Rhys, and in it I challenge the romantic idea that poverty and artistic creativity go together. You can link to it here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, and in the Penguin Modern Classic edition, used in for this post, in 1945. 112 pp

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July

 

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Inevitably, it’s the word ROMP that comes to mind when reading Orlando. For Virginia Woolf, the word was FUN, as she wrote in her diaries in 1928. She wanted fun, and she described the novel as ‘all a joke’. However, we should not believe everything she said in her diaries for she also said, in the same paragraph, that she thought she would never write another novel. I will admit that Orlando: a biography is not a novel that I especially enjoy, even on second reading. But it has many merits.

264 Orlandobackinengland

Famously Virginia Woolf had a romantic and sexual relationship with Vita Sackville West. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote,

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

The novel is dedicated to Vita. Certainly it reflects the joyousness and exuberance of their relationship.

The narrative

264 Orlando cover

It is a romp through English history from Elizabethan times until the final pages of the book: ‘Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight’. At the start of the novel Orlando is a gentleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth. By the end she is a married mother in comfortable circumstances in the reign of George V.

We follow Orlando through many adventures, of the heart, the pen, as Charles II’s ambassador to Turkey and as a gypsy, in the courts of successive monarchs, in the salons of the fashionable elite and mostly at home in the English countryside. Constant in his/her life is this country home and the oak tree from which can be seen most of England. And also constant is Orlando’s attempt to write a poem called The Old Oak Tree.

The style

Here is a passage from the opening chapter.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone,’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days perhaps thirty or forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky-line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountaneous among the clouds. (12-3)

The reference to ‘the record’ is an example of how Virginia Woolf draws attention to the act of writing. She refers to this, sometimes tongue in cheek as a historian with few documents, throughout the book.

It is also an example of the use of lists, elaborate, cumulative and increasingly stretching our belief. Orlando can see London, the coast, Snowdon and forty English counties all from his oak tree!

Her love of words is revealed in other lists, especially where they concern fabrics, and Orlando has many gorgeous costumes, both as a man and as a woman. And also in the names of the characters: Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is her husband.

Within ten pages of the scene under the oak tree, the great frost descends upon England, and the River Thames is frozen over. The description of the scene on the Thames teems with life and people and reflects Virginia Woolf’s skills in observation. Her fondness for walking through the streets of London is well known.

You might also have noted the reference to waves, which often featured in her writing.

Gender in Orlando

You could hardly have your hero turn into a woman without some animadversions upon the differences in the experiences of men and women. Some of this was being worked on in Virginia Woolf’s mind as she prepared the lectures that would eventually become A Room of One’s Own which also questions the role of women in fiction, and how women who write fared.

It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry. (p103 A Room of One’s Own)

Orlando is independently wealthy and it is somewhat ironic that it was the sales of Orlando that allowed Virginia Woolf to spend money at last. In December 1928 she was reporting in her diary that Orlando was selling well and for the first time since she got married she was spending her own money. ‘My room is secure,’ she reports on 18th December 1928.

Virginia Woolf treats us to her wit and insights as Orlando makes the transition into a woman. She muses on what will be lost to her by becoming a woman. But it seems that neither sex come off well. We must ask with Orlando, why make so much of gender in social relations.

She reflects on these matters as she sails back to England from Turkey, and notices the crew’s response to showing ‘an inch or two of calf’.

‘And that’s the last oath I shall ever be able to swear,’ she thought; ‘once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through his body, or sit among my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D’you take sugar? D’you take cream?’ And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong. ‘To fall from a masthead,’ she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet go about as if you were the Lords of creation – Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of is – what fools we are!’ And here is would seem that from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally as if she belonged to neither … (111-2)

Men of Letters

One group of people who come off badly in their meetings with Orlando are the men of letters. With pretensions to authorship the young Orlando invites Nicholas Greene to spend time at his country house. The experience is not a happy one. The poet lampoons his host. Later the 18th Century trio Addison, Pope and Dryden come in for some criticism. It seem that she can love their writing but on meeting them socially it transpires that they are not good company.

And …?

And what is one to make of all this. Well, I’m not sure, beyond the pleasure of the imagination at work. The extravagant and outrageous descriptions are a delight. I hope Virginia Woolf had fun writing it. But I prefer her other writings.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1928 by the Hogarth Press. I used the Penguin Classic version (1942, 231pp) in writing this post.

264 Peng Orlando

Related posts

This is my fourth contribution to #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog. Previous posts can be found through the links:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in January 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf in May

 

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