Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Room of One's Own: Honoring a Literary Foremother

[Apologies for this longer-than-usual post, but I believe it's worth the space during Women's History Month.  To hear an mp3 of this piece, go to this link on my website.]

As a woman and a writer, I think of Virginia Woolf as one of my foremothers.  Whenever I read Woolf’s 1928 essay A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, I am struck again by the truth of it and the profound sense of my own role in the great arc of the history of my gender.  Woolf's essay is an incredible, wide-ranging exploration, of which I have chosen a very small piece to share here.
Woolf begins by stating what she calls a “minor opinion”:  a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction...
She goes on to imagine a visit to a British men’s college where she is barred entry to the library because she is a woman.  While dining with a friend, she contrasts the great history of wealth and resources at the foundation of the all-male college with the woefully limited resources of Fernham, the nearby women’s college, founded by women and for women.
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? ...  
There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary's mother--if that was her picture--may have been a wastrel - in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church) - but, if so, her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. ...  
Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease to-night and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, ... physics, ... mathematics, ... relativity .... If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine .... We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon....  
Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been ... no Mary. ... For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it.  
... First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. ... If Mrs Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and all the rest of it?  But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all.  
Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property...  
So we talked standing at the window and looking, as so many thousands look every night, down on the domes and towers of the famous city beneath us. ... One thought of all the books that were assembled down there; ... of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space. Certainly our mothers had not provided us with any thing comparable to all this--our mothers who found it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds, our mothers who bore thirteen children to ministers of religion at St Andrews.
Woolf ponders what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind.   She thinks about
... how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and ... how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; ... about the safety and prosperity of the one sex and  the poverty and insecurity of the other and  the effect of tradition and  the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer. 
Woolf goes to the British Musuem and finds it odd how many books about women were written by men.  Finally, she imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister, as gifted as he, and how impossible it would have been for the genius of Shakespeare’s sister ever to have found the light, let alone lived to see posterity.  And then she concludes:
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.   
This opportunity... is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so--... --and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; ... then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, ... she will be born.
As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
Today, I honor Women’s History Month  by honoring all our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and all our daughters and grand-daughters and great-granddaughters, whether they write fiction or bear and raise children or run for president, for we are all part of Women’s History.

[This edited version of Woolf's essay, with my intro and outro, was recorded at the Willamette Radio Workshop studio and first aired on Dmae Robert's Stage and Studio program on KBOO radio as part of Women's History Month.]

1 comment:

  1. I thank you for sharing this essay, Cindy. I'm proud to be a woman, proud to be a writer. We stand on the shoulders of all those women writers and poets and sisters of Shakespeare who came before us, and whose atoms we now carry.


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