I read this book, over the course of a month and a half, starting on July 1st and finishing it on August 13th, 2016. I read it because of the Bechdel test. I wanted to know the background of that idea. Woolf, unaware of the webcomic she would inspire almost a century later, gave a couple of lectures which are transcribed and expanded upon in this book.
I did not read the foreword of the book, for forewords are for and by editors. People do not need to know how to decipher the hidden meaning between the lines in order to enjoy prose. I dived directly into Woolf’s thoughts on the subject and her winding arrival at the conclusions presented in the book. There are things I agree with and things I slightly disagree with. My notes will say as much.
These notes are presented here, more for me, than for you. I want a record of the things I read and the thoughts I… thought… while reading this book. I hope to come back to this page often and review and revise my thoughts and notes.
A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.”
Woolf notes a very curious thing – that food is rarely ever mentioned by novelists. She believes that luncheons and dinners are not just for the witty things said, or the interactions the characters experience. So she challenges that norm by describing the food she had at a particular lunch and the effects it had on her. But she had an ulterior motive to it – she wanted to show the almost pedestrian food women’s colleges had in her time, so as to show that even something as important as lunch is rationed and poorer than it would be for a men’s college.
“Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction.”
Oh, such a wonderful line, and so true. This book is technically marked as fiction (even though it is an essay and is thus non-fiction). Yet almost everything in it is fact, which makes it all the more wonderful. It reminds me of The Mezzanine, a book by Nicholson Baker, where he painstakingly describes a lunch break. That book too, is fiction, but it is almost entirely based on facts, which makes it a strange and wonderful read.
“All was dim, yet intense too, as if the scarf which the dusk had flung over the garden were torn asunder by star or sword.”
A lot of my notes are just about wonderful imagery.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Ah, another maxim.
(How to describe gossip)
“We burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex.”
That is the centrality of Woolf’s issue with the current state of affairs regarding women. They are indeed poor. Once the woman was pushed into the kitchen and the home, there was no need for them to have money of their own. Man became the provider of goods and money and that was where women lost so much power and control. It’s coming back, slowly.
“Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?”
“London was like a workshop. London was like a machine.”
“… the aloe that flowers once in a hundred years would flower twice before I could set pen to paper.”
She’s talking about how long it would take her to read all the books written by men about women. Indeed, men are obsessed with writing about women, mainly to prove them wrong.
“les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que hommes”
translation – women are extreme, they are better or worse than men
Oddly, it is true. Hell hath no fury than a woman scorned. Yet, when women are better, they are infinitely better than men, as is proven often by the Indian school system.
“Had he been laughed at, to adopt the Freudian theory, in his cradle by a pretty girl?”
- a fur of young lambs, with lustrous, closely curled wool, from Astrakhan.
“They had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.”
All those books written by men about women are worthless to a woman trying to study women because they are colored by the resentment those men have towards women.
On this page, Woolf feels angry towards the men psychoanalyzing and expounding on women. She feels that their constant categorizing of women as inferior is wrong and hurtful. So she rejects their theories outright and says that their books are worthless to her.
This should be our response to Western attacks on Indian religions and mythology. Ignore them and forge your own. If the framework to be followed has been defined by them, so be it. But instead of trying to explain their flaws, simply make your own assertions and let those stand the scrutiny of people. Add a new voice, instead of parroting their claims and then defending against them.
This page has a wonderful description of how Woolf sees the anger of men and we can see her anger rising in response to that anger. This is the face of feminism as we see it today. It is just anger, legitimate anger. But it is seen as anger. It is not seen as the just response that it is to the anger of men towards women. Why have men been angry with women for so long? Do they want no progress for women? Do they never want to see a woman have the morals of a man? Even that question puts women in the light of men and so, is wrongly put forth.
“The professors…were angry.”
“When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself.”
This is the key to what Rajiv Malhotra does and he is criticized even for that. Why should he not psychoanalyze the psychoanalysts of Indian culture? What gives them the right to do so but doesn’t allow him to do the same?
“Yet he was angry. I knew that he was angry by this token.”
“Life is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.”
“There is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination.”
“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.”
“…was not merely the cry if wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.”
That is what men are most afraid of when a woman stands up for herself – that they will be suppressed by the simple act of her trying to define herself.
“And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority…over other people. “
This is the perfect example of how the British felt that they had the right to rule over the rest of the world. Frankly, raising this feeling in a people is very important for a country.
An unintended consequence of feminism may well be that boys will actually mature, instead of growing up to be manboys who are mollycoddled by their wives as much as they are by their mothers. From this passage, it would seem that Woolf is trying to show how feeble men really are. They are emotional wrecks just waiting to happen. Well, bring about a culture of equality and men will have to learn to fend for themselves emotionally, maybe even learn to share their feelings with other men.
“How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?”
Man’s dominion over his home is as much a definition of himself as how he operates in public.
“Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.”
That is a shame and a blessing. Fools like Trump can easily control them for their means and men like Gandhi can rouse them into rebellion for the greater good. Can not a body of people each think for themselves? Not often. Man is a social animal, true, but an animal nonetheless. Animals think in packs and often, one animal’s flaws take the entire pack down a path of destruction.
“Moreover, in a hundred years, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.
Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”
This is an interesting passage, for its predictions. Let’s see if they come true. Supposing this was written around 1927 (copyrighted 1929), the due date is 2027 and already, most of what Woolf writes about has been achieved by women.
“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.”
Such a sad plight – being the centerpiece of a magnificent story, but flung to the side as soon as a man arrives on the scene.
This passage right here is what inspires me. It is not just the Elizabethian woman who faces this dire situation – that in which she does not record in her diary, or write poems and plays, or describe her house – it is also the everyman of almost every generation. My father and brother and mother and wife, none of them have a diary of their own. No means do they have of passing on any knowledge of their existence to our children. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram are not going to be around forever and they do not suffice as records of our existence. We need more. We need to fall back on the traditional ways of recording our lives and we need to find new ways of telling our tales to our future generations. That is the only way that some time in the future someone, somewhere will have our names on their lips when they want to refer to our lives. That stranger is very important to me.
“Mary Russell Mitford”
What enmity did Woolf have to this woman?
“Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.”
People sure have never liked cats!
“Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?”
Beautiful use of hyphens.
“Ce chien est à moi”
Translation – this dog is mine
Men wants to own everything, want their name on everything.
“The chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of – Pericles”
Why is it that being talked of is as negative thing a thing as any? Why must men assume that if a woman is famous, she must be famous for the wrong reasons? Why do men assume that women are always pure and worthy and need to be hidden behind curtains? I’m watching a TV show nowadays with the missus – Criminal Minds. The protagonists work for the FBI and go around catching serial killers, child abductors and rapists. Almost always, if the villain of the episode is a woman – which is rarely the case – a solid reason is given for the woman to turn to crime – a lost child, a rape, a vicious trauma. Men, however, seem to want to kill and rape and destroy for no good reason. They are supposedly of the mindset to want to do these things. That is a rather wrong thing to assume.
“Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them.”
“To write a work of genius is almost always a feat if
Ah, so true.
“The indifference of the world which…men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. “
A genius man faces indifference, a genius woman, hostility. Almost as if the public asks, “Why must this man be smarter than us?” and then, “How dare this woman be smarter than us?”
“And happily in this age of biography the two pictures often do complete each other, so that we are able to interpret the opinions of great men not only by what they say, but by what they do. “
Is Woolf suggesting that Mr. Oscar Browning is having an illegitimate affair with a boy?
That is the sad thing about bad things said by people about others – someone else down the line tends to use those words for their own purpose. Something I was reading recently, though I don’t remember the source – words are a weak source of information, because the person who writes them is not there to defend their meaning somewhere along the line. I think this was Socrates, critiquing writing as a means of knowledge transfer.
“Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that.”
This happens even to this day and age. Actresses in India are asked to defend themselves in strong roles, or asked to comment upon someone else’s criticism of their art. The answer, ‘I have no comment’ is not accepted and reporters hound them for a comment. Why should a woman have to defend a good role? Why should an actor have to defend any role? Why is the answer, ‘let my art speak for itself’, not enough?
“Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them. Remember Keats. Remember the words he had cut on his tombstone.”
What did Keats have on his tombstone?
Answer – “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.”
“Florence Nightingale shrieked aloud in her agony. “
This page is an excellent example of how a writer can copy down an entire work of some other author and thus have it live on, both in the original and in this form, so that if for some reason the former may be destroyed, the latter can bear witness for future generations of this wonderful writing.
“The adulation of the toadies”
“Mrs. Behn was a middle class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humour, vitality and courage;”
“Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”
If you get it for free, you don’t appreciate it enough. Money gives it a stature, a dignity.
“This, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle class woman began to write.”
“Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”
This, more than anything, is Woolf’s appeal to women, according to my reading of this book – do not wait for someone to open that door for you. Go forth and push it yourself. Do not wait for an aunt to give you an inheritance. Earn that wage from your craft and you will suddenly have the freedom to be who you want to be.
“To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice.”
“She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.”
Woolf says that Charlotte Bronte wrote too much of herself in Jane Eyre instead of writing more about the character. This would be because Charlotte’s frustration with her life and its limitations would drive her to ‘write in rage’. It is important for the author to divest completely of their frustrations and issues and start afresh with their characters, because those characters are completely different people from the author and must be treated as such. Good writing advice.
Excellent commentary about how we perceive novels as readers
“what holds them together in these rarest instances of survival (I was thinking of War and Peace) is something that one calls integrity, though it has nothing to do with paying one’s bills or behaving honorably in an emergency. What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth.”
“They wrote as women write, not as men write.”
“It was a flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.”
“It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. “
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Universities are funny places. They had odd rules in
Woolf’s time, such as – women were not allowed into libraries without permission.
“Habit facilitates success”
Now there’s a good quote!
“Freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art.”
“A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built into arcades and domes. “
“But these are difficult questions which lie in the
twilight of the future. I must leave them, if only because they stimulate me to wander from my subject into trackless forests where I shall be lost and, very likely, devoured by wild beasts.”
“There are Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archaeology; Vernon Lee’s books on aesthetics; Gertrude Bell’s books on Persia.”
“It seems to be her first book, but one must read it as if it were the last volume in a fairly long series… For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”
“…because novels so often provide an anodyne and not an antidote, glide one into torpid slumbers instead of rousing one with a burning brand…”
Anodyne means painkiller.
“For while Jane Austen breaks from melody to melody as Mozart from song to song, to read this writing was like being out at sea in an open boat.”
Woolf is not kind to this woman author, and why should she be? If the expectation is to write with as much greatness as Austen, why should the average be tolerated?
We finally reach the discussion of the Bechdel test.
“This is not so true of the nineteenth-century novelists, of course. Woman becomes much more various and complicated there. Indeed it was the desire to write about women perhaps that led men by degrees to abandon the poetic drama which, with its violence, could make so little use of them, and to devise the novel as a more fitting receptacle.”
I’ve never read any reasoning for a particular form of writing, any history of how and why a form of writing arose. But it is an interesting subject. Why, after all, are all our books still not great poetry? What spurred the invention of so many other forms of writing? I’ve never thought of that!
“The poet was forced to be passionate or bitter, unless indeed he chose to “hate women,” which meant more often than not that he was unattractive to them.”
Some class A behavioral analysis here, a la Criminal Minds.
“”Highly developed”-“infinitely intricate”-such are undeniably terms of praise, and to praise one’s own sex is always suspect, often silly; moreover, in this case, how could one justify it? One could not go to the map and say Columbus discovered America and Columbus was a woman; or take an apple and remark, Newton discovcred the laws of gravitation and Newton was a woman; or look into the sky and say aeroplanes are flying overhead and aeroplanes were invented by women. There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper. “
That is no longer the case, thanks in part to Woolf. After all, women are leading in so many fields today.
“…and there would follow, even in the simplest talk, such a natural difference of opinion that the dried ideas in him would be fertilized anew; and the sight of her creating in a different medium from his own would so quicken his creative power that insensibly his sterile mind would begin to plot again, and he would find the phrase or the scene which was lacking when he put on his hat to visit her.”
A change of pace and a conversation with someone with different cares in the world can do wonders to refresh your mind.
“Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities? For we have too much likeness as it is, and if an explorer should come back and bring word of other sexes looking through the branches of other trees at other skies, nothing would be of greater service to humanity;”
Would Woolf be happy with the number of sexes we acknowledge today?
“It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”
“For all the dinners cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children set to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.”
That is what is truly sad about human life. It passes by without any record.
“Be truthful, one would say, and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting. “
Some more amazing writing advice.
There is a thinking here that Woolf believed in – that there is a collective consciousness which somehow improves as generations go by. She proposes to give Mary Carmichael another hundred years and she may well be a poet. I believe Woolf was both right and wrong here. She was wrong in that there is no collective brain to women or men or anyone else. The works of today’s authors are littered with terrible art, just as it is littered with amazing gems. Just like that, I’m sure there is at least one of Plato’s contemporaries who we do not know the name of because he did not write as well, and thus was not worth mentioning.
So Woolf was wrong in thinking that women in latter centuries would just write better – genius is not an arithmetic progression.
However, she was right too. She was right because the same issues and worries which affected the moods and writings of women in her era are not the same in this era. Women of today know nothing of suffragette, for example. They are beyond that and that will reflect in their writing. At the same time, there is still a long way to go. So today’s women talk about new struggles and pay equality and other things which color their lenses.
“One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favor of the theory that the Union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness.
Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.
He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”
“Is that a tree? No, it is a woman. But… She has not a bone in her body, I thought, watching Phoebe, for that was her name, coming across the beach. Then Alan got up and the shadow of Alan at once obliterated Phoebe. For Alan had views and Phoebe was quenched in the flood of his views. And then Alan, I thought, has passions; and here I page after page very fast, feeling the crisis was approaching, and so it was.”
Clearly, the male-only mind has a problem – that of writing only about oneself. The hallmark of good writing is the ability to think and describe more than just yourself.
“…but when one takes a sentence of Coleridge into the mind, it explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas, and that is the only sort of writing of which one can say that it has the secret of perpetual life. “
“They lack suggestive power. And when a book lacks suggestive power, however hard it hits the surface of the mind it cannot penetrate within.”
The problem with writers who do not try to understand and use their other side is that half the readership cannot absorb the writing as it should be.
“All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, before Miss Davies and Miss Clough were born, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Sterne and Cowper and Lamb and Coleridge. Shelley perhaps was sexless. Milton and Ben Jonson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoi. In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.”
“Even so, the very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.”
“”This great book,” “this worthless book,” the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing.
So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”
- the Greek goddess of fate who cuts the thread of life
“We may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into the intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”
“That Is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have
had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress
on money and a room of one’s own.”
“There runs through these comments and discussions the conviction that good books are desirable and that good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings. “
“…every speech must end with a peroration. “
- a flowery and highly rhetorical oration
- (rhetoric) the concluding section of an oration; “he summarized his main points in his peroration”
“…the streets and squares and forests of the glove swarming with black and white and coffee-colored inhabitants…”
“… 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…”
“…and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”