A Room of One’s Own must be the most popular book title that any author has ever written. Since its publication in 1929, Virginia Woolf’s witty manifesto has not only become the mandatory reference for every feminist literary critic, but also has inspired the titles of scores of books on subjects very remote from Woolf’s subject, the conditions of artistic creation. I did a quick search of the Princeton Library catalogue among books published merely since 1988, and found the following variants and homage: a place of one’ s own, a life of one’s own, a profession of one’s own; a field of one’s own, a garden, a house, a studio, a school, a hut of one’s own and a mine of one’s own (for women prospectors). There are books on a journey of one’s own, a view, a faith, an art, and a style of one’s own; and ominously, there are books on a doctor of one’s own, a death of one’s own, a corpse of one’s own, and a courtroom of one’s own. Someone has even written a book entitled A Trumpet of One’s Own.
I think that Virginia Woolf, who was not in favor of tooting one’s own horn, would have been astonished and amused by the fame of her title, and by the extraordinary influence of her book. A Room of One’s Own had its beginnings in two lectures, or papers, on women and fiction she delivered at Newnham and Girton, the women’s colleges of Cambridge University, in October 1928. In her diary, Woolf was more than usually ironic and self-critical about her performance: “Thank God,” she wrote, “my long toil at the women’s lecture is this moment ended. I am back from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women—that is my impression. Intelligent, eager, poor; and destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own . . . I felt elderly and mature. And nobody respected me . . . Very little reverence or that sort of thing about.” As she finished revisions on the book, she continued to be skeptical: “I have just set the last correction to Women and Fiction or A Room of One’s Own. I shall never read it again. Good or bad? It has an uneasy life in it, I think: you feel the creature arching its back and galloping on, though as usual much is watery and flimsy and pitched in too high a voice.” And on the eve of its publication, she predicted that it would not be well received: “the press will be kind & talk of its charm, & sprightliness; I shall be attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a sapphist…I am afraid it will not be taken seriously.” The night of publication she dreamed that she had a fatal heart disease that would kill her in six months, and woke up to find that A Room of One’s Own was selling very well, and the Estonian Ambassador had asked her to lunch.
Of course Woolf’s successors have taken A Room of One’s Own very seriously indeed. In it, she had told the disrespectful young women of Cambridge that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The room, moreover, must have a lock on the door. And the five hundred pounds, ideally, should be earned, although Woolf’s narrator admits that hers is a legacy. The room is not just a material space, not a literal office or separate chamber: “Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate,” Woolf explains. “A lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” Finally, she insists, financial independence and privacy doesn’t mean separation or ghettoization or isolation: “When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.”
As Woolf’s details and images of starved young women hinted, that invigorating life should also include a wine cellar and a dining hall of one’s own. It’s amazing to read the attention this most famously anorexic of novelists pays to good food, as she contrasts the lavish cuisine of Trinity College—the men’s college—with the beef, custard, and prunes of the women’s college. “For one cannot think well,” she notes, “one cannot love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And also, I suspect, she means, one cannot write well.
This section of the book made such an impression on me as a student that in 1973, when I first visited Cambridge University and had dinner at Trinity College, I noted the evening’s menu in the yellowing margins of my paperback copy of A Room of One’s Own: chef’s salad, chicken Washington, new potatoes and peas, creme brulée, crab on toast, followed by port, madeira, sauterne, claret, biscuits, cheese, fresh peaches, coffee and cigars, brandy and seltzer. How anyone wrote anything after such a dinner is still a mystery to me. Maybe there is something to be said for prunes and custard.
The part of the book most readers remember, I think, is Woolf’s invocation of Judith Shakespeare, the sister of literary genius Shakespeare might have had, who would not have been able to become a great poet and playwright, but would have killed herself in despair. In her conclusion, Woolf called upon the women of 1928 to work to make possible that when Shakespeare’s sister is born again, she shall be able to live and write her poetry. “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…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, as her brother did before her, she will be born.”
As an American, I’m always struck by how much importance Woolf placed on the story of Shakespeare’s sister, and on the coming of the great female literary messiah. Americans have not been so reverent, at least not American men. Herman Melville argued that to worship Shakespeare showed a want of gumption and proper democratic feeling. “This absolute and unconditional adoration of Shakespeare has grown to be a part of our Anglo-Saxon superstitions. . . what sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature as well as into Life?” Melville claimed that already in 1850, rather than a century in the future, “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are . . . being born on the banks of the Ohio. And the day will come when you shall say, Who reads a book by an Englishman that is modern?”
Virginia Woolf was by no means a superstitious follower of received literary ideas, but she would not have been so confident about the future of women’s writing. Perhaps it’s independence or braggadocio that has made many brash American women readers of Woolf, including myself, so eager to update, democratize, modernize, and retitle A Room of One’s Own. In 1977, Marilyn French’s feminist novel, The Women’s Room, seemed like a response to Woolf. In 1978, I wrote that if the room of one’s own becomes a retreat, a feminine secession or escape from male power, logic, and violence, it can be a tomb. Alice Walker, in an essay called “One Child of One’s Own,” offered her own response to Woolf’s prescription. And Camille Paglia announced that a room of one’s own “was already too bourgeois for my subversive generation, whose brash rock spirit counsels: ‘Get out of the house and keep on running. A car of one’s own, the great equalizer, is more the mode of American Amazonism.’”
But whether in car or truck or SUV, we are still following Woolf’s path. In her superb 1997 biography, Hermione Lee concludes that no critic can have the last word on Woolf: “Virginia Woolf’s story is reformulated by each generation. She takes on the shape of difficult modernist preoccupied with questions of form, of comedian of manners, or neurotic highbrow aesthete, or inventive fantacist, or pernicious snob, or Marxist feminist, or historian of women’s lives, or victim of abuse, or lesbian heroine, or cultural analyst, depending on who is reading her, and when, and in what context…and the debates she arouses—over madness, over modernism, over marriage”—over Shakespeare and his sister— “cannot be concluded and will go on being argued, well after this book is published.” Women may be waiting around for Shakespeare’s sister even longer than for Godot, but we’ll each have a Woolf of our own.