Description

Published in 1929, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own is a key work of feminist literary criticism. Written after she delivered two lectures on the topic of ‘women and fiction’ at Cambridge University in 1928, Woolf’s essay examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’. 

Through the fictionalised character of ‘Mary’ – who visits the British Museum to find out about everything that has ever been written about women – Woolf builds the argument that literature and history is a male construct that has traditionally marginalised women. Woolf refutes the widely held assumption that women are inferior writers, or inferior subjects, instead locating their silence in their material and social circumstances. Women have been barred from attending school and university, for instance, or excluded by law for inheritance, or expected to marry during which their time is spent housekeeping and childrearing. Woolf imagines what kind of life ‘Judith Shakespeare’ – a brilliant, talented sister of Shakespeare – might have lived, concluding that she, ‘would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty’. 

It is also an issue of gendered values, Woolf insists. Writing in the 1920s, Woolf observes that it is, ‘the masculine values that prevail... This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room’.

Woolf ends with an appeal to the audience ‘to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast’: Judith ‘would come again if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while’.

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