Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own began as two lectures, written to be delivered at the women-only Cambridge colleges of Girton and Newnham in 1928, and published as a six-chaptered book in 1929. In order even to address the subject of ‘women and fiction’, Woolf argues, we must first take account of the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have experienced throughout history. Her title comes from her conclusion that women must have a private space, as well as financial independence, if they are to write well.
Woolf considers the numerous women whose everyday struggles remain unrecorded in the literary canon:
…the majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then? … all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent 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. All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded… [I] went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imagination the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.
The text shows signs of having been written alongside Orlando: A Biography (1928), which fictionalised the life of Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West into that of a man-woman, born in the Renaissance but surviving till the present day. Like Orlando, A Room of One’s Own blends historical fact with vividly descriptive fictional technique. Historical figures – Aphra Behn, Jane Austen and George Eliot – coexist with the invented. There is an Oxbridge College beadle shooing the narrator off the lawns, and the anthropomorphic image of the British Museum Reading Room as a ‘huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names’.
At one point, Woolf invents a sister for Shakespeare, whom she names Judith, and who is ‘as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was … a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry’. She concludes that Judith ‘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’. Woolf imagines Judith’s pregnancy and suicide coming about through meeting Nick Greene, a recurrent character from Orlando.
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’.