Monday, 11 June 2012

Ladies, do you have a room of your own?

Does it even matter? 

Virginia Woolf had one.  And she says it did matter.  And normally I would agree with most things that this awesome lady says.  But in this instance, I'm not so sure I entirely follow her argument (which is my very respectful way of saying that I don't necessarily entirely agree with her.  Ouch). 

I don't have a room of my own.  But neither does Mr. Darcy (but then, that's because our flat's been taken over by mini-Darcys, and the grown-up, self-indulgent bits of our pre-baby lives have been relegated to boxes and cupboards.  Sniff). 

But what does Woolf's "room of one's own" actually amount to?  Taken literally, we can assume she means the physical space often occupied in the early 20th Century by the husband's home office or library.  For men, these were their sanctuaries.  Children were not allowed, wives rarely permitted.  Literature is awash with throw-away references to such rooms having an intimidating air, an oppressive atmosphere, and being the room to which lesser members of the household are 'summoned' by the master.  In children's books for example, the father's study is a place to be reprimanded (and sometimes beaten).  In The Secret Garden, it is a room strictly out of bounds for the children, a room to which the father/uncle can retire and think his maudlin thoughts undisturbed.  In many 19th Century novels (such as, ooh, I don't know, Pride & Prejudice....), it's a room where the father can conduct his 'business', converse with colleagues and otherwise maintain his lofty distance from the rest of the household. 

What parallels are there for the women?  None it would seem.  For women to get some privacy and space, they must 'sneak' off to some hidden corner of the garden, or slip away to the servant's quarters when they should be at church (or invent some other dubious alibi).  Women don't have the same ownership of their physical space as do the men.  So maybe Woolf is simply referring to this.  Financially too, who can realistically afford to dedicate an entire room to themselves?  Not many of us can have a study to ourselves at home (that's the dream though.  That and an island in the kitchen...). 

But aside from having a physical room in her house, women also traditionally suffer from not having the mental space either.  Certainly on an intellectual level, women traditionally weren't encouraged to 'improve their minds' by going to university.  In the 19th Century, women's accomplishments amounted to being able to sew, sing, play a musical instrument, be 'refined' and 'fashionable' - none of which require a separate, private room.  In fact the opposite is true.  All these accomplishments were designed specifically for display and required an audience.  And women were supposed to be preoccupied with the running of the household and the bringing up of the children.  "How old fashioned!" I hear you say.  But is it really?  I can vouch for the fact that, as a 21st Century working mother, it is still very much the role of the woman to be concerned with such things moreso than the man.  Yes of course there is much more equality, but biology has a large part to play (you name me a man who can take maternity leave to breastfeed his newborn baby!) and society does still, on the whole, expect the mother to be the main caregiver.  So mentally, women are far less likely to have a room of their own to which they can retreat, undisturbed. 

However, bleating on about why it's not fair does not give Virginia's argument any credit.  Nor does her assertion that women shouldn't write with 'rage' (it sounds like women have a lot to be angry about, yes?).  Some of the most creative works of literature and art have been produced under great oppression and in extreme poverty.  And there is the argument that just such circumstances of repression actually encourage and promote creativity.  Just look at the slave songs, the writings of Nelson Mandela on Robin Island, the deeply moving literature of holocaust victims (see a list and examples here), the amazing Xinran's Good Women of China (see Xinran's blog here), etc. 

Of course it's easy for me, sitting here at my laptop in the 21st Century, with the mini-Darcys in bed and Mr. Darcy cooking my dinner, to criticise Virginia.  I've had it comparatively easy.  And sitting in an ivory tower is a very haughty place to be.  It can go to your head.  I'm not saying that Woolf's argument isn't entirely valid - women have not had it as easy as men and no, it isn't fair.  It's just that the prejudices and pressures that surround being female constitute just one of the millions of obstacles that people around the world face, and we should not get this out of proportion.  Poverty, for example, infringement of freedom of speech, lack of access to education;  all these are obstacles to writers and creators of art.  All these people need their own room. 

So maybe the concept of a room of one's own does remain true.  Just that everyone's 'room' will be different.  For Nelson Mandela, it was inside his own mind.  For the slaves in America it was in the churches.  And for me today, like so many across the globe, it's my computer. 

Read Woolf's A Room of One's Own here


  1. I do indeed have a room of my own, one I can decorate and keep as I please and work and study in without distraction. It has always been important to me to have my own space. The physical space helps me create mental space to think and write and read and create. Woolf is saying that women who want to write or undertake other creative endeavors need to have a room of their own so they can close the door and not be interrupted. Too often women, as you note, especially those with children, are interrupted in their undertakings to make dinner, answer the phone, take care of husband and children, pretty much do everything but have time for herself. Art cannot be created when one is constantly being pulled in all directions. I think it is as true today as it was in Woolf's time but many women have gotten better at demanding that room. It's been a long while since I last read the book so I can't really address her argument about rage, but she does mean something very specific by it. Woolf's biggest flaw in the book is her classism. She is specifically addressing upper-middle class educated readers - the ones who could actually afford the room and the servants that would allow a woman to spend time closed in that room. Good post!

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Thanks for your comments. I think the 'rage' comment was in relation to Jane Eyre's little rant about her societal disadvantages. Woolf is saying that Bronte should rise above rage as it does her no credit.
      I completely agree with you about the classism issue. I suppose Woolf was just writing about what she knew. But yes, this is a big flaw.