Great Ideas Collection: Virginia Woolf

In the fifteenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ . Published eighty-four years ago and based on lectures delivered by Woolf at Cambridge University, the book-length essay explores and discusses the role of women within, and as writers of, fiction. 

Before her infamous suicide in 1941, Virginia Woolf was a significant figure in the London literary society and is now considered one of the foremost modernists of the 20th century.

She was a central figure within the influential Bloomsbury Group – an association of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists who either lived, worked or studied in the Bloomsbury area of London; their modernist approach influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics, as well as attitudes towards feminism, pacifism and sexuality.

In her seminal essay A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses women and education, based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College at Cambridge University in the October of 1928.

However, this piece of work is not purely about the rights of women and the education they should be receiving. It also concerns the role of women in writing. She states that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” though it was then not easy for women to simply sit, write and be entirely independent by this. Woolf begins her commentary of women and literature through centuries by browsing the shelves of a library.

Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?

Women are always a source of conversation and a topic to be debated, “Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time.” Though women may not have been at the forefront, may have been belittled or considered the weaker sex, they have always been talked about. In contrast, men have not – “Women do not write books about men.”

Regardless of women’s prominence in the written word, Woolf remonstrates the fact that they are considered second-class in their own abilities to write. It was not possible that women could be capable of producing work that held the high quality of William Shakespeare.

As Woolf continues to describe browsing the shelves of a library, she notices that more and more women have published books as she moves closer to the present day.

I had come at last… to the shelves which hold books by the living; by women and by men; for there are almost as many books written by women now as by men. Or if that is not yet quite true, if the male is still the voluble sex, it is certainly true that women no longer write novels solely… There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched.

Woolf has described this history of women’s writing and education and how, slowly but surely, attitudes toward women and their ability to write have changed. She highlights the works of prominent female writers such as the Brontë sisters, George Eliot and Jane Austen, analysing their effect on the changing attitudes and eventual acceptance of female writers. Though Woolf concludes there was still a long way to go before true equality between the sexes can exist, she affirms that this change was at least, even then, occurring.

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