The 100 best nonfiction books: No 45 – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

UntitledA Room of One’s Own is both a landmark in feminist thought and a rhetorical masterpiece, which started life as lectures to the literary societies of Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in October 1928. It was then published by the Hogarth Press in 1929 in a revised and expanded edition that has never been out of print. Barely 40,000 words long, addressed to audiences of female students in the hothouse atmosphere of interwar creativity, this became an unforgettable and passionate assertion of women’s creative originality by one of the great writers of the 20th century. Ironically, she herself never favoured the term “feminist”.

Virginia Woolf, no question, transformed the English literary landscape. But how, exactly? Was it through modernist innovation (Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse)? Or flirting outrageously with historical fiction (Orlando)? Or in the provocative argument – in part a response to EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – of a book like A Room of One’s Own? Well, all of the above. As many critics have noted, Woolf’s writings – from letters and diaries to novels, essays and lectures – are of a piece. Open any one of her books and it’s as though you have just stepped inside, and possibly interrupted, a fierce internal monologue about the world of literature. Woolf herself assists this response. “But, you may say, we asked you to speak…” is the opening line to A Room of One’s Own that backs its author into the limelight of an initially rambling, but finally urgent, polemic. “England is under the rule of a patriarchy,” she declares on about page 30, and then proceeds to lay bare the structure of male privilege and female exclusion – from independence, income and education.

At first, she masks the narrator of her argument in the guise of several fictional Marys: Mary Beton, Mary Seton or Mary Carmichael, an allusion to a 16th-century ballad about a woman hanged for rejecting marriage and motherhood. This “Mary” narrator identifies female writers such as herself as outsiders committed to jeopardy.

Quite soon, however, Woolf seems to abandon this contrivance. Now she is on fire, writing in her own voice: “One might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time – Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phèdre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes – the names flock to mind, nor do they recall women ‘lacking in personality and character’. Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact … she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.

More here.