Thursday, 29 April 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A recent competition by the Writers Bureau invited students to submit a review, consisting of 140 characters or less (i.e. a review which could be “tweeted” … or should that be “twittered”?). The subject of this review could be anything to do with writing, be it a book, website or magazine – you get the picture. Thinking about this, I decided to re-read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, a book which has inspired me to write like no other.

A Room of One’s Own” is a rambling yet insightful reflection on the subject of Women and Fiction, exploring the difficulties faced by females in what was predominately a man’s world – the world of authorship. The essay, written in 1929, was borne out of a series of lectures given by the author to two women’s colleges at Cambridge University. It is now regarded as one of the central pieces of feminist polemic, on a par with Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch”.

Woolf’s basic premise is that a woman needs freedom to write - that is, freedom from money worries and freedom from dependence on men. She considers why fiction, or art in any form, by women was in short supply prior to the nineteenth century. She asks why the literary world, punctuated with male luminaries like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare et al, was almost totally devoid of female writers and artists. One obvious reason was the lack of education and other opportunities available to women of this period. Woolf conjures up Judith Shakespeare (the playwrights imagined sister), and cleverly uses her to illustrate how society would conspire against a talented female with ambitions to write. The story did not end happily for the unfortunate Judith.

She then moves on to the prominent female authors of the nineteenth century, such as Jane Austin, the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot). Despite the fact that conditions had improved considerably for women during this period, female writers still faced enormous difficulties. Many were forced to publish under male pseudonyms, and others had such a protected and cloistered up-bringing that they had little experience to draw on for their writing. Because of this lack of worldliness, Woolf questions whether Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë could ever have written novels like “War and Peace”.

Woolf concludes that to be a successful writer or artist, a woman needs a room of her own (with a lock on the door), and an income of at least £500 a year. This, she argues, is all that is needed to unlock inspiration (one supposes that talent is an assumed pre-requisite!). In today’s world, this seems to be a rather simplistic view. But if we put it in the context of how much things have changed and improved for women, it is sad to think that luxuries such as a room and some private income was beyond hope for many of our predecessors. How lucky we are to live in these more enlightened times!

In the past, when I have recommended this essay to a number of friends, I have come across a peculiar reticence. It seems to me a lot of people are wary of Virginia Woolf’s work, put off by her experimental style and cerebral reputation. It is true Ms Woolf’s unique “stream of consciousness” style of writing sometimes makes for a difficult read. Nonetheless, with a little dedication and concentration, the reader will most certainly be rewarded. Woolf’s writing can transport the reader inside the author’s mind, where we are privileged witnesses to her tumbling, muddled yet highly intuitive thought processes – we are given access to a fascinating mind at work.

Another reason for some people’s disinclination towards her work is the fact that, having famously committed suicide after struggling with mental illness for much of her adult life, Woolf is viewed as a tragic figure. This perception of her as a melancholic and elegiac character (perpetuated in no small part by the film “The Hours”), means we expect her work to be the same. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is true her work has some dark elements, but her writing can also be delightful, inspiring, uplifting, and indeed very humorous. What better reason to pick up one of her books, and try it on for size?

And as for the twitter review, I made a few half-hearted attempts, before deciding it impossible to do justice to such an accomplished work in a mere 140 characters.

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