Monday, October 24, 2011

Literary Feminism

A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's Own 

"Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others." - Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

I read this extended essay some years ago both for a class at the University of Chicago and for a weekend spent discussing some of the works of Virginia Woolf that also included To the Lighthouse and Three Guineas.
A Room of One's Own was written to be delivered as two talks delivered to female college students. This coincided with the trial of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, at which Woolf testified in the novel's defense. This context, the female college setting, and Woolf's personable style are captured in the famous passage of A Room of One's Own in which she imagines discovering a new kind of writing, by a future novelist named Mary Carmichael.
"And, determined to do my duty by her as reader if she would do her duty by me as writer, I turned the page and read…. I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Charles Biron [the hostile judge at the Well of Loneliness trial] is not concealed? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these — “Chloe liked Olivia….” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." 
In the end, Woolf decides that if Mary Carmichael has "a room of her own and five hundred a year," she will eventually be a real writer. " Woolf's main argument is that there have been few great women in history because material circumstances limited women's lives and achievements. Because women were not educated and were not allowed to control wealth, they necessarily led lives that were less publicly significant than those of men. While the argument has gained more adherents since this book was written the book retains its popularity and has become a classic along with much of Woolf's oeuvre. It is a short work that raises interesting questions and is written with impeccable style. 

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