In 1929, Virginia Woolf was called upon by Oxford College to compose her classic A Room of One's Own, in order to inspire and guide a class of eager young women; and in her own inimitable style, Virginia Woolf took them in hand, presenting her thoughts in a paper then titled "Women and Fiction". Herein, she wondered, what was it that made for successful literature? What made a Keats or a Coleridge or a Thackery? What would Shakespeare have been like had he been female? Or poor? Further, what if Shakespeare had a sister who had a passion for the written word, just as her brother did? Would either have been able to compose such works as Antony and Cleopatra?
Would Shakespeare's sister, she asked, have succeeded had she moved out into the world on her own, knocked on theatre doors, and begged instruction? How much more successful could a young woman, circa 1929, become if she had not the financial security upon which to steady her pen? Could Jane Austen have done as well if she had been impoverished? Could she, who Virginia Woolf saw as the brightest star in the heavens of female literature, have composed her great works if she had belonged to a working class family? What would Charlotte Brontė have been able to accomplish if she had had the leisure to travel, as her male counterparts had?
The crux of her vast lecture "Women and Fiction", rested on this: Where were the great women of literature? Why, even in the late 1920s were women writers still mocked by their male counterparts? Why was it that the rolls of the very college on whose ground she stood were overflowing with young men, and yet, here and there stood only a token woman or two? Why had women need of letters of introduction in order to catch a glimpse of the dusty tomes of Oxford library? Where were the vast unsung artists she was sure were just beyond her vision? What would it take to bring these artists to the fore? To save them from the same watery fate she envisioned awaited the poor beleaguered sister of Shakespeare?
In the short, oft-quoted phrase, she surmised that it would take "five hundred a year and a room of one's own". A good sturdy lock on the door was something Virginia Woolf also recommended. But this is just one small portion of her essay--a catch phrase, nothing more. What it would take, she proposed, is for her contemporaries to put down the recommendations and the jibes and the insults of their male counterparts, and pick up their pens. Shut out all those external and internal doubts and just write. Write for one's self, in a room of one's own, lock or no. Just put the pen to paper and get to work. That, in itself, she says, is what will redeem Shakespeare's sister, ourselves, the writers, the artists, the wives, the daughters, the sisters, the mothers; that is what will force the balance in what was then an unbalanced field. For to write, to create, nothing more, is the ultimate vision of the artist. Whatever else comes is gravy.
A Room of One's Own, I believe, works on all those levels. Yes, it is a feminist classic, emboldening women to step out there and make a name for themselves, come what may; as she herself was to tell a friend: "I wanted to encourage the young women--they seem to get fearfully depressed."
And yet, it stands as so much more than just a feminist inspirational, whatever one might say. I think this would be a good work for any aspiring writer to read--women as well as men. All artists, above all, might enjoy this. I would caution the novice Virginia reader, though; her prose is much more than flowery. It is a winding, meandering path that has a tendency to cut back and forth across itself more times than not. That is not a criticism, however, merely a caution. As a veteran fan of Virginia Woolf, I found myself lost--but happily so--in the flow of her thoughts, how she could look at the chapel on the Oxford grounds and sketch out for us in minute detail, the vision of financier after financier, workman after workman worrying himself over the building of the chapel, over the price of the stone, over whether or not this day's work would fetch him enough to feed his family, that evening. And I wondered with her over how it could be that so many theorists could write so many myriad books on the subject of the abilities of women, when said-theorists knew not the first thing about being women. I felt the boredom she found herself embroiled in when she realized she was no longer making notes on the opinions of said-theorists, but instead, filling her notebook with doodles, the embarrassment that flashed across her mind when she realized the young man next to her was giddy with the discovery of the scientific Holy Grail in his class notes.
Don't let her assumption of the need for "five hundred a year" scare you away. I don't quarrel with the assumption that a steady income is needed, I simply don't personally think it is all that necessary for the success she envisioned in "Women and Fiction". If I had to give a criticism of the piece, that would be the only one I would give.
And yet, after all this, and just over 73 years since its creation, I agree with her on the biggest issue in the book: It is not the money that makes an artist, but the freedom to sit down and decree you are going to create a masterpiece, no matter what, and then setting to work to do it, that counts. And once again, I cannot recommend her enough. Her prose, as I say, might be a little hard to follow, but there is gold in these pages. Give it a shot; I am sure you will enjoy it.