‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ A quote from Virginia Woolf at the beginning of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ which I have just finished reading, I have been dipping into it on my Kindle over a period of time. Virginia was invited to give a series of lectures on women and fiction in 1928 and they were published in 1929.
Of course we imagine the Bloomsbury Group had plenty of rooms and money, not to mention more time than ordinary folk and I can hear fellow writers of both sexes saying we would all like a room of our own and some money.
But looking back into the past with Virginia Woolf we would surely agree that the dominance of men in the field of literature was not due to the lack of talent among women, but absence of opportunity. Even Jane Austen did not have a room of her own, she never had a home of her own, just a kind rich brother. In the Jane Austen museum in Bath I saw an example of her tiny handwriting, small pieces of paper could be quickly hidden if someone came into the room. In the Chawton, Hampshire house, where Jane spent her final years and did her most productive writing, she did not allow the creaky door to be fixed because it acted as a warning that someone was about to enter the room. She always shared a bedroom with her sister. How peaceful the house was we cannot know for sure, but with a household of four ladies and a couple of servants, it should have been quiet and certainly she did not have to contend with toddlers running riot or teenage boys clumping up and down the stairs. One of Woolf’s other theories is that women became novelists rather than poets, because it takes more concentration to write a poem and women were more likely to be interrupted. Of course the great poets that have come down through history were usually well off men.
But for Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen stands out because she writes about women’s lives, not about them as background to men’s lives. She wrote what she wanted to write. The Austen family lived through the Napoleonic Wars, but there is no mention of them. Soldiers are important only for young ladies to fall in love with or run away with.
Writing ninety years ago Wolfe lived in a world where everything had been changed by the Great War. Women now had the vote, they had been important in the workforce during the war and with the loss of so many men, motherhood and domestic bliss, or domestic confines were no longer an option for many women. There was still poverty and hardship, the welfare state was a long way off, but Woolf wanted women to take any opportunities for education and to write. What would she have made of the Twenty First Century?
With her husband Leonard she founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, so she was able to publish her own books and certainly didn’t need to decide on a genre. She could never have imagined the internet and digital publishing, but she would surely have been impressed that so many women of all ages are writing, and writing whatever they want. But do we still need a room of our own and £500 a year to be able to write? Many of us didn’t start writing till after A Levels, our children’s A Levels; how many students come home for the university holidays to discover their bedroom has been turned into a sewing room or a computer room? Many writers don’t start till they have retired.
I wrote my first novel on a lap top on the dining table, progressed to a desk top computer in the corner of the bedroom, last year we rearranged the house; junior visitors now have to sleep on air beds, Cyberspouse has a computer room and I have a writer’s den; Virginia Woolf didn’t say a room of your own requires a visit to Ikea, but mine did.
But if you have to write on a lap top curled up on the end of the sofa while the football is on television, you can still enter the digital room or the ethereal mansion where there is room for every writer. Is your blog a room of your own?
Do you have a room of your own or can you forget your surroundings once you are in your characters’ heads?