Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Persuasion in Woolf's "A Room of One’s Own"

The conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own states that, in order for a female to write, she not only needs a room of her own, but also £500 a year (which was worth considerably more then than it is now). She comes to this conclusion after hours of thought on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’; however, rather than simply presenting an argument, the author shows her long and somewhat complicated thought-process through a fictional narrative. She writes:

“I propose making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here – how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life.”

In order to demonstrate a writer’s need for a room of their own, the author skilfully laces her fictional account with reasons to believe this. She is keen to emphasise the role of interruptions in the reflective process, and she dramatizes the effects of these interruptions on a number of occasions. For example, the narrator is depicted sitting in contemplation on the banks of a river at “Oxbridge”, and her thought process is represented metaphorically in terms of fishing. However, her thoughts are interrupted by a Beadle, ordering her off the grass, an area where women were not permitted to venture. The narrator then notes that, although “no very great harm had been done”, she had lost her “little fish” of an idea just as it was beginning to grow. Moreover, when the narrator attempts to visit the college library in pursuit of another idea, she is told that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” Again, this demonstrates the restrictions of intellectual and creative freedom placed on females and the fact that, historically, they have scarcely had space or leisure for the uninterrupted thinking so necessary for writing. The obstacles that the narrator faces show the effects that a patriarchal educational culture has on female intellectual pursuit.

Through her narrative, Woolf also demonstrates a writer’s need for individual wealth, also denied to females throughout history. She notes that women have always been poor, that they have never had possessions of their own and that they themselves, until very recently, were the possessions of their husbands. The reason that the narrator is able to write is that she was left a legacy of £500 a year by her aunt. She observes that she learnt of this inheritance at the same time as women were first given the vote, and that the inheritance was far more important in securing her freedom. The legacy meant that she was not forced to work for a living. It also meant, she explains, that she was relieved of her anger at men for their superiority. She tells the reader that her financial freedom gave her the “freedom to think of things in themselves”, something which she believes vital for a writer to possess. Thus Woolf is again demonstrating a females writer’s need for money: so that she can not only devote her time to writing, but also so that she can rid herself of prejudiced thoughts and hatred.

Woolf views independent wealth as so vital to a female writer because only then can the frustration and vulnerability that would mark her thinking and writing be dissolved. She sees this incandescence and lack of prejudice as central to good works of fiction. She says that a good novel requires that all traces of the particular self be distilled in the “white light of truth”, rather than in the “red light of emotion”. She demonstrates this through her visit to the British Library and perusal of male writings about women that are characterised by their anger and desire to assert male superiority. She writes:

“When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an author argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too.”

This, she explains, is a weakness, and she goes on to express the importance of dispassion in writing. Woolf, citing a passage from Jane Eyre, argues that novels lacking incandescence “do come to grief somewhere”. She writes of Bronte’s passage, which describes the plight of women:

“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience… Her imagination swerved from indignation and we felt it swerve.”

Thus the author is using an example to argue her case for the importance of incandescence.

However, although wealth is clearly important to allow time for writing, it is uncertain as to whether incandescence and lack of passion really are necessary for a female writer to possess. Surely some of the most highly regarded and exciting passages in literature were motivated by the author’s personal experiences and feelings? She says that Austen’s novels are written “without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching”. Even this is debatable: Austen’s extremely sympathetic depiction of Miss Bates, a spinster like herself, suggests that the author is protesting against the troubles faced by poor and old females, which she herself experienced. Moreover, Anne Elliot’s preaching in Persuasion must be motivated by Austen’s own anger at patriarchy: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” Austen clearly felt this injustice rather keenly, and wanted to speak out against it. Although this does not undermine Woolf’s overall conclusion (that women need a room of their own and £500 a year to write), it does undermine her belief that a true novel needs to be written with incandescence.

Woolf then uses a very vivid fictional example to illustrate her points. She conjures the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare, talented sister to the famous playwright. However, since she receives no education and is forced to domestic work, her social role gives her little chance to develop her gift of writing. Whatever she is able to write she burns in fear of punishment or ridicule. She is then forced into marriage, but runs away to London to go into acting. The players and theatre owners simply laugh at her, but she is finally taken up by the theatre-manager; she becomes pregnant, and then commits suicide. This dramatization, although perhaps slightly extreme, shows that women simply were not and could not be writers in the Elizabethan period. Why was this? Because they had no room of their own and no independent wealth.

Woolf uses a number of other examples to support her argument. Moving through the history of female literature, she begins by citing aristocrats Lady Winchilsea and Margaret of Newcastle, who both were childless and had husbands who gave them freedom. She puts their ability to write wholly down to this. She then cites Aphra Behn, who despite being a member of the middle-class, went against convention and paved the way for future female writers. She argues that Jane Austen could only write because she had no children, was never married, and was able to live off her family’s income. These examples again serve to reinforce her thesis.

She concludes by saying that, although it is possible for a writer to be poor and not have a room to themselves, the odds are against them. Keats seems to be the only influential and well-known poet of the hundred years before Woolf’s novel that was particularly poor, and Austen was special in her ability to write in her family sitting-room. Education, she says, is vital for any writer, and this comes with wealth. She sums up her argument thus:

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time… Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”

She says that to write “There must be freedom and there must be peace…” and these only come through wealth, privacy and independence. For Woolf, these necessities explain the lack of female literary history. Until now, women have not had the privileges of freedom and privacy. Thus she concludes that they are vital for a female to write. Now that they do have freedom, wealth, and privacy, women can and should write. 

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