A Room of One's Own was based on lectures that Virginia Woolf gave at two women's colleges in October of 1928; and when she gave them, Woolf might well be described as being at the height of her powers.
To The Lighthouse had been published in May of 1927 and had met with a generally positive response from both critics and public; indeed, it sold better than any of its predecessors.
And in October of that year, Woolf conceived what would be her most unusual work and the one that would give her the most pleasure.
This was Orlando.
In her diary, she describes Orlando as "a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day [in which the main character, modeled on her close friend, Vita Sackville West] changes from one sex to another."
"What a treat," she writes.
Orlando was finished in March of 1928.
In May of '28 Woolf traveled to Paris to receive the Femina Vie Heureuse prize for To the Lighthouse. This woman's prize was the only award she ever accepted during her lifetime
That summer, she began working seriously on the lectures on Women & Fiction.
In September, Orlando was published to significant acclaim.
From London, her sister Vanessa would write: "the great excitement [here] is Virginia's new book"
And as her nephew Quentin Bell observes in his biography of her, Orlando moved Woolf into the realm of public accessibility.
By the time Orlando was published, Bell writes,
... a great many people had discovered that Virginia Woolf was a novelist that had to be tackled if one were to lay any claims to intellectual alertness ... [But] her manner of writing was still unfamiliar. For these, Orlando came like an answer to prayer. Here was a work by a highbrow - a 'difficult novelist' -, which nevertheless was easy, amusing, and straightforward in its narrative.
Sales of Orlando were impressive.
To the Lighthouse had sold 3,800 copies in its first year. Orlando sold over 8,000 in its first six months.
It was, her husband Leonard said, the turning point in her career as a novelist.
So in late October of 1928, when she went to Cambridge with Leonard and Vanessa and gave her lectures at the Newnham and Girton colleges there was, her sister remembered, "an atmosphere of triumph."
Virginia Woolf, born on January 25, 1882, was then 46 years old.
The process that turned the lectures into a book took much of the following year and provided its author some measure of satisfaction, especially once she settled on the work's form.
In her diary entry for April 13, Woolf notes that "Women and Fiction" [the working title for what would become A Room of One's Own] has considerable conviction. "I think that the form, half talk half soliloquy allows me to get more on the page than any how else."
This form, moreover, allows her to write more rapidly than usual, even if it necessitates more revision
When she began to compose in this manner Woolf observes in her diary, "it made itself up and forced itself upon me . . . at such a rate that when I got pen & paper it was like a water bottle turned upside down."
The writing was as quick as my hand could write; too quick for I am now toiling to revise; but this way gives one freedom & lets one leap from back to back of one's thoughts.
The excitement, one might suggest, that the reader may feel in the rapid movement of the author's mind in A Room was mirrored in its creation
Nevertheless, Woolf was not without misgivings as she created A ROOM.
In May of '29 she writes in her diary:
About W. & F. I am not sure-a brilliant essay? -I daresay; it has much work in it, many opinions boiled down into a kind of jelly, which I have stained red as far as I can.
But I am eager to be off - to write without any boundary coming slick in [my] eyes: here my public has been too close: [it's difficult working with] facts; getting them malleable, easily yielding to each other.
In June Woolf would refer to A Room as "that much corrected book"
And in August, upon finally completing her corrections prior to publication, she would ask:
Good or bad? [It] has an uneasy life in it I think; you feel the creature arching its back and galloping on, though as usual, much is watery & flimsy & pitched in too high a voice.
In October, as the book was about to be published, Woolf would wonder how it would be received:
I will here sum up my impressions," she writes in her diary, "before publishing A Room of One's Own. It is a little ominous that Morgan [E.M. Forster] won't review it. It makes me suspect that there is a shrill feminine tone in it which my intimate friends will dislike.
I forecast, then, that I shall get no criticism, except of the evasive jocular kind ... that the press will be kind & talk of its charm, & sprightliness; also I shall be attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist; ... I shall get a good many letters from young women.
I am afraid I will not be taken seriously
I doubt that I mind very much
Whether or not Woolf minded, she needn't have feared.
A Room of One's Own was published both in England (by her and her husband's Hogarth Press) and in America, on October 24, 1929 and was an immediate success - with the public, with the critics, and with her friends
... the sales of A Room are unprecedented," Woolf would write in her diary, "have beaten Orlando. ... orders for 100 taken as coolly as 12's used to be. We have sold, I think, 5500; & our next year's income is made.
And in her letters to her friends we can see Woolf's appreciation of their response to A ROOM, along with her continuing assessment of it.
In October of 1929, on the heels of its publication, she writes to Vita Sackville- West:
I'm delighted you read my little book, as you call it ... although you don't perceive it, there is much reflection and some erudition in it...
And in November, to G.L. Dickinson, she writes:
I can't tell you how pleased I am that you like my little book ... I'm so glad that you thought it good tempered - my blood is apt to boil on this one subject ... and I didn't want it to. I wanted to encourage the young women - they seem to get fearfully depressed - and also to induce discussion ... there are numbers of things that might be said, and that aren't. The double soul [i.e. androgyny] is one of them; and also education...
To E.M Forster, on January 3, 1930, she writes:
... being my best critic, as I think- how glad I am you liked A Room! I was awfully afraid you wouldn't.
And in May, she writes to Dorothy Brett:
I am very glad you liked A Room. It was rather popularized for the young and should have had more in it. But I wanted them to swallow certain ideas with a view to getting their brains to work.
Finally, on a somewhat different note, in September of 1930 she writes to a Mrs. Wilson:
I am delighted to learn that you have a new room and that I am the cause ... It is most encouraging to hear that there is one woman who is not going to write - since I published my little book I have been afraid that the writers would far outnumber the readers. But I shall now think with great pleasure that you are using YOUR room to read in, and so shall hope to be counted ... among your benefactors.
The letter to Mrs. Wilson is interesting because it suggests that early on Woolf's book was seen to have a relevance to women beyond the literary sphere.
But what are we to make of A Room of One's Own.
October 1992 was A Room's sixty-second birthday: the sixty-second anniversary of its publication.
The work, we might say, has become "a senior citizen;" were it a person, it would be eligible for social security
What might it have to say to us today?
To begin to answer this question, of course, we need to examine the text with some care, but at the outset this may seem a daunting task, for this is a work that can appear somewhat perplexing due to the wealth of information and perspectives that it contains; and getting a hold on A Room is not eased by a form in which, as we noticed earlier, its author gives herself the "freedom to leap from back to back of [her] thoughts"
Indeed, one finds oneself leaping "back to back" with Virginia Wool through her thinking on a wide range of phenomena, including literary events, historical events, individual writers, individual works, criticism, social theory, and personal experience.
A way out of this perplexity, however, might be seen if one considers two different meanings of the word "culture"
On the one hand, "culture" is an anthropological concept: it's about how people live, the patterns which express how members of a society experience the world.
Different societies, we say, have different cultures
But on the other hand, there is the more common meaning of "culture;" it's included in the anthropological meaning, but is usually thought of separately.
Here "culture" simply denotes the arts, including fiction
We speak of a person "getting culture," or "being cultured," for example.
In A Room of One's Own, it can be suggested, Virginia Woolf is concerned with BOTH meanings of culture; and she connects these two meanings through the concept of gender
"Talk about the creative life of women," this is to say, about women and fiction, necessarily involves speaking not only about cultural matters - in the sense of aesthetic things - but it also involves considering socio-cultural things phenomena like political economy and social history
The topic of women and fiction encompasses both cultural meanings
And it's part of Virginia Woolf's power and charm hat she is able to move so easily between these different cultural discourses - leaping if you will, "back to back" between them, in an apparently effortless way.
Sometimes, admittedly, because of the speed with which she leaps, following her is not always effortless; but it's always worth whatever effort it may require.
In any case, it's to that which we can now move.
In what follows, in part, I will explore what Woolf's text reveals about three cultural notions - liberation, feminism, and androgyny.
And I will try to indicate something of how these inform both what the work means and how, like any classic, it remains relevant to contemporary concerns.
by Joel Rich
originally delivered in the University of Chicago First Friday lecture series, February 1992; revised, May 2005