Monday, February 06, 2006

A Room of One's Own

There is something very odd about reading A Room of One's Own in a five-bedroom house (albeit shared) with a salary. And it is particularly odd reading it as a male Oxford fellow - exactly the species that Woolf had her sights trained on. Yet the point is simple and incontrovertible enough and I like the way she tells it as it is with the most astonishing simplicity:

That is it. 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 have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. 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 (125).

This is a call for the excavation of subaltern history,

Occasionally an individual woman is mentioned, an Elizabeth, or a Mary; a queen or a great lady. But by no possible means could middle-class women with nothing but brains and character at their command have taken part in any one of the great movements which, brought together, constitute the historian's view of the past...What one wants, I thought - and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it? - is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like; had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant? (52)

but unlike so much of subaltern studies today, it is angry, it is animated by the desire for rights, expansion of opportunity, improvement, emancipation - all those old-fashioned modernist things that no self-respecting subaltern studies scholar would dream of explicitly acknowledging even if that is what in fact gets him or her out of bed every morning.

So much of this little book reminds me of Orlando - the sweep through history, the attempt at imagining what agency would have been possible in different historical structures, but also the quite remarkable conviction that we all have androgynous brains ('whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness...It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties' (114)). And I love the way she disses Kipling for being too male:

Some of the finest works of our greatest living writers fall upon deaf ears. Do what she will a woman cannot find in them that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible...So with Mr. Kipling's officers who turn their backs; and his Sowers who sow the Seed; and his Men who are alone with their Work; and the Flag - one blushes at all these capital letters as if one had been caught eavesdropping at some purely masculine orgy. The fact is that neither...nor Mr. Kipling has a spark of the woman in him.

A Room is exactly the sort of kick up your backside that you might need if you are a graduate student looking out of your window at a bleak Monday morning because it says, essentially, that if you have funding and a roof over your head, you have no bloody excuse. As for Oxford fellows...pssh...even less.

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