Reading Notes – A Room Of One’s Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”

The famous quote and premise of Virgina Woolf’s 1928 lecture ‘A Room of One’s Own’.  I recently read this text – part essay, part fiction, part personal story and far more than the sum of its parts.

Below are some of the quotes I underlined most heavily, gathered in to some loose topics.

On Historic Position of Women

“If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowsips and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex”

“To earn money was impossible for them… the law denied them the right to posess what money they earned”

On Elizabethan England c.1470:

“Wife beating was a recognised right of man”

“The daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten”

“Marriage was not an affair of personal affection”

“200 years later .. it was still the exception for women of the upper and middle classes to choose their own husbands”

“What I find deplorable .. is that nothing is known about women prior to the 18th century .. I am not sure how they were educated, whether they were taught to write”

“They had no money evidently.. they were marreid whether they liked it or not”

“Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight”

“For women have sat indoors all these millions of years”

“For all the dinners cooked; plates and cups washed, the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it”

“There have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 she was given a vote”

On Material Conditions

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

“dignity … [is] the offspring of luxury and privacy and space”

“I pondered .. what effect  poverty has on the mind, and what effect wealth has on the mind … the safety and prosperity of  the one sex and the poverty and insecurity of the other”

“Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art”

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. And women have always been poor, not for 200 years, but from the beginning of time. Women have  had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves”

“I hope that you will posess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of your thought dip deep into the stream”

On Hostility Towards Women

“Further accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them”

“The indifference of the world… was in her case not indifference but hostility”

“The world said with a guffaw, write? What’s the good of your writing”

“There would have always been that assertion – you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that, to protest against, to overcome”

“For painters it must still have a sting in it and for musiciains, I imagine it is even now poisonous in the extreme”

Woolf quotes a critic at the time who says: “Sir, a woman’s composing is  like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all”

“Not so much that she shall be inferior as that he shall be superior”


On Women as Mirrors and Muses

“The cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infrigement of his power to believe in himself. Women have served all these years as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”

“Mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge”

“If she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgements, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner as twice the size he really is?”

“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history .. in real life she could hardly read, scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband”

“She is a vessel in which all sorts of spirits and forces are coursing and flashing perpetually”

A Pre-Cursor of the Bechdel Test

“I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends … but almost without exception they are shown in relation to men”

“Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of women in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror .. between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity – for so a lover would see her, as his love rose or sank”

“Suppose for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers”


On Writing Fiction & Art

“Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction”

“One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads”

“When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture. But this is what I have always felt and known and desired”

“A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop”  (.. parallels to classification of painting genres with Historic painting traditionally top of the tree and not accessible to women)

“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the voice”

“Now the writer, as I think has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of reality. It his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us”

“When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life”

“One sees more intensely afterwards”

“It is much more important to be oneself .. Do not dream of influencing other people … Think of things in themselves”

“If we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think … to work even in poverty and obscurity is worthwhile”

On  Research and Exposing Arguments

“One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncracies of the speaker”

“How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper”

“My own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings … Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped”


On Her Personal  Situation

“Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were left me by my aunt, for no other reason than that I share her name”

“Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918”

“The poison, fear and bitterness that those days bred in me”

“Like a slave, flattering and fawning”

“I need not flatter any man, he has nothing to give me”

“And the greatest release of all came, which is the freedom to think of things for themselves”

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate; no lock; no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”