A Room of One's Own is based on two papers given originally to the Arts Society at Newnham College, Cambridge and the ODtaa (One Damn thing after another) Society at Girton College, Cambridge – hence the suggestion in the opening sentence that Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience. At the time the lectures were given, both Newnham and Girton were women-only colleges; Newnham remains so, but Girton began admitting male undergraduate students in 1979.
Frances Burney (1752-1840), who was also known as Fanny Burney, and by her married name of Madame d'Arblay, was one of the earliest English female novelists. She was also a playwright and diarist.
Of her four novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), none has achieved lasting popularity, although Jane Austen is said to have enjoyed her work and been influenced by it.
However, critical interest in her diaries (published posthumously in 1841) has been sustained over the years, mainly because of the fascinating insights they offer into the nature of 18th century life.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is generally accepted to be one of the most important and talented English novelists.
Her novels include Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818). She also left one unfinished novel, which was published eventually under the title Sanditon.
Although she writes almost exclusively about the social and romantic lives of the English gentry (the circles in which she herself moved), any limitations in terms of plot or social milieu are more than compensated for by her acute observation of the aspirations and foibles of this section of society, and her ability to portray these in an amusing and convincing way. As recent adaptations of her work for film and television have shown, she is adept at conveying the passionate feelings which underlie both the restraint and decorum of her heroines' behaviour, and the restraint and decorum of her own literary style.
They lived at Haworth parsonage near Keighley in West Yorkshire.
Charlotte, the eldest of the three, is most well-known for her novel Jane Eyre (1847) which she wrote under the male-sounding pseudonym Currer Bell. Her other novels include Villette (1853), and The Professor (1857), which failed to find a publisher during its author's lifetime.
Emily, the middle sister, is best remembered for her novel Wuthering Heights which was published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847, and under her own name in 1850, following her death. It belongs to the genre known as Gothic fiction.
Anne, the youngest member of the family, wrote two novels: Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and published under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Whilst her sisters' work is considered to be in the romantic style, Anne's fiction is considered as fitting better into the realist category.
All three sisters were also poets, and published a joint work in 1846 under the title Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
Here we see Virginia Woolf subtly suggesting that she would expect us to perceive a difference in importance between the three novelists mentioned: the implication being that Miss Mitford and Mrs. Gaskell could be perceived as rather more 'light-weight' and insignificant than George Eliot.
Extracts from 'Our Village':
'... that which appears to me most delightful is a little village far in the country ... with inhabitants whose faces are as familiar to us as the flowers in our garden.'
'... a light, delicate, fair-haired girl of fourteen, the champion, protectress and playfellow of every brat under three years old, whom she jumps, dances, dandles and feeds all day long.'
George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann (Marian) Evans (1819-1880), a highly-esteemed English Victorian novelist.
Extract from Mill on the Floss:
'...brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted; living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love and roamed the daisied fields together.'
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) was an English novelist and short story writer, well-known for her novel Cranford, and her biography of Charlotte Brontë.
Virginia Woolf introduces us to the central tenet of her essay in an absolutely clear, no-nonsense way. She is making the point that no amount of literary talent or ambition is of any significance if an author's most basic needs (i.e. a physical space to write in, and a means of supporting herself/himself financially) are not met. She is also making the point that female authors are more likely than male authors to have difficulty achieving these fundamental requirements of literary creativity.
Virginia Woolf tells her audience that she is going to make 'use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist' and immediately refers to the two places, 'Oxbridge' and 'Fernham', which she has invented for the purpose of her lecture. 'Oxbridge' (an amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge) is Woolf's fictional name for the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and 'Fernham', her fictional name for Newnham and Girton Colleges. 'Oxbridge' may, therefore, be seen as representing the University system in general, while 'Fernham' may be seen as representing women's higher education in general.
In using 'Oxbridge' as the name of a fictional university, Virginia Woolf is following in the footsteps of William Thackeray who used it as the location of the fictional Boniface College in his novel Pendennis (1849). The term 'Oxbridge' has passed now passed into general usage to mean, 'either Oxford or Cambridge University' or 'both Oxford and Cambridge University', and can be used as either a noun or an adjective.
Here Virginia Woolf is speculating on imaginary names for the narrator of her story, the 'I' of the text from this point onwards (see discussion in Spark Notes). As with the fictional names for the university and the college, their purpose is to emphasise the generality and universality of what the narrator is saying.
Mary Beton is the name given by Virginia Woolf both to the fictional aunt of her narrator, whose legacy of £500 per year enables the narrator to live independently, and to the narrator herself. It is the name (usually written, Mary Beaton) of one of Mary Queen of Scots' four ladies-in-waiting (all of whom were called 'Mary'), as is the next name, Mary Seton (which is used later in the text for the narrator's friend at Fernham). However, Woolf does not go on to refer to Mary Queen of Scots' two other ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston, but to Mary Carmichael, a name mentioned in a ballad written in the Scots language generally known as 'The Ballad of Mary Hamilton'. Various versions of this exist, but they all refer to a Mary Hamilton who is a lady in waiting to another Queen of Scots, and who has been condemned to death for killing a baby, the result of a liaison with the King of Scots. The verse is confusing as the first two Mary's named were ladies-in-waiting to Mary Queen of Scots, whilst the other Mary's referred to (Mary Carmichael and the narrator, Mary Hamilton) were not.
Verse from one version of 'The Ballad of Mary Hamilton':
Yestre'en the Queen had fower Mary's
The nicht she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.
In A Room of One's Own, Mary Carmichael is the name given later in the text to an imaginary contemporary novelist. The choice of name is likely to be connected to the birth control activist Marie Carmichael Stopes who wrote a novel, Love's Creation (published in 1928), under the name Marie Carmichael.
So far in her introduction, Virginia Woolf has used a fairly straightforward prose-style in keeping with the rational and analytical nature of the discussion, but here she slips into a more 'poetic' mode (an indication that she is moving from speaking as herself to speaking as the narrator of the text). This style of writing, which she sustains over the next few paragraphs, would not seem out of place in one of her novels:
'Thought - to call it by a prouder name than it deserved - had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it ... ' - A Room of One's Own p.5
The word beadle has a variety of meanings in English. It is still used in some of the older British Universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham) as the title of a staff member (usually uniformed) who is responsible for security and other practical aspects of day-to-day University life.
Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was an English essayist who aspired to be a poet. He is best known for his collection of essays under the title Essays of Elia. In collaboration with his sister Mary, (1764-1847) he also produced a version of the works of Shakespeare suitable for children, entitled Tales from Shakespeare.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was a nineteenth century satirical novelist. Although he vied in popularity with Dickens during the Victoria era, he is now remembered mainly for his novel Vanity Fair.
Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was an English essayist and caricaturist whose full name was Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm. He was also the author of the novel Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story (1911), a satire of Oxford undergraduate life.
'For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme'
The full title of the work by William Makepeace Thackeray is The history of Henry Esmond, a popular historical novel published in 1852, but set in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). It was responsible for rekindling interest in the architecture and furniture-styles of that period, although the 'revived' Queen Anne style was often very different from the original.
During the early decades of the 20th. century, the standing of women in society was very different from how it is today.
In the wake of vigorous and courageous campaigning by members of the suffragette movement, women over 30 who were householders, married to householders, or in possession of a university degree had been granted the franchise (the right to vote in political elections and referendums) in 1918, but it was not until 1928 that this right was extended to all women over 21.
There were also discrepancies between the sexes in the world of education: although both boys and girls benefitted from the Education Act of 1870 (which made education between the ages of 5-10 compulsory) and that of 1918 (which raised the school-leaving age to 14), it was more difficult for women than for men to obtain a university education. All-women colleges were set up at the Universities of London, Oxford and Cambridge from the late 1840's onwards, but female students did not usually have the same rights as their male counterparts. For example, at Oxford University although women were allowed to attend lectures and take exams from 1884 onwards, they were not awarded degrees until 1920.
Difficulties in obtaining higher education naturally limited entry to those professions requiring a degree. Thus, although there were significant increases in the numbers of women working in teaching, nursing and clerical jobs during the early years of the 20th century, they were still not represented in most of the professions. By 1910, there had never been, for example, a female diplomat, barrister or judge. It was also often obligatory, as well as the social 'norm', during this period for women to give up their work when they married. Interestingly, in spite of contemporary equal opportunities for men and women in terms of university education, women remain under-represented in the higher echelons of public and professional life, and industry.
Here, the narrator is stressing the rarefied, artificial, ivory-towerish atmosphere of Academia. She suggests that its members are ill-equipped to cope with the harsh realities of life symbolised by the Strand.
Virginia Woolf's narrator speculates on how those who built the University buildings would have spent their leisure time.
The contemporary version of skittles is known as ten-pin bowling:
The Age of Faith is the name given to the period in history when religious belief was the dominant force in intellectual and cultural life. It is sometimes used as an alternative name for the Middle Ages (5th to 15th Century).
The Age of Reason, which succeeded the Age of Faith, is often known asThe Age of Enlightenment' or sometimes The Enlightenment. It is the period in intellectual history during which reason and intellect (as opposed to religious faith) were seen as the mainsprings of cultural and intellectual life. There is some debate about when The Enlightenment began, but the date is usually set somewhere between the middle of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century.
Here, Virginia Woolf is referring to the college servants who were employed to wait on both undergraduate students and academic staff. In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (which is partly set in 1920's Oxford), both Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte have servants known as scouts who are deployed on such diverse activities as clearing up vomit and arranging flowers!
Dining at Oxford and Cambridge colleges has been (and often still is) a more formal affair than at most other British universities - undergraduates were (and sometimes still are) expected to eat in the college refectory (known in Cambridge as 'in hall') and to wear their academic gowns during the meal.
When A Room of one's own was published, the standard of college cuisine would have been expected to match that available in the average upper middle class household.
Some colleges have become famous for particular recipes - for example, Trinity College is associated with Crème brulée which is believed to have been introduced to the college by one of its dons in 1879 (not all sources agree on this point!). It is sometimes also known as Trinity cream or Cambridge burnt cream.
Sir Anthony van Dyck, or Vandyck, (1599-1641) was a Flemish artist who had been an assistant to Rubens before establishing himself as a highly successful portrait painter in the early 17th century English court. He is particularly well-known for his portraits of King Charles I and his family.
His work is characterised by its rich colouring, elegance, and dignity, and these, no doubt, are the qualities which lead Virginia Woolf's narrator to associate him with her opulent dining experience at one of the men's colleges.
At this point in the text, the Manx cat ('abrupt' and 'truncated') becomes a symbol to the narrator of something that is lacking, or different, and this leads on to a chain of complex associations, a characteristic aspect of Virginia Woolf's fictional style.
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), usually known as 'Alfred, Lord Tennyson', was the British Poet Laureate for the majority of Queen Victoria's reign. Immensely popular during his lifetime, he remains a well-known and well-loved poet. Amongst his best known poems are The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Lady of Shalott.
'Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote,
The Lady of Shalott.'
It is interesting to note that the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who photographed Tennyson and was a personal friend of his was the aunt of Virginia Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen. In 1923, Virginia Woolf began a play, a satirical farce called 'Freshwater', which she completed in 1935 (although it was lost to public view until 1969). It features her great aunt, Julia Cameron; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the painter George Frederic Watts; and his wife, the actress Ellen Terry.
For Virginia Woolf's narrator, the verse beginning, 'There has fallen a splendid tear...' conveys the 'essence' of male pre-war Edwardian England.
It comes from one of Tennyson's poems entitled Maud (1855/1856), which is often referred to by its opening line, 'Come into the garden, Maud'.
'Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone.'
Its lush romanticism, tinged with sadness, would have been deeply appealing to Victorian audiences, but its slightly over-ripe quality tends to give it a somewhat comical flavour, open to parody. Joyce Grenfell (the actress and comedienne) did, in fact, co-write a satirical version of it in 1951, entitled Maud's Reply.
Listen on Spotify: Come into the garden, Maud
This is the first line of the verse that conveys the essence of female pre-war Edwardian England to Virginia Woolf's narrator.
The verse belongs to a two-verse poem entitled 'A Birthday', by Christina Georgina Rossetti.
'Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.'
Christina Georgina Rossetti was an English Victorian poet well-known for her romantic and religious poems as well as for some children's verse. She was the sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was the model for the Virgin Mary in his 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin'.
One of her best known poems is 'Remember', a Petrarchan sonnet in which the poet 'speaks' to someone who loves her about how she would wish to be thought about after her death. Understandably, it is often chosen as a poem to be read at funerals.
Headingley is the fictional version of Madingley, a village situated on the outskirts of Cambridge. The road named Madingley Road heads out of Cambridge in the direction of Girton College, the all-female college (at least, when A Room of one's own was written) on which the fictional Fernham is partially based. Girton is situated about 2.5. miles northwest of Cambridge city centre.
The name Headingley does exist as the name of one of the inner suburbs of Leeds.
In 1928* when A Room of one's own was published, significant living poets writing in English included W.B. Yeats (1865-1939); D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930); Ezra Pound (1885-1972); Marianne Moore (1887-1972); T.S.Eliot (1888-1965); and W.H. Auden (1907-1973). Of the poets listed, it is probably those who wrote in what would now be described as an innovative modernist style (Eliot; Pound; Moore; and Auden) who would best fit the narrator's description of the 'living poets' who express feelings that 'are being made and torn out of us at the moment'.
T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), in particular, was perceived as breaking new ground stylistically and thematically, and as a potent symbol of post-war disillusionment.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.
I had not thought death had undone so many.'
*The edition on which the bookmarks are based refers to 'A Room of One's Own' as having been 'first published 1928'. Other sources refer to its first publication in 1929.
Brimstones are yellow butterflies found in Europe and North Africa, and are often the first butterflies to emerge in spring.
This is a reference to Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), a classical scholar, linguist and feminist. She is also referred to later on in the text as the author of books on Greek archaeology.
We see here an acknowledgement of the fact that unemployment and poverty were marked features of 1920s British society, and that sections of the population would have been under-fed.
A Room of One's Own was published just two years after the 1926 General Strike when between 1.5 and 1.7 million British workers went on strike in support of coal-miners who were in dispute with coal-owners over worsening working conditions and reductions in wages.
Virginia Woolf uses one of the names she considered using for her narrator, namely Mary Seton, for the narrator's friend at Fernham. Again, she is emphasising the fact that what the women in A Room of One's Own are called is of no consequence as she is referring to women in general, not to specific women.
The plain (and alcohol free!) meal eaten at Fernham is contrasted unfavourably with the lavish lunch provided for the narrator earlier in the day at one of the male colleges. It is used in the text as a symbol of the inferior status of women within the university system.
This rather macabre reference may refer to the discovery of the well-preserved head of King Charles 1st. (who was executed in 1649) in the vault of King Henry Vlll at St. George's Chapel Windsor in 1813. The examination of his decapitated head was supervised by the physician Sir Henry Halford.
(*scroll down on this website to the heading, The Tomb of Edward lV)
Here, Mary Seton begins to tell the story of the founding of Fernham which (with some concessions to the fictional stance which Virginia Woolf adopts in A Room of one's own) is the story of the founding of Girton College.
A song entitled 'The Girton Pioneers', was composed to commemorate the first students of the college who took University exams. The words are a parody of the words of the song, 'The British Grenadiers', and they are sung to the same tune.
The full title of the Saturday Review was the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. It was a weekly publication, established by A.J.B. Beresford Hope in 1855, whose editors included John Douglas Cook, Frank Harris, and Walter Herries Pollock. Publication ceased in 1938.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher, civil servant, and Member of Parliament, well-known for a work entitled On Liberty. He was also an advocate of greater rights for women, and the co-author (with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill) of an essay entitled The Subjection of Women.
The footnote to this comment refers to the fact that the difficulty of raising £30,000 is discussed in the biography of Emily Davies*, written by Lady Barbara Stephen, a Girton historian who was the cousin of Florence Nightingale.
*Barbara Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College, London: Constable (1927).
Here, Mary Seton is explaining to the narrator how the paucity of the finance available to establish Fernham (only £30,000) meant that there was no money to spare for those luxuries (or 'amenities') that were available in the men's colleges.
The reference to the lack of 'amenities' (as noted in the footnote) is made by R. Strachey in The Cause.
The full title of the book referred to is The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (Port Washington: Kennikat Press (1928), reprinted 1969).
Its author's full name was Rachel Conn Costelloe Strachey (1887-1940), usually known as Ray Strachey, a feminist writer of the early part of the 20th century who wrote widely on women's issues. She was also a writer of fiction and biography.
Monte Carlo is situated in the principality of Monaco on the eastern edge of the French Riviera (Côte d'Azur). From the mid nineteenth century onwards (along with other Riviera towns such as Cannes and Nice), it became a fashionable holiday destination for members of the British upper classes and for various writers and artists.
The Parthenon is a temple in Athens built between 447BC and 438BC. It is dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena.
In Russia during the 1920s, a combination of factors (war, revolution, poverty and famine) meant that many children were left orphaned or abandoned, leading to a social problem known in Russian as besprizornost. Many of these children roamed the cities and countryside, singly or in gangs, and were known as besprizorni (sometimes besprizorniki).