A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf (written originally as a series of lectures for women university students) which has the central message that 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction'.
It is a book which may be read on many levels, and one which may, I imagine, evoke different reactions in female and male readers.
In her essay, Woolf chooses to use a semi-fictionalised style, and to have a fictional narrator. In some ways this is a bewildering decision, which can lead the reader to feel somewhat confused, partly because such an approach is so unexpected in an academic work and partly because the fiction is often so close to fact. For example, when the narrator is discussing the founding of 'Fernham', she is essentially describing the founding of Girton College. Much of the text revolves around the narrator's broad knowledge of literature and her ability to examine it with a critic's eye, and one cannot help but be aware that it is Woolf herself who possesses this knowledge and ability. Having said that, Woolf's decision to present the work in her own highly individualistic –and highly imaginative – way illustrates one of the central tenets of the book, namely that any woman writer worth her salt must write in her own way and not bow to the prejudices and expectations of society or the reading public.
Indeed, the unwitting illustration of many of her points in the way the book itself is written is one of the most striking features of A Room of One's Own. For example, the reader is warned that a female writer's work is doomed if she allows any sense of grievance about the status of women to pervade her work; yet one is aware of a slight sense of grievance in the narrator's tone on those occasions when she is lamenting her lack of a university education (for example when comparing herself with 'the student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge'). However, I emphasise the 'slight sense of grievance' because what comes through in the book more than anything else is Woolf's supreme confidence as a female writer, and her ability as a literary critic. We see how widely read she is, and how adept she is at drawing together disparate threads in literature and identifying themes. In other words, we have living proof of one of the central messages of the work: that a woman can be as accomplished as any man in these fields and, what is more, that she can be so in her own inimitable, female, way.
Woolf's narrator is also supremely confident in her put-downs of male pomposity or arrogance (whilst, at the same time, not hiding the feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, and anger which assertions of male superiority may evoke in women). For example, when feeling slightly overwhelmed by the preponderance of dry literature written by men about women at the British Museum, she shows her disregard for it all by 'drawing cartwheels' on the book order-slips, and remarking facetiously, 'I could not possibly go home, I reflected and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction ... that the age of puberty amongst the South Sea Islanders is nine - or is it ninety?' There is the same sense of amused indignation and pleasurable devilment in her tone when she remarks later in the text: 'Lord Birkenhead is of opinion - but really I am not going to trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women'. Indeed, humorous touches are present throughout the book on all sorts of subjects, including the biscuits the narrator was given at the end of her rather uninspiring meal at Fernham: 'it is in the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core'.
As mentioned at the outset, then, A Room of One's Own is a book that functions on many levels: it may be viewed as a scholarly discussion of the place of women in literature, which educates us about some of the less well-known figures in the field; it may be seen as a 'feminist' text providing astute observations on the role of women throughout history and, in particular, on their position in society in the early twentieth century; or it may simply be enjoyed at a more superficial level for its perceptive and amusing observations on the world, and for its innovative and engaging style. Certainly, one imagines that for a majority of female readers it is a book which will impress, inspire and – at times – surprise. Male readers may, of course, react in precisely the same way, or they may respond with less enthusiasm and less approbation to what is essentially a very polished critique of the patriarchal society which has existed in most cultures throughout history, and which was very much in evidence in Britain in the early decades of the last century.
Some views from the internet:
It's a delightful read and the classification of it as an 'essay' should not put anyone off as it is as entertaining as any of Woolf's prose. (Amazon customer)
The very construction of the essay is an example of the work she is promoting, to attempt to 'live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life'. (Amazon customer)
... even though she's dealing with a hefty and deep subject matter, her writing isn't remotely dense, and is really a pretty breezy read. (Taylor on goodreads.com)
This was an eye-opener for me... On the whole I enjoyed Virginia Woolf's meandering or 'encircling' approach to the question of women and fiction. (David on goodreads.com)
A Room of One's Own brings me right into Woolf's mind, style, and intentions ... She writes smartly about what it means to be a woman and a writer... (Henry Leung on goodreads.com)