Is there a better piece of nonfiction prose in the English language? Although, what it most reminds me of is the craftsmanship of Plato’s Apology (she knew Greek and Latin). I was a mediocre student of Greek. I rarely completed any of the assignments. But, for reasons I won’t go into here, I did do justice to the Apology, and have been grateful I did ever since. I don’t have much use for Plato’s philosophy. It seems to me to have been the root of most mischief in the Western world, or at least provided the rationalization for that mischief. But, by God, the man could write.
The other comparison that comes to mind, of course, is Montaigne. There is the same leisurely presentation, a meandering approach which reveals the process of creation as it happens rather than presenting us with elegant Ciceronian argument. But, it’s one thing to read a great writer like Montaigne in translation and quite another to experience Woolf’s achievement in one’s own language.
And I haven’t even mentioned the subject of the book. I have followed the feminist movement from my mother’s knee, you could say. She came to adulthood at the ripening point of the women’s suffrage movement in the early part of the 20th century. I don’t know how conscious she was of that movement, but like every woman alive at that time she must have been profoundly influenced by it. Hers was the first generation to “bob” their hair, and she once told me her own mother never came to breakfast without first putting on her corset. My mother’s honeymoon portrait, taken in the late 1920s, is very much that of a “liberated” woman. Her short dress was as flimsy as a slip, and the saucy expression on her face is as different from that of women in wedding portraits of the previous generation as anyone could imagine. I was exposed to the residue of that early 20th-century feminism through for her several years before the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
I am not well read in the subject. Even so, I find it hard to imagine anyone putting the case better than it appears in A Room of One’ s Own. Woolf was writing almost a decade after British women had achieved the franchise. There must have been the same sense of generational difference between women her own age and those in her audience as we observe nowadays between women who remember when our society was not just de facto but institutionally anti-woman and the younger generations who can take for granted the rights won by their elders.
Even so, in 1928 the gains, however momentous, were still precarious. A woman needed financial independence more than anything else. Woolf categorically states that between receiving the franchise and receiving notice that she had inherited 500 pounds a year for life, she still considered the latter to be clearly of more importance. Hence, the title and the necessity for a room of one’s own, with a lock, which implies the financial wherewithal to pay rent as well as to pay for the other necessities of life.
But, as I say, the essay is not an argument, and is even less a polemic. It’s what today we call a personal essay. It’s even cast in a semi-fictional form, which is to say she warns the audience she is going to treat the material in a narrative form that does not strictly adhere to facts, at least not facts as a court of law might see them. But the “fiction” is more along the line of journalistic license rather than fabrication. I have no doubt she really did visit the British Museum and try to read that big stack of books about women, all written by men, or that she really was chased off the lawn by the beadle at “Oxbridge.” In fact, she could never have achieved the impact one feels in reading this essay if she had not experienced what she narrates or had used any other form to express it. She was too much of an artist to proceed in any other fashion.
If I were in charge of any kind of higher-education curriculum, I would insist this book be part of it. It belongs there certainly as a literary achievement, but there is so much more to it. And I find it hard to imagine a better starting, or ending, place than this for any study of feminism. I only wish my mother had lived long enough for us to share it together.