The Essays of Virginia Woolf

The Essays of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Stephen on 25th January 1882 and, on this anniversary, we’re taking another look at her two most feminist non-fiction works.

A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas were published nine years apart in 1929 and 1938 and both explore the importance of an independent income on intellectual freedom and the effect of centuries of poverty on the female creative force.

But while A Room of One’s Own takes a meandering path towards its final conclusion, Three Guineas fires an arrow directly at its target, followed by another, and another, until the reader is left bruised and bleeding.

A Room of One’s Own draws together two lectures given at Cambridge University in October 1928 on ‘Women and Fiction’.  Woolf’s central argument is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

In proving this point she asks herself such basic questions as “Why are women poor?” and “Why are there so few books written by women before the 19th century?”.

Through describing her research trip to the British Museum she brings to light the wealth of contradictory literature written by ‘wise’ men about women and unearths such delightful titles as The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex by a Professor Von X.  She explores in detail the history of fiction written by women, and shows that even there women are seldom seen in a room with no man present.

The style is lyrical and descriptive.  The reader is sitting with her at the luncheon table at the men’s college with its servants, linen and exquisite food and again at the women’s college out of town with its prunes and custard served by the students themselves.  We feel her frustration as she doodles, watching her neighbour put into practice the training in research methods from which she was excluded.

The book finishes with a call for women to go out and write, to write books of any kind, and to develop their own female style of writing, without trying to copy the cadence of men’s.

Three Guineasis written as a letter in response to the question, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”  The question is posed by a man, a barrister, probably in middle age, and it would seem a close acquaintance.

Written on the eve of the Second World War and with daily reminders in the papers of man’s inhumanity towards man in the Spanish Civil War, her central theme in this work is that war is a product of patriarchal structures, and Fascism is an expression of masculinity taken to its extreme.

In order to prevent war, therefore, the quest for honours, the drive for acquisition of wealth and the possessiveness of the professions must all be challenged at their core.

The ‘three guineas’ in the title refer to three requests for funds by societies: the first a women’s college, the second a society seeking to promote women in the professions and the third by the recipient himself seeking to promote individual rights and intellectual freedom.  She takes them in turn and shows how each is instrumental in preventing war.

While we may see the roots of the ideas of Three Guineas in A Room of One’s Own, the style is entirely different.  A Room of One’s Own is warm and charming with flashes of exasperation.  Three Guineas is sardonic and bitter with flashes of white fury.

I imagine the audience of A Room of One’s Own congratulating themselves on what they have achieved and applauding the marvellous Mrs Woolf; whereas I see the recipient of Three Guineas settling down to an interesting discussion with the clever Mrs Woolf but ending up cowering behind his elegant sofa at the force of the onslaught.

Where are we now?

Much has changed – we can earn our livings, we can succeed in the professions, women write books about everything, and Sarah Waters can easily write a whole novel with no men present at all.  Throughout Three Guineas Woolf refers to her class as the ‘daughters of educated men’.  Now we can easily refer to ourselves as ‘educated women’.

But 75 years on glass ceilings and pay gaps still exist and many of her central ideas and questions are still valid.  Do we embrace sex differences or make out we are all the same?  What does it mean to be a thinking, creative woman, and how do you do it?  However many times one reads Woolf, she still has plenty to teach us about our own lives now.

Jenny Tipping

Image via Wikimedia