A voice of one’s own: Virginia Woolf and us

Eighty-seven years ago yesterday, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own.

A first edition of the Virginia Woolf essay, A Room of One's OwnPedantic copyeditors usually redline that construction: “Writers don’t publish; their publishers do.” But Woolf, of course, was both writer and publisher. So not only did she have the “room of [her] own (with a key and a lock)” she prescribed as essential for every woman writer, she also had the means to get her creations out into the world.

Woolf’s literary output, both fiction and nonfiction, would be remarkable in any era. But given her circumstances—her lack of formal education, the mental breakdowns that punctuated her life and limited both her work and her social interactions—really, it’s amazing she created anything. Still, as she wrote in A Room of One’s Own,

“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

So, yes, Virginia Woolf is one of my literary heroes. Sheer courage kept her writing. And kept that writing audacious, whether in an essay like A Room of One’s Own or her novel Orlando, with its time-shifting, gender-shifting protagonist. (Originally I wrote “a novel like Orlando,” but I don’t believe anyone else has ever written a novel like Orlando. I don’t believe it’s possible.)

Virginia Woolf lived here.

Best birthday present ever: a ceramic replica of a British heritage plaque overlooks my desk

I first came to A Room of One’s Own by way of Eileen Atkins’s very fine one-woman play. Woolf originally wrote the essay as two lectures she delivered to two of the women’s colleges at Cambridge University. Atkins substituted a paying audience for students and melded the two essays into one devastatingly moving evening. I sat stunned in the theater, weeping, long after the final curtain.

Virginia Woolf and Us

Virginia Woolf on a coaster

Virginia Woolf, now available as a water-absorbent coaster. On my desk.

Any other year, I might have celebrated the anniversary of A Room of One’s Own privately. But this year it resonates more strongly for me. We’ve watched a woman fight to be heard in the presidential debates. And watched men try to silence her (no, not just Trump; remember Matt Lauer?).

By and large, women still don’t have “a room of [our] own” within the mainstream media. News directed at women still skews heavily on celebrities and fashion. A woman may make still make news if she becomes the first to hit a milestone. But we don’t have a (metaphorically) loud enough voice to make an impact that doesn’t get erased in the next news cycle. And of course when we literally speak above a whisper men criticize us for being “shrill.”

Woolf’s essay dealt with women’s portrayal in fiction. But doesn’t this passage still resonate?

“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 a few weeks, we in the U.S. may have a woman who can’t easily be left out of history. Give her a (white) house of her own and maybe—maybe—women can finally be heard.

Many things about the world have changed since Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own nearly 90 years ago. But not enough. Not yet.

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