Struggling with A Room of One’s Own

Who reads a “classic” book over a single weekend? I do, of course. I’ll admit though, I chose A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf from my Classic’s Club Reading List because it looked short. Little did I know it would inspire and frustrate me, possibly change my life forever.

Yeah, I’m being dramatic, but it’s been a long road.

a room of one's own book cover

I’m here to report back on the book and, as Belle says, “I couldn’t put it down!” There were parts that made me want to put my pen down forever, but that’s easy to do in my case.

I’ve started this post at least four times but I can’t seem to put together anything intelligent to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t like it. In fact, I loved it so much, I read it once straight through, skimmed it again picking out my notes and thinking about this post, and now every time I open it to search again, I find myself breathing in another page or two.

This is what frustrates me. I read it and think, “It’s so good, someone like me can’t possibly even describe it to anyone else. It would be sacrilege.” What I should do is just tell you to read it and then walk away. I mean, you can find the description of the book anywhere online. I’m not writing that, or a “review” type post. It would be redundant to say the least.

What can I say? I’m intimidated by a dead woman’s words… again.

I went for a walk and came back to my spot on the couch, laptop open, as the wind from an approaching storm blows like mad outside my window. I have to write something. If I don’t, reading it will have been in vain. Pulling all my thoughts together and writing them out is the best way for me to process what I’ve read.

I sit. I sigh. I thumb through the pages again and stop.

“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, until – you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and one day worth cooking and eating.”

This is the page that I have my hand on as I sit here struggling to put words to screen. Apropos, don’t you think? I’m forcing myself to continue to sit here, leave my line in the water, have patience. I keep pulling out undersized fingerlings and throwing them back.

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company – in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge of that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.”

When I read this, I sighed to myself, “Wait for me!” What I wouldn’t give to be among people this way. My note in the margin was, “putting my pen away forever.”

“But one needed answers, not questions; and an answer was only to be had by consulting the learned and the unprejudiced, who have removed themselves above the strife of tongue and the confusion of body and issued the result of their reasoning and research in books which are to be found in the British Museum. If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth?”

Aren’t you envious of her adventure? I think what I loved so much about this book was how relatable it all was. I wanted to so badly to be there with her, just to sit and talk with her. All through the book, she shows us how she works toward the answers she seeks and allows us to come to our own conclusions. Her research leads her to more questions, frustration, more reading, more notes.

“…so I pondered until all such frivolous thoughts were ended by an avalanche of books sliding down on to the desk in front of me. Now the trouble began. The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen. … But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds.”

Never have I felt so seen while reading a classic book. This is exactly the feeling I had while trying to write this post. I hear you, Virginia. If you can do it, I can do it. I just need patience. I have all the other things you wished every woman would have so that she could pursue her art, a room of my own and financial support. I’m not going to waste it putting myself down.

In the book she struggles to find answers to her questions the same way I do today. She searches, finds too much information, makes lists, and finds herself lacking any deep connection with anything she finds. But she marches on.

Again, she takes us through her process.

“Whatever the reason, all these books, I thought, surveying the pile on the desk, are worthless for my purposes. … They had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.”

“…why are they angry? And, asking myself this question, I strolled off to find a place for luncheon.”

Frustrated with my progress, I did the same and strolled off to find myself a cup of tea. I filled the kettle and put it on to boil, got a cup and scooped a heaping spoon of tea into the strainer. Watching the rain start to come down on my car, I just washed it… man… I thought about this post.

I’ve been having a hard time starting this post because I don’t think I’m qualified to write about first wave feminism, or why women have been treated differently than men in the past. I’m a product of first and second wave feminism, and sometimes I wonder if I have squandered those rights mothers before me fought for.

I didn’t finish university, not because I didn’t want to or see the point of it. I simply couldn’t afford it, but I could have if I had gone a different track. Hindsight is 20/20, it’s true. That’s another thing I’d wave a magic wand over and fix, making sure everyone knows their options and has the ability to weigh them and make better decisions based on reason instead of emotion.

If I didn’t lose my feminist card when I married, had kids, and then quit my job to stay home with them, I definitely did when I decided to homeschool them. I just felt it was what I wanted to do. And isn’t that what we really fought for? To have the choice to do what we thought best for ourselves, instead of having it dictated to us by our fathers and husbands?

In Virginia’s time, she wasn’t even allowed to go to the same quality university as men, and what would she do with that education anyway? She wasn’t allowed, by law, to work, and even if she made money, it would legally belong to her father or husband. She couldn’t even be in the library without permission. But things were beginning to change. Women had just gotten the vote a few years earlier. And we’ve come so far since then.

She did a wonderful job answering the questions she posed about why women were poorer than men, and why that needed to change so that they could pursue their chosen arts. I’ll let you read all that directly from her, but I loved this image best.

“For there is a spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head which one can never see for oneself. It is one of the good offices that sex can discharge for sex – to describe that spot the size of a shilling a the back of the head. Think how much women have profited by the comments of Juvenal; by the criticism of Strindberg. Think with what humility and brilliancy men, from the earliest ages, have pointed out to women that dark place a the back of the head! And if Mary were very brave and honest, she would go behind the other sex and tell us what she found there. A true picture of man as a whole can never be painted until a woman has described that spot the size of a shilling.”

We learn from each other what we cannot learn alone. Men have a point of view, a different way of thinking, that rounds out what we already know from other women. And women can do the same for men. We compliment each other. She said it perfectly.

I think this applies to all walks of life. When I tell you what I see from my point of view, you learn something about yourself that you couldn’t see on your own. Not the whole truth, just another facet of a gem. And when you tell me what you see, I learn about myself in ways I could never imagine. We are each other’s mirrors. It’s magical, but you have to be open to seeing it.

In the final chapter of the book, she said something that rang straight through me as an artist.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages for only hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its color, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.”

“I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.”

Did you hear that? Go back and read it again. Write what you wish to write, in deference to no one. Be who you are. You need no one’s permission. And popularity today, or a lack thereof, does not mean anything at all. Write.

I’m taking that as a life mission from this point forward.

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