Almost sixty-five years have lapsed sinee Virginia Woolf spoke at Newnham and Girton colleges on the subjectof women and fiction.
Her remarkable words are preserved for future generations of women in A Room of One’sOwn. This essay is the “first manifesto of the modern feminist movement” (Samuelson), and has been called “anotable preamble to a kind of feminine Declaration of Independence” (Muller 34). Woolf writes that her modestgoal for this ground-breaking essay is to “encourage the young women–they seem to get fearfully depressed”(qtd. in Gordon xiv).
This treatise on the history of women’s writings, reasons for the scarcity of great womenartists, and suggestions for future literary creators and creations accomplishes far more than simple inspiration andmotivation for young writers. Woolf questions the “effect . . . poverty has on fiction” and the “conditions . . .necessary for the creation of works of art” (25), and she persuasively argues that economics are as important astalent and inspiration in the creative process.
She emphatically states and, with brilliant fiction, supports herthesis that every woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4). Woolf’s witty andbeautifully crafted essay has a practical message for aspiring women writers: as pioneers in the virtuallyunexplored frontier of women’s literature, and to create timeless, powerful works of art, they must forsake theestablished mores of masculine creativity and forge their own traditions and styles.Woolf introduces this new literary tradition through the structure of her lecture. Rather than follow thetraditional format established through centuries of male lecturing, she “transforms the formidable lecture formfemale equals” (Marcus, “Still” 79). She preserves this intimacy in the written essay as well. Woolf’s nephew andbiographer, Quentin Bell, writes that “in A Room of One’s Own one hears Virginia speaking . .
. . she gets veryclose to her conversational style” (144). Rather than submit her audience to the usual “dictation of the expert tothe ignorant” (Marcus, Virginia 145), Woolf involves her audience in her quest for answers. She advises them thatshe plans to “make use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist,” that her fiction is “likely to contain moretruth than fact,” and that they must “seek out this truth and . . .
decide whether any part of it is worth keeping”(4-5). She does not disclose “the truth as she sees it”; rather, she requires the audience to “participate in thedrama of asking questions and searching for Woolf’s creative departure from established lecture style delightfullyforeshadows her intent to generate entirely new feminine traditions and searching for answers” (Marcus, VirginiaWoolf encourages women to personally participate and identify with her ideas. She creates a fictitious narratorthrough which she chronicles her thoughts and discoveries as she researches the topic of ‘women and fiction, “‘I’ isonly a convenient term for somebody who has no real being . . .
call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, MaryCarmichael or by any name you please–it is not a matter of any importance” (4-5). Ellen Rosenman writes that by”denying a ‘real’ existence, the narrator associates herself with anonymity,” and that “if we turn this statementaround . . .
she is Everywoman” (160-61). By choosing these particular historical names to represent anyone and everyone who joins the quest for truth, including herself, Woolf “accounts for much of the irony of her ‘story’ andmuch of the force” of her essay (Jones 228). Through her clever use of fiction, Woolf shrewdly removes herselffrom the position of authority, enhances audience identification with her narrator, and invites women to join hersearch for “the true nature of women and the true nature of fiction” (4).Woolf’s narrator, “Mary,” begins the quest for “the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth” (25) in the BritishMuseum, the very bastions of male literary tradition.
Rosenman suggests that Woolf is laying the foundation of afemale tradition by allowing Mary to travel “through a series of alien rooms,” including the British Museum and’the common sitting room,’ “to a room of her own” (157). Mary’s “stupefaction, wonder and bewilderment” (Woolf26) at the plethora of contradictory, inaccurate, oven trivial volumes about women by men whose onlyqualification is “that they are not wmen” (27) awakens the reader to this travesty without directly revealing Woolf’spersonal feelings of