Consisting of two essays originally published 9 years apart, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) and ‘Three Guineas’ (1938), are very much of a theme; the injustice of a woman’s designated place in society.
A Room…uses the vehicle of a woman wishing to create art, primarily writing, and her inability to find the time and space and peace and financial wherewithal to do this, to open a wider discussion about financial independence, the constraints of society: financial ‘freedom’ being contingent either on a wealthy and beneficent father, or husband.
She undoubtedly writes from the gentility of Edwardian middle class, some of the problems she describes would these days earn the withering epithet ‘first world problems’ and has little in common with or apparent understanding of the lives of women of the working classes, but that is not the central point, the central point is wholesale economic independence, for women, will bring emancipation. And the system is stacked against it. In a passage where she interrogated herself on the concentration on the materialistic in the essay, she counters, ‘even allowing for symbolism…that five hundred pounds a year (Woolf’s notional figure required for independence) stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself…’ before going on to take a pot shot at all the poor-little rich boy, university educated poets of romance. It is a brilliant – and brilliantly argued – if somewhat eccentric essay.
Three Guineas…starts from the receipt of a letter from a learned man wringing his hands and asking Woolf ‘ How in your opinion are we to prevent war?’ Woolf essentially spend the next 120 pages saying, why would you ask me, a woman? I have no agency in this society other than through my male relatives and their position in it; I have little access to education to develop my talents, my intellect…going on to list many of the ways she and nearly all other women are kept down. And brilliantly skewering the crass ideas of patriotism. It has more anger than the earlier essay, but felt less focussed, digressing at times when tighter editing would have really helped.
All that said, it is a wonderful idea to capture these two essays together in one place: both of which will have created quite a stir in those circles at that time. It has made me think again about Woolf as a writer, given that I have often struggled with her fiction.