“A very sensible day yesterday. Saw no one.”
—Virginia Woolf, Jan. 31, 1939
In 1928, Virginia Woolf was invited to give a talk at a couple of women’s colleges at Cambridge University on the subject of “Women and Fiction.” Her long essay, A Room of One’s Own, is an extended version of those talks, published in 1929.
It’s a remarkable essay that reads like it could’ve been written yesterday. Woolf’s thesis is very simple, outlined within the first couple of paragraphs: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A writer needs money to provide her with the time, and she needs room to provide her with the space. (Not just physical, but also mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.)
Woolf emphasizes how books don’t come out of thin air, that they “are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” You cannot detach art-making from the context of the condition of the lives of the artists. “Intellectual freedom,” she says, “depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.”
Woolf herself was freed up to write when her aunt died suddenly and left her an inheritance:
The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.
She lists all the “odd jobs” she had to do, and how they bred in her “fear and bitterness” from always “doing work that one did not wish to do.” She says working was soul-killing, like “rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.” But when her aunt died, things changed:
[W]henever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off, fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever.
It is curious to me how often, when people quote Woolf, they quote the room part and leave out the money part — especially when you consider that money buys you both the time and the space. (Ian Svenonius points out that The Clash sang, “We’re a garage band!” but, he asks, “Who can afford a garage anymore?”) A room of one’s own is nice, but if you can’t buy the time to sit in it, what good does it do you?