I think I keep doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenges because they do force me to look through my epic list of books to read and get out of my own comfort zone and read with more variety. I have many startling gaps in my reading history, and Virginia Woolf’s entire oeuvre is one.
I have seen or read exactly one of Woolf’s works before reading A Room of One’s Own (Orlando at the Yale School of Drama about 8 years ago while a friend was there). Other than her ties to the Bloomsbury Group and the Dreadnought Hoax and that one play I knew very little. Along came the Read Harder challenge, which included a task to read a book published between 1900 and 1950 and I finally had my excuse to push the audiobook I already owned up the proverbial list.
A Room of One’s Own is a short work: its measurements range from 114 pages, to 40,000 words, to about 4 hours of audio recording by Juliet Stevenson. Nevertheless, it should not be judged by its slight measures, Woolf packs an appraisal on the patriarchal systems that have systematically held women down and back throughout history. I had an “oh shit” moment about half way through as I realized that Woolf has in essence kept the receipts on 300 years of patriarchy and was slamming it all on the table in front of packed auditoriums.
Suffice it to say, I was 100% more invested than I had previously been.
Structurally, Woolf made incredible use of the nature of speech making. Throughout the first sections she is consistently coming back to words and phrases, meant to allow the reader (or in my case, listener) to track her train of thought and build meaning. So many authors attempt to use the stream of consciousness mechanics, which Woolf demonstrates so facilely here but they miss this component – a reader will “hear” your words as if your characters were speaking. If your stream of consciousness does not conform to the rules of speech making the reader will have difficulty with it, as I so often do.
To the content of her speeches and later book, Woolf argues that women can never accomplish anything of their own, or of ‘value’ without the stability and space that “five hundred a year and a room of one’s own” provide. She then traces how very rare, and very recent such a thing was. Travelling mentally between the lack of reason for women to attempt to accumulate wealth before they were allowed to own it outright, the lesser education of girls compared to boys, the denial of access to halls of learning (of herself being turned away at the university library door) and you suddenly see both the world surrounding Woolf in 1928 and the world surrounding ourselves now.
How many of us would gnaw off our own left arm to be able to have space and security to follow our desires, to be able to create? That is the heart of this work.