A Room of One's Own, based on a lecture given at Girton College Cambridge, is one of the great feminist polemics. Woolf's blazing polemic on female creativity, the role of the writer, and the silent fate of Shakespeare's imaginary sister remains a powerful reminder of a woman's need for financial independence and intellectual freedom.
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When I began Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), a fictional essay based on lectures about "women and fiction" that Woolf presented at two Cambridge University women's colleges, I expected to find a well-written proto-feminist tract (if not a "blazing polemic" as the book description on Audible calls it). I did not expect to find a beautiful, funny, stimulating, and readable pleasure. While expressing Woolf's plea that women be accorded the same things that most men have always taken for granted--enough money, privacy, space, and freedom to live and write how they will--her book presents a concise history of (mostly) British literature and a modest account of aesthetic creation, both informed by an accurate and respectful view of the sexes. Although she twice humorously confirms with her audience that no men are hiding in the room, Woolf wrote her book for both men and women. And though much of it is most applicable to the early 20th century, much of it is still relevant to the early 21st.
After introducing her core "opinion," that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," in the first chapter Woolf talks about visiting "Oxbridge," a fictional hybrid of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. There a Beadle gesticulates her off the grass, protecting the turf of the male Fellows and scholars. There a man tells her that ladies are only admitted to the library in the company of a Fellow or a letter of introduction. There she decides not to attempt to enter the chapel for a service. With sweet-tempered sour grapes, she figures that "the outside of these magnificent buildings is often as beautiful as the inside." She ponders all the gold and silver on which the university was built and is maintained and attends a sumptuous luncheon at a male college and a poor dinner at a woman's college.
Woolf's Oxbridge experience sends her in the second chapter to the British Museum to search its library for answers to questions like, "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" She discovers that all of the many books on women were written by men, many of whom, despite living in patriarchal England, must be angry at women because they suspect that women want to seize their power.
In the third chapter Woolf cites a dead bishop as opining "that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare." This inspires her to speculate on the lives of historically invisible middle-class Elizabethan women and to imagine Shakespeare's sister Judith, whose era prevented her from becoming a playwright and drove her to suicide.
Woolf gives a history of women authors in chapter four, beginning with a couple of "eccentric" 17th-century aristocrats derided for writing poetry, moving to the first middle-class woman to earn a living by her writing, and then comparing the four great 19th-century women novelists, Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and George Elliot, explaining how difficult it was for them to write in a world in which women had no private rooms and could not own anything.
In Chapter Five, Woolf examines the state of contemporary women's fiction, riffs on the scarcity in past literature of women who are close friends with women, and advises the female author of today to "be truthful" and to write "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself."
In the sixth chapter Woolf ties together threads from earlier chapters and promotes androgyny ("one must be woman-manly or man-womanly"), for any purely masculine or feminine mind will be sterile and barren. Interestingly, she also thinks that the sexes are too similar and that their differences should be increased. The conclusion to her book is that if women could have 500 pounds per year (enough to live on) and a room of their own (a private space) they may be themselves, write what they wish, and in time bring Shakespeare's sister to life.
Throughout her book Woolf explains interesting observations about literature: WWI replaced the "illusion" of romance with "reality," Charlotte Bronte's situation deformed her genius, "masterpieces are not single and solitary births," some writers (like Shakespeare) are more "incandescent" and "androgynous" than others, and fiction written with integrity (truth) intensifies the reader's experience of the world. And everywhere she writes supernally, whether describing prunes ("stringy as a miser's heart") or sunlight on windows ("The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder"). Placing Woolf's great novels, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando in the context of A Room of One's Own shows that she did write poetic, incandescent, and androgynous fiction illuminated by integrity and experience.
This audiobook version of A Room of One's Own, read to perfection by Juliet Stephenson, whose clear, intelligent, and sympathetic voice enhances Woolf's wry sense of humor, keen insights, beautiful imagery, original metaphors, and flowing sentences, is followed by four short stories by Woolf also read by Stephenson:
--"Monday or Tuesday," in which, "Lazy, indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way," a heron flies above a series of vivid images.
--"The Haunted House," in which a ghostly couple searches a house for buried treasure, "The light in the heart."
--"Kew Gardens," in which an intrepid snail tries to reach its goal as several imperfectly communicating couples walk by beautiful flowers.
--"The New Dress," in which Mabel Waring wretchedly regrets wearing the wrong dress to Mrs. Dalloway's party.
- Jefferson "I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics."
An important piece on women and literature.
An important piece on women and literature. But more than that. ARoO'sO is a piece on education and literature, money and literature, space and literature. Woolf explores how money and space are essential to a person being able to have the things needed for art.
It isn't a complicated book, but it is revolutionary in its way. I loved it. It was, like almost everything Woolf writes, a river filled with diamonds. It carries you and occasionally drops luxury into your lap.