More than an academic paper less than a treatise, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay addressing the dual topics of the nature of women’s role in fiction as well as the role of women writing fiction. This was back in 1928, during a pivotal moment in history, just after American women had won the right to vote, which had forever changed women’s roles in society. Yet the world was still clinging to the ideal of the Victoria era of the late 19th century. Woolf, with her wonderful literary style, wit and intelligence, expounds on the narrowly-defined roles of men and women as they had been portrayed in fiction.
This truly monumental literary work ignites the already smoldering pyre from the days of women’s suffrage. The work itself begins with a startling, at least for that fragile timeframe, statement about women’s independence from society: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unresolved.”
Woolf almost pities female novelists like Austen, Eliot, and Bronte, whose voices, she felt were squelched by the limitation of the times during which they wrote. All the while besmirching the masculinity of some of the leading male authors, including Keats, Shakespeare and Proust. Even going so far as saying Proust “perhaps a little too much of a woman.” These were incendiary accusations within the neatly-pressed literary society of her day, who most likely dismissed her as a bit of an anarchist, or worst, a socialist.
The “true nature” of women, she posits, within the context of a fictional piece, if the women writing can be free to explore themselves in a real sense.
Free of financial and societal ties to the men who, prior to the changing of laws around the early 20’s, had almost absolute control of their world. Women writers could then begin to transcend the sexual roles, which she calls "man-womanly" or "woman-manly" to fully convey the real world. The essay boldly declares that women’s nature had never been explored prior to the nineteen century, when men were the predominant creators of published works. She concludes that it was not only women who suffered from the restrictions placed on them, but literature in general suffered from the stiltedness of the male-only authorship.
She quips about how odd it was that while women were the source of conquest and admiration, it was as if “she is completely insignificant…all but absent from history.” This is a not so much a feminist work as it is a humanist one. Cleverly, she uses the very voices so well-known in the literary world to boldly go where no woman has dared to go before…combining social commentary on gender roles with insightful predictions of where women, and men, were heading in the 20th century. And, in the process, highlighting her own special place in literature.