Virginia Woolf: ‘A Room of One’s Own’ or ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’
Virginia Woolf believed that a woman needs money and ‘a room of one’s own’ in order to write. Creative work, she says, does not just happen. It depends upon material things, like ‘health, money and the houses we live in’. We need time to be idle, and space for privacy. This is why, she argues, ‘genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people’, nor is it ‘born to-day among the working classes’.
While this may sound disparaging, Woolf’s argument is really a Marxist one; material conditions determine thought, and not the other way round. This is why, early on in the essay, Woolf wants to lay bare the ‘novelist’s convention’ not to mention what people eat:
The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes
The right material conditions remove the ‘corrosive’ feeling of ‘fear and bitterness’, which comes with poverty. ‘It is remarkable’, she says, ‘remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about’.
But temperament only matters insofar as it grants ‘intellectual freedom’. Without ‘effort and labour’, there is no ‘flattering and fawning’, and therefore, no ‘hatred and bitterness’. One is freed up to think, as ‘one’s self’ — and this is precisely what Woolf did when she inherited means from her Aunt:
I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race […] then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Is that in my opinion a good book or a bad?