I have a room of my own. The smallest in the house. I can see the garden and the seasons changing in front of my window. Sometimes, all the seasons pass in a single day. There is one bookshelf full of books and pictures line the walls. These pictures have been carefully curated and hung to cover the many, badly hammered holes, where the original hanging turned out to be a pictorial feng shui mistake. Regardless, I have a room of my own.
I also have a job which pays me and, as Virginia Woolf states in A Room of One’s Own, financial independence is a crucial necessity for women’s writing to flourish. Financial independence she argues, equals intellectual freedom. In 1928 when A Room of One’s Own was first published, Virginia suggested that such financial independence demanded an income of about £500 a year. Today that is roughly equivalent to £32,000 (an annual sum I am still some way from achieving).
But I have the room and I am over halfway there with the money.
I often imagine Virginia in her house and her room, with her writing and then I think of the other women who kept her house going. The servants who cleaned and cooked for Virginia and her husband. The Daily Women (as they were known), whose domestic work enabled Virginia, in her room, to write. The women who were not earning £500 a year.
Perhaps Virginia should have added the following: a woman must have money, servants and a room of her own if she is to write.
Such a sentiment though undermines the liberating agenda of A Room of One’s Own, by bluntly acknowledging: Virginia’s writing success was made possible through other women’s low-paid labour.
To be fair, many Great Male Writers have had servants, wives and lovers, who kept their domestic lives running so they could write. There is nothing really surprising about this historical fact. The domestic, with all its organising and mundane tyranny, takes over a life (and intellectual head space) if some woman is not there to manage it for you.
Having to cook, clean and raise your children is yet another obstacle, Virginia notes, hindering a woman’s capacity to write.
Or should I say, write like a man. Ceaselessly. Prolifically. Infamously.
When lockdown started over four weeks ago, social media was full of (mostly) male scholars eulogising Working From Home as the perfect opportunity to write and publish. Publish and write.
The relentlessness of being sequestered at home, had not as yet, become a paternal (un)productive burden.
Yesterday I read that journal submissions by women academics, during lockdown, had drastically declined. In fact, were negligible. Perhaps, it was suggested, once new routines were established (and the domestic controlled), more women would be submitting articles.
Or perhaps those woman academics, although possessing the necessary money and a room of their own, currently lack the servants, wives and lovers to manage the all-consuming domestic sphere and so the writing still, cannot happen.
For years, my lack of academic writing was a bruise. Not a tender, newly formed bruise, but a deep bone-aching yellow and purple bruise, that I continually poked and masochistically encouraged others to poke for me.
For years, the bruise was proof that I was never going to be The Right Kind of Academic. The Right Kind of Academic writes and publishes. Publishes and writes. The Right Kind of Academic has money, a room of their own and domestic arrangements that are subservient to their academic responsibilities.
Clearly, I was always going to be the Wrong Kind of Academic. Clearly, I had more in common with Shakespeare’s sister who never wrote a word and is buried near Elephant and Castle (though I cannot claim a famous brother and quirky final resting place as consolation). Or as Virginia (1928: 131) describes her, the poet who has no time to write because ‘she is washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed’. The Every Woman who is ruled by the domestic, gendered arrangements that simultaneously constrain and undo her. The domestic that Virginia hopes, one day, will no longer be the yoke that silences The Writer lying dormant within.
This is how Virginia, rousingly, ends A Room of One’s Own.
It is a good Call To Write, even if 92 years later, it is still largely that – a longed for and hoped for Call To Write.
For how many woman really have A Room of Their Own and £32,000 a year that enables them to pursue a writing life?
Very few I would say.
You can, perhaps, have a kitchen table of your own, £32,000 and a job that demands every minute of your waking life, with a daily return to an unruly domestic sphere that requires further management before you collapse, exhausted, into bed at the end of the day and resolutely ignore, the permanent bruise in your life called Not Writing.
Or you sacrifice something for your writing: A partner. Children. A noisy home. A fulfilling job. Friendship. Something that you didn’t even realise was a choice that you had to, apparently, make.
Or, like Virginia, you manage to Have It All; then one day, you place the heaviest stones you can find in your pockets, walk into the river Ouse and keep walking until the water covers your head.
Are these then the choices facing women who need to write?
In the meantime, I have A Room of My Own with a view of wind-dried laundry and enough leftover food for supper to enable me to spend this afternoon, writing.
References: Woolf, V. (1928) A Room of One’s Own London: Penguin